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Isolation and the Church: online and offline

by
01 May 2020

Emma Major offers advice from those who know how

AS A country, we are now into week four of staying at home: four weeks of isolation and loneliness and limited connection, and at least another three weeks ahead. For four weeks, churches have been shut, and congregations have not been able to gather in churches to worship or pray together.

For those of us shielding ourselves from Covid-19, and the NHS from overload, we are into week six at home, full-time. We have no contact with anyone outside our immediate households, and have no idea how or when this will end.

Many of us in this shielding category know the reality of isolation and loneliness; we live with disability or chronic ill health that restricts our lives in a variety of ways. We have experience of “staying home” before it was a national endeavour, and we know how difficult it is not be part of community or at church services.

Many thousands of disabled people have been excluded from churches for years. Church often isn’t a place where disabled people can meet together, in person, with other Christians.

Let me paint a picture: in many physical churches, blind people can’t see the words on the screen or in the books or partake in the visual imagery on which we rely; wheelchair-users can’t get in the door, can’t sit where they wish, and lack access the altar or the pulpit; deaf people can’t hear the words of a service or conversation of fellowship; autistic people can’t go into buildings because of the sensory overload due to poor design; and those with chronic ill health feel as if they are judged because they can’t stand like everyone else, and can’t attend every week.

Thankfully, the internet has become our community, our place of fellowship, and our church. Over the past ten years, many online churches have been set up in different forms, including Disability and Jesus on Twitter, London Internet Church on Facebook, and Pixel Church and iChurch on their own platforms. These churches have created places of worship, prayer, and fellowship; of community and inclusivity. These churches have also been sneered at and judged as not being “proper church”.

It is, therefore, fascinating to watch churches all across the country taking to the online arena. This is great; I’m glad it’s happening, and that churches are becoming accessible to those who could never get in the door before. But why are these churches assuming that they’re breaking new ground? Why are they not asking those who’ve been doing it successfully for years how exactly you build relationships online? Why are they not thinking about how to ensure that online is accessible for those with hearing or sight loss?

Please, church leaders: ask those who have pioneered online church, learn what works from those who’ve tried it, and ensure that you’re fully accessible.

Of course, in a few weeks’ time, the first phase of lockdown may be eased and most church buildings open up again. I wonder what will happen, if so. Will online church provisions stop? How will this affect those who have to continue shielding themselves? Will churches stream the services from their buildings? How will those at home be included in worship and leadership and encouraged in their calling?

Will churches realise the importance of including everyone who has been excluded from physical churches until now? How will that look? Perhaps hearing my experience will help you to understand what I mean.

 

I LOST almost all my eyesight and mobility very rapidly four years ago. I went from being an active pioneer minister to being housebound in weeks. My faith remained strong, but my ability to minister as I had done, or even attend church, was vanishingly small. I kept battling, and kept attending church with the help of family, friends, and the church; but church became a place where I felt excluded and marginalised.

I had no acces to the words of the liturgy and the hymns; I couldn’t see the raising of the communion cup; I couldn’t see who was around me, or navigate around the church independently or find people I wanted to talk to. I started to hate going to church, because it was the place where I felt least able — the place where I felt less of God because of the barrier. I would rather worship God at home. I say this not to place blame on my church, whose members were loving and helpful, but to highlight the reality, for someone with a disability, of access to a church.

It took more than a year for me to come to terms with my disability, to accept the changes in my physical life, to make peace with the restrictions and isolation, and to start to get the help that I needed to leave the house. In that time, I found Disability and Jesus on Twitter, and many Christian groups and resources online; they became church to me. These were places where people prayed, praised, shared, gave, and received from their own homes with God at the centre of it all. It was church online that healed my grief and helped me hear God’s continued call on my life. He still had work for me to do for him.

 

SO, WHEN I hear that churches want to ensure that no one is on their own during this pandemic, I agree completely. No one should ever be on their own; no one should ever be excluded from church. But how many churches are truly inclusive of all? How many churches provide every aspect of their services and ministries accessibly for all? How many churches live-stream to their members who are at home with ME or dementia or disability? How many churches have disabled people in leadership?

It is estimated that 20 per cent of the population is considered disabled. I don’t know what proportion of us are in isolation most of the time, but it’s not a small number. When have we been thought about as part of the established church provision? We need our church family. When we aren’t at church, it’s not because we are lazy or can’t be bothered: it’s because we can’t get to church, or because church isn’t a positive experience.

Read that again.

Church is often not a positive experience: it is commonly not a place where we feel the love of God, when we live with disability. For example, if you feel I need prayer for healing, then you don’t know how much God has healed me of the grief of my disability, or how he is calling me in my ministry for him.

Gathering is at the core of church. This has become even more clear during this pandemic, when everyone realised that we could gather virtually. My prayer is that this sentiment will continue after people goes back to their church buildings, leaving many isolated owing to Covid-19, ill health, or disability. I pray that physical churches embrace inclusivity. I pray that churches continue to serve and include, listen to and empower, those for whom isolation is normal.

Will the good intentions of accessibility still be in place in a year’s time, when most of your congregation are back in their seats? Or will we be the invisible again? Most people who have been excluded from churches for years have little hope that inclusivity will improve. My prayer is that lessons are learned and that improvements are made.

Don’t get me wrong: we have found our church communities online; we know the blessing of God and fellowship and worship together online; we will continue to follow God’s calling in our lives. But how amazing would it be if every church continued to offer services online, to hold prayer meetings on Zoom, to ring round those they haven’t seen, to offer online resources for families who can’t attend, and to ask those with disabilities to follow their call into leadership and ministry.

My prayer is that churches would take this experience of isolation and fear, stress and brokenness, and realise that many in the world live this way every day, and need the Church to embrace everyone as an essential part of God’s Kingdom.

Emma Major is a licensed lay pioneer minister at St Nicolas’s, Earley, in Oxford diocese. Her book, Little Guya collection of drawings and poems about finding hope in isolation, is published by Wild Goose Publications.

Watch a video of Emma Major reading the article here.

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