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Interview: ’Tricia Williams, practical and contextual theologian

14 May 2021

‘When I sit at the feet of someone with dementia, I’ve been blessed and humbled by their vision of God’

I began working life as a teacher of English, always sensing “this is where God wants me to be.” Quite soon, I became involved with the Scripture Union’s [SU’s] schools work; later, I became a writer and editor, particularly with the SU and also BRF [Bible Reading Fellowship].

Engagement with the Bible grows disciples, helping them to become more like Jesus. I’m interested in how people from a particular context engage with the Bible, and this led to my MA in practical and contextual theology.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve wondered how we help people in later stages of life. That was the beginning of a long journey, which has included development of the Being with God series: Bible reflections for those with dementia and memory loss.

How do we help people with dementia in their discipleship? What resources can support lifelong Christians who get dementia? God uses his word even in this: memory and dementia meld past, future, and present — the Spirit skips across time through the Bible.

Dementia is a long journey. There are some good initiatives around, like dementia cafés. As short-term memory and concentration lessen, people with dementia and their families may be struggling or not be willing or able to accept their diagnosis. Our churches need to be willing to accompany people on this journey.

Before the effects of dementia make this difficult, we can build memories, and grow faith and trust in God for the time ahead, with creative, empathic imagination and commitment.

The early years can be worse when you’re aware of what’s happening, but one lady, Alice, told me: “This is a gift. This is an opportunity for me to discover how I can live with God through this, and bless others through this.” She’s worked very hard to do that. People like her take their sense of hope and purpose from the knowledge that God is with them in this. She isn’t telling other dementia-sufferers about Christ from the outside, but from her own shared experience.

When I sit at the feet of someone with dementia, I’ve been blessed and humbled by their vision of God. They can teach us so much in their reliance on God’s sovereignty and his bigger purpose in the world.

Professor John Swinton wrote Dementia: Living in the memories of God [Eerdmans, 2012]. A conversation with him in a field at Greenbelt a few years back led to me doing my doctorate with him. Meanwhile, I became involved in BRF’s Bible Reflections for Older People with Debbie Thrower, from her work with Anna Chaplaincy [Interview, 19 December 2014].

I kept myself grounded by joining a volunteer chaplaincy team in a local MHA [Methodist Homes] care home, working with people with advanced dementia. For my research, courageous, faithful Christians agreed to talk with me.

I discovered that, while cognitive memory faded, relationship with God was growing. I was told: “Faith is stronger.” Who are they, as neurons begin to fail? “I am me — still a wife, a mother”; “I’m loved by God”; “I’m closer to God because there’s less of me.”

There are also questions about how the Church responds to this illness. Faithful believers continue in the body of Christ even as they (and we) become more forgetful. Although Bible-reading, prayer, and worship were becoming more difficult, our conversations were threaded with references to Bible verses and their relationship with God.

Dementia poses theological and biblical questions: What does it mean to be created in the image of God? What’s the nature of relationship with God? What is “saving faith”? What’s a biblical understanding of memory? What’s the nature of hope in Christ in dementia? What does it mean, in experience and practice, to belong in the Body of Christ? What are the gifts of people with dementia? How might the community of faith receive these? How can Christians with dementia grow in their faith?

Can those with no pre-dementia faith still come to Christ? I’ve seen people wanting to find forgiveness, and turning to God and being assured of Christ’s forgiveness, and seen them relax in that moment. When someone can only say, “God help me,” he responds. They may forget, of course.

At a home I was visiting for a chaplaincy service, there was a lady with later-stage dementia and no faith background. She looked very sad. She said: “I’ve been wicked. I can’t join in the service.” I encouraged her to come in. She repeated that she had been bad. I explained that we were Christians and knew that we had been forgiven by Jesus. I said: “He forgives you, too.” She looked up and said: “Does he?” She brightened. The chaplain gave her a holding cross to remind her of Jesus. She held it continually for the last few weeks of her life. Yes, I do believe that people with dementia can come to faith. We saw transformation, and a more peaceful person from then on.

Memory is not only linear thinking. It involves the whole of us, not just the timeline of our life. Words of the liturgy, hymns, and the Bible can be deeply embedded. Just residual memory? But it reconnects people with God, and they express that reality.

The Bible insists on a holistic view of humanity: love God with all your mind, soul, and spirit. I’m not just body or mind. Loving God is to turn my whole self towards him. Our identity is determined by God’s love for us.

I explore the nature of identity, memory, and faith from biblical perspectives in What Happens to Faith When Christians Get Dementia? It focuses on the experience and practice of Evangelical Christians. I use Brueggemann’s model of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation in the Psalms as a way of thinking about faith that is disrupted by dementia, leading to a reorientation of faithful living in the light of hope in Christ. As Alice said, “Lord, this is your gift for here — therefore I’ll accept it, and with your help I’ll do what I can in order to reflect your glory in it.” Dementia surprises us. We think we’ve got what it takes, and they’ve lost it, but no.

A celebrity said publicly that there wasn’t any point in visiting his father, who had dementia. But Christians have a different perspective on relationship. Advanced dementia may make relationship seem impossible; but my personhood is founded on my relationship with God, whether or not I can articulate that. We might have to relate differently, though, and learn patience and love. I’ve heard people with advanced dementia say: “God is with me.” I know God will continue to be with me if I ever get this disease.

God knows more than I do, and his mystery is bigger than I am. I don’t have to understand or justify every single thing. If you’re dependent on rationalism, you might think that’s just a get-out; but it’s entirely valid for Christians to think that God is bigger than we are, and mystery is OK. We acknowledge that we don’t know everything — except, like Job, that “my redeemer lives” and intercedes for us.

God’s always been present in my life. This was the accepted frame of living from infancy, though I eventually had to make it my own choice. I grew up in the New Forest. My great-grandparents and family built the little thatched chapel which was the centre of our lives.

I lived in Australia for several years, where my husband worked for Scripture Union, and we had two children. I love the sound of my husband’s voice. A lady in our church, after he had preached, said to me: “I could listen to your husband’s voice all day.” His voice certainly brings me relief at various moments of crisis and sadness.

People all over this world, quietly working away for justice, seeking to serve God, bringing his wisdom, mercy, and love, give me hope.

I’d like to be locked in a church with Augustine. I’d ask him about memory, “a huge cavern . . . there I meet myself”, and time and eternity — he wrote about their synchronicity — and what, in the light of those, he thought about dementia.

’Tricia Williams was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

What Happens to Faith When Christians Get Dementia? is published by Pickwick at £26 (Church Times Bookshop £23.40); 978-1-7252-7213-2.

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