THE Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, the Revd Dr Stephen Cherry, apologised this week after an autistic boy was asked to leave evensong at the chapel.
Dr Paul Rimmer, an astrochemist at Cambridge, said that he was asked to leave evensong with Tristan, his nine-year old son, at the request of the Dean last Sunday, because the boy was causing disruption.
Dr Rimmer wrote a letter of complaint, published on Monday, which said that Tristan, a “clever and joyful child” who “expresses his excitement by calling out and laughing”, was “apparently interfering with the enjoyment of some of the other visitors”. As a result, Dr Rimmer said, his family were asked to leave the service.
He said: “My son might not be able to talk, but he knows perfectly well what is going on around him. . . He isn’t even ten years old, and he knows that he is unwelcome.”
In response, Dr Cherry said that he was “devastated” to read the letter, and that the chapel had “failed you and Tristan on Sunday afternoon”.
He wrote: “I should perhaps say for the record that I did not, in fact, give any instruction to the effect that your son should be asked to leave the chapel on Sunday. None the less, as Dean, I do take responsibility for the whole life of the chapel, and, in that regard, I express my unreserved apology and intention that we will do better in the future.”
Dr Rimmer and Dr Cherry met on Tuesday evening for a “good conversation”, Dr Rimmer said.
In a post on social media, he wrote: “My family was invited back to the church in the coming weeks, and Stephen and I will continue our conversation about how King’s College Chapel can be a more welcoming place for everyone.”
In his original letter of complaint, Dr Rimmer wrote: “As a Christian, I believe that worship is primarily intended to glorify God, and may have misinterpreted your evensong as an actual worship service. . .
“Our removal makes more sense if King’s College’s Evensong were simply a concert held in a building that used to be a chapel. Then my son’s expressions would frustrate the purpose of the event, which is primarily performative; lessening the satisfaction of certain tourists around the world who attend.”
Dr Cherry wrote: “Since hearing of your experience I have looked into what happened, and now more fully appreciate that there is more that we can do to support and help the staff who are responsible for the welcome that we give those who come to share our services with us.”
The deputy director of Livability, Corin Pilling, said on Tuesday: “Without a doubt, within a public space like that, the vergers need to be trained to respond in a more positive way to the impact of somebody who is disabled in this way. Also, I think it has to be quite a different conversation in the congregation in terms of how that works. Clearly, it was a distressing incident, and to be in this situation is not acceptable.
“I would be interested in how we can encourage both public spaces like King’s, but also our congregations, to ensure that we are having the right conversations around this. The difficult thing with the way the news broke was that people end up being polarised very quickly, and I’m interested in how we can get to dialogue.”
Leader comment, page 14