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Reconceptualising Disability for the Contemporary Church, by Frances Mackenney-Jeffs

08 October 2021

Emma Major regrets a gap in a disability book

FRANCES MACKENNEY-JEFFS wrote this book, based on her Ph.D. thesis, as “a call to the church to be all that God intends rather than a tokenistic attempt at inclusion of people with disabilities”.

As a disabled lay pioneer, I’m always on the look-out for books mixing theology, history, and the lived experiences of disabled people. This book delivers the first two of those in an accessible and comprehensive way. I am, however, disappointed that the “lived experience of disabled people” is provided through the lens of parents, carers, and leaders of churches for disabled people rather than by disabled theologians. The lived experience of carers is not the lived experience of disabled people.

I have lived as a non-disabled and disabled person. Before I became disabled, I would have read the author’s aim without concern: “to equip clergy and the many people who engage in ministry with disabled people, to think more deeply about the relationship between the church and disabled people and be mindful of the dangers that lie in that direction”. But, having been on the receiving end of well-meaning charity and tokenistic inclusion, I now read this aim with concern. A book of research has a place, but the only way to really be equipped is to listen and learn from the many disabled church leaders, both ordained and lay; or to disabled people who have lived experience of churches.

All that said, I recommend the first five chapters of this book if you have never read any disability theology. Mackenney-Jeffs draws on a range of theologians to provide a comprehensive history of disability; to outline the models of disability; to discuss what it means to be a human being; and to delve into theological perspectives of disability.

Chapter 2 explores the social and medical models of disability. Chapter 3 explores what being a human really means in a theological exploration of personhood. Chapter 4 look at the attitudes, beliefs, and stigma and the toxic “biblical” reasons for disability, alongside a biblical theology of suffering. Chapter 5 looks at fresh theological perspectives of disability, highlighting issues that preachers need to be aware of when referring to healing accounts.

In conclusion, I particularly appreciate the way in which the book provides questions at the start and end of every chapter, including: What does it mean to be fully human? Does God know what it means to be disabled? Will we be disabled in heaven?

These are issues that we often discuss as disabled Christians. If you aren’t sure how you would answer them, or aren’t aware that there is debate around them, then I recommend this book to you as an introduction, before you move on to read work by disabled theologians.

Emma Major is a licensed lay pioneer minister at St Nicolas’s, Earley, in Oxford diocese.


Reconceptualising Disability for the Contemporary Church
Frances Mackenney-Jeffs
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £16

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