A CHASM between expectation and reality opened up in King’s College Chapel in Cambridge earlier this week, when an autistic nine-year-old was turned out during a service because he was over-vocalising his appreciation of the service. (The request to leave had not been sanctioned by the clergy.) It is good to hear that an attempt is being made to bridge that chasm calmly and pastorally, after a complaint by the boy’s father that worship had been supplanted by a concert for tourists went viral on social media. The charge was unfair, but the experience of being asked to leave during a service for any reason, let alone for the inadvertent behaviour of your child, does not encourage a temperate description of the incident.
The occasion, painful though it was, is an opportunity for parish churches and college chapels to examine the demands that their service styles make on their congregations, as well as the practical outworkings of claims to inclusiveness — which, of course, all churches should make. Choral evensong invites participation by the congregation as much as any service of worship. The invitation, though, is largely to silent attentiveness rather than active involvement, and this is an increasingly unfamiliar milieu. The response of many is inattention, or the sense of being a spectator of other people’s religion. For a few, the silence is seen as an opportunity to test a resonant acoustic, and, unfortunately, break-out rooms were not a feature of 15th-century college chapels. Most parents will have experienced occasions when a child is impervious to attempts to persuade him or her to conform to an accepted noise level. Most congregations at most services genuinely do not mind, and seek to put parents at ease. But behaviour that persistently drowns out the words of a sermon or sections of the liturgy is harder to accommodate. To expect relative silence from a congregation at certain types of service is not unreasonable — until someone wishes to attend who simply cannot comply.
A conversation in advance between clergy and the parents or carers of such a person is clearly a good first step. There are many models of services that might be employed which have been designed with people with learning disabilities in mind. Or a formal service could be arranged and advertised in which the expectation of congregational silence is dropped, and noisier participation is expected and welcomed. But such a preparatory approach requires a level of confidence and organisation that some parents would find difficult. Those officiating at any sort of service, and their sidesmen and -women, need to be always ready for the unexpected, and prepared to embrace it. Christ, after all, once presided at a gathering at which a sick man’s friends broke through the ceiling. One can imagine a word or two of complaint escaping from the lips of those on whom the plaster fell. Christ was equal to the disruption, however, and his present-day representatives ought to be able to cope with lesser interruptions occasionally.