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Interview: Emily Richardson, church communications officer  

10 February 2023

‘Healing in the Gospels is about restoring more than the person: it’s about restoring relationships’

I run the communications for All Saints’, Fulham, in charge of the social media — Facebook, Instagram and Twitter — as well as producing traditional parish communications, like the weekly bulletins, and writing for the magazine.

In the early days of social media, I persuaded the clergy and PCC that we needed to be active online. I was active on social media myself, and noticed other churches popping up and doing interesting things on Twitter, like daily prayers, which were really helping me on my own journey.

I did that for many years as a volunteer, and then took over some parish admin. In March 2020, my job evolved once again, as we added live streaming and online communication as our primary link with our congregation.

I studied theology and biblical studies at St Andrews, but, as my health deteriorated, I was forced to come home, and have always had to work part-time. I started out working for a small neurological charity doing very similar communications work.

I have Hypermobility-type Ehlers Danlos Syndrome: a connective-tissue disorder which causes extreme chronic pain and fatigue. I’m tired most of the time. Since contracting Covid, my symptoms have worsened, and I’m more tired and less mobile. I have to pace myself very carefully, and spend a lot of time resting.

I took part in Naomi Lawson Jacobs’s research for a Ph.D. on disabled Christians’ experiences of church. Many of the participants were keen that our stories were shared beyond academia, and, when Naomi approached me to consider turning the study into a book, At the Gates, I was keen to get involved.

Whether you think churches are accessible or not comes down to lived experience. So many people have well-meaning ideas about what access looks like, or carry out a tick-box assessment; but they rarely ask the people in their congregations — or, most likely, not in their congregations — what access actually is like.

The book is trying to create churches where welcome is pursued. Asking questions about access, funding the changes to make spaces accessible . . . it’s a wonderful step, but we don’t want it to end there. What will people find when they get through the doors? Will they be enabled to flourish? If pews are accessible but pulpits aren’t, that says a lot about the culture of the church.

I’m drawn towards Paul’s metaphor of the Church as a body, and wonder how that body is harmed when certain parts are not allowed to do their jobs. Our call is to enhance it. If a gifted preacher or teacher or someone who could strengthen the children’s ministry in your church can’t be actively involved, then your church is weakened.

People we talk to in the book show us how they do things in a different way. Preachers don’t necessarily need to stand and boom from a pulpit to preach, for instance. There’s a variety of bodies in the world, and a variety of ways to do things. Society’s ideals of healthy bodies that behave in certain ways, and look particular ways, have crept into the life of the Church; we’re calling it to remember the gospel message of strength in weakness.

WAVE Church, in north London, created a service for those with learning difficulties, which promotes the message that we’re all valued equally. The yearly conference run by St Martin-in-the-Fields and Inclusive Church is another example of disabled people gathering to resource each other and the Church, born out of their disability advisory group. They’re experts by experience, and the Church listens to their expertise. Their leader, Fiona MacMillan, talks about their work as fixing and dreaming: fixing the problems that close the church gates to disabled people, and dreaming of a co-created Kingdom community.

Disability and Jesus does daily prayer on Twitter, and there are now ministries not tied to a particular church. There are some days when I can’t move; so having those alternative communities is really important on those days. I use a few wafers at home.

Some really miss the physical aspects of taking communion or exchanging the peace, and there’s a role for bringing people communion in their homes, but sometimes that, too, feels impersonal or isolating: just you and a priest. There’s a lot of work to be done in merging the two kinds of church and making them more meaningful.

We already have preferred services — if you have children, for example, or if you’re more drawn to quiet BCP communion than a service with a worship band. We’re not calling for a total revamp of every type of service: we know not everything can be adapted for each individual. We are, though, asking for the needs of individuals to be understood, and for adaptations to be listened to and validated as much as possible.

Some of the people in our book found comfort in the Gospels’ healing stories; some recognised the characterisation of disability in scripture as a problem to be fixed. Some noted the difference between healing and cure. Curing sees the person as a problem to be fixed, and may dismiss the complexities of living with a long-term condition, where the removal of all symptoms could be actually seen as detrimental. For some on the neurodiversity spectrum, a cure would be seen as negative and dehumanising. Healing is about restoration of more than the person: it’s about restoring relationships. That’s what we see in the Gospel healing stories: excluded people being restored to their communities.

Some of these stories [in our book] are incredibly joyful, especially of disabled people meeting in new spaces, such as online, and of people who are rarely able to leave their beds now finding that church is coming to them. This models a more just Church.

I grew up in south-west London, where I still live today. Apart from a few years in Scotland, which is very dear to me, I’ve always lived in London.

Injustice makes me angry. Writing this book hasn’t been without anger, as we heard stories of people being overlooked, marginalised, and excluded by those in power and authority. The less serious answer? I get really angry when buses stop to change drivers — I know how irrational that is — and navigating public transport in general.

I’m a true introvert; so what makes me happy is being at home, with good books and box sets on TV. I love words and stories.

I’m a BBC Radio enthusiast; so I’d say my most reassuring sound is “the pips”. I love the way they punctuate my day, though the news bulletins that follow them are less than reassuring at times.

I find hope on the edge, in little communities that grow out of the spotlight, usually drawn together by shared experience and a lot of struggle.

Prayer is often a practice in becoming comfortable in my own skin; so I pray for that, usually by focusing on my breath, and becoming aware of my body. This hasn’t always been the case. Often, I prayed in my head as a way of escaping my embodied self. Grounding myself and becoming aware of my whole being has been transformative.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with St Ignatius of Loyola. I’ve done the Spiritual Exercises recently, and feel I’ve spent a lot of time with him. I love that he developed such an enduring set of prayer practices when he was in bed recovering from injury. He’d have wisdom to share with me for my duvet days.

Emily Richardson was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. At the Gates: Disability, justice and the Churches by Naomi Lawson Jacobs and Emily Richardson is published by DLT at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49); 978-1-913657-18-5.

Disability and Jesus on Twitter: @DisabilityJ

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