LAST year demonstrated dramatically that church is not simply a physical place where people are “welcomed in”. Church is a sense of being connected: a community of people who have a mutual desire to love God and to serve one another. So, how can the Church better enable connection with individuals with a learning disability (LD)?
I grew up in the Anglican Church, and have experienced the highs and lows of doing church with a child (now adult) with LD. I use the term “LD families” here, because adults with LD are often cared for throughout their life within a family or some form of care setting. The way in which children and adults with LD are treated in church greatly affects their entire family’s or carers’ response towards the Church.
I know LD families who have discovered and deepened their faith because of the way in which they were treated by a church. I also know LD families that have walked away from church because they found it too hard to “fit in”, or felt rejected, in both subtle and blatant ways.
It takes only one person in a church to make a positive or negative difference, and, to be honest, that person is rarely the church leader. Many church leaders have little personal understanding of, or connection with, learning disability. There are few who feel sufficiently confident and motivated to adapt their church meetings to accommodate an often invisible and silent minority. Yet most of the emphasis in improving inclusion seems to be placed on convincing and equipping already over-stretched church leaders to do this work. This has to change if real progress is to be made.
THE focus on theological debate, policy, and special resources around learning-disability ministry may, in fact, have contributed to a “knowing” and “doing” gap in churches: church leaders may feel inadequate and fearful of doing significant work in this area. Disability training and conferences and the development of safeguarding policies and resources for LD people are all well and good, but can lead to leaders’ feeling overwhelmed.
The focus, rather, should be on encouraging and enabling the LD community to help churches. This approach relies on forging connections in the community, and growing mixed-ability teams. It is often more easily achievable though ecumenical partnerships
Thankfully, this “knowing” and “doing” gap seems to be closing, with the emergence of more grass-root initiatives that build connections between people with and without learning disabilities. These initiatives are often led by lay people, such as parents of adults with LD, carers, and those with teaching and therapy backgrounds.
We know that God has a purpose and a plan that includes all people, and that he has given all his followers gifts to enable them to serve. It is encouraging, therefore, that these new initiatives are identifying and relying on the gifts that people with LD have to offer the Church. Clergy have the opportunity simply to encourage, learn from, and be blessed by participation in these initiatives.
THIS has certainly been our experience at Wave Church, an inclusive worship community that was started by LD families from different church denominations in north London (News, 9 March 2018).
Wave stands for “We’re all valued equally.” This name reflects a truth that families with LD need to hear. It is an antidote to the daily messages and experiences that undermine the sense of worth among our members with LD.
Wave emphasises the importance of doing things with, and not for, one another. People with and without LD actively worship together. Wave provides a space in which it is easier to show and accept vulnerability; in which it is acceptable to be honest about our struggles; and in which there is less self-conscious limitation in expressing love and joy in worship.
We have been well supported by churches, but the journey of establishing Wave’s mixed-ability worship meetings has not been plain sailing. If the Church wants to encourage more such groups, a good place to start would be to address these challenges:
- Provide channels of pastoral support for lay leaders of these often ecumenical initiatives.
- Simplify (anxiety-causing) safeguarding responsibilities for mixed-ability worship meetings.
- Protect LD ministry from becoming a catch-all provision for those with intellectual deterioration (dementia), trauma (brain damage), and struggle (mental health): these are distinct conditions, with different pastoral needs
Families with LD have been particularly isolated in 2020, many of them shielding for the entire period of Covid-19.
When we emerge from lockdown, my hope and prayer is that we will see the church encouraging more lay-led, mixed-ability worship groups — making it easier for LD families to feel welcomed back into genuine and life-celebrating community.
Bernice Hardie is the co-founder of Wave. www.wave-for-change.org.uk
The story of Wave will be included as part of the Songs of Praise “Faith in Action” programme on BBC1 on Sunday (17 January). Wave has written a report on the barriers and triggers to genuine inclusion, which suggests in more detail the practical steps that churches could take. Email info@wave-for-change.