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Disability: Inclusive Church Resource by John Hull

August 4, 2015

disabilityThis book is written by my former colleague, John Hull, who died after a serious fall a few days before I read it. He was aged 80 and an expert in Religious Education and in disability rights. As a relatively privileged man, after he went blind a bevy of assistants read academic texts into a tape recorder which he then played back at high speed. So, he kept up to date with academia. For poor folk non disability benefits, this sort of service is not available and even what they have is being taken away from them by this wretched government. The churches, too, are cutting back on the money they devote.

The Inclusive Church Resources aim to educate, to reflect theologically and to provide practical advice and guidance. Each book contains first-hand personal experiences of people from the marginalised group, a theological reflection by a leading thinker and a resource section containing addresses, websites and practical advice on improving your church’s inclusivity.

Clare Herbert was a former curate of ours and her introduction focuses on the challenges of inclusion. We need to take time to understand the various and individual needs and gifts of each person and their life as a whole, not solely that part of it which interacts with church as an institution.  She calls for us all to slow down and learn to listen to others about disability, but also about other areas of inclusion which concern the church.  She also raises the point that inclusion of people with disabilities is about wider issues than just ramps and large print service sheets: it needs to be about the whole person.  I went to a day conference on this issue and came away realising that, however ‘right on’ I thought I was, I still have much to learn.
Five people with disabilities and one carer, a mixture of lay and ordained, describe their experiences interacting with church. One is Rachel:

“I hope that what I represent as a disabled priest will teach the church, and indeed people in general, that inclusiveness is about much more than the physical environment. Disability is not something to be ‘allowed for’ or excused but something to be truly embraced. I say this not as part of some sort of secular equality agenda but because each person who crosses the threshold of the church, disabled or not, is made in the image of God and is to be regarded as precious for that reason. It is the role of the church, first and foremost, to welcome people by virtue of their unique humanity, whoever they are, not because you might believe that as a disabled person I especially need to be ‘looked after’. However unwittingly, if we are not careful, such all-encompassing kindness can become oppressive.  We must allow disabled people to grow within the church, to become the people God has intended them to be; that includes allowing them the room to question, to make mistakes, to be angry, to be dismissive, in common with their brothers and sisters.  I believe that if disabled people are allowed to truly flourish  in the service of the church, in whatever capacity, then the effect would be transformative. … In all the areas in which it operates, the Inclusive Church agenda should be recognised as being about acknowledging the fullness of God at work in all people, whatever their circumstances.”

In his theology of disability, John Hull first asks where we would find Disability Theology on a theological map.  This section goes on for too long, in my opinion. He reckons that the questions raised by disability interact with all branches of theology, but that there is also a specific genre of disability theology which seeks to champion the needs and gifts of disabled people and an area of frontier theology where theologians seek to interpret the experience of disabled people through theology so as to break down the barriers between disabled and non-disabled people. Not so much ‘What can we do for them?’ but ‘What can they give to us?’

He looks at the way in which language is used in terms of disability in both the Bible and everyday life: language itself can be disabling, particularly due to the additional cultural meanings associated with it. The terms ‘blind’ and ‘deaf’ are particularly emotive.  He says that we need to reflect on the context of Biblical passages in terms of disability as well as other issues (e.g. feminism) when determining the authority and interpretation of scripture. However, he spends a lot of time on blindness repeating what he has written in other books. But he does point out that Jesus’s healings were not so much about curing people as they were about removing uncleanness taboos that excluded them from the community – which is where Inclusive Church comes in.

Views of disability can critically acclaim and broaden our view of theology: for example celebrating difference in creation and affirming the counter cultural nature of the gospel in being sceptical of the culture of normality which is prevalent in today’s culture.

Finally, disabled people can be seen as good news for the church and Christianity as good news for disabled people, not by being associated with miraculous healing, but by helping the world to realise Christ’s community of inclusive love and by bringing marginalised groups into all areas of the church as full members both of congregations and in ministry/leadership roles.

The final resources section gives some suggestions for how churches may wish to approach becoming more inclusive to disabled people.

Quotations:

We know people ‘mean well’, but as Martin Luther King said, ‘Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will’ (Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 1963).

Every time I leave the house — and I cannot leave the house without help — I am aware of both my effect on others and of their reactions to me. I have learnt not to leave the house without having saved energy to deal with what others will do; invariably if I do go out without this energy it is an uncomfortable experience.

when I poured a pint of beer over a recently converted Christian friend, who said that ‘if I prayed hard enough, I would be able to walk’.

when I felt the call to ordained ministry. It is important to say at this point that I used to have a debilitating stammer and my cerebral palsy means that co-ordination, balance and decent posture are never things I’ve got the hang of. Hardly surprising then that when I first thought that I heard the call to ordination, a feeling which simply wouldn’t go away, I said to God something like, ‘Look, God, I don’t want to tell you what to do but I have to point out to you that I can’t walk and can’t speak properly — you can’t be calling me into public ministry.’

God’s answer was very clear — ‘I know all that and that’s why I’m calling you.’ I am called because I am disabled, not in spite of it, and the knowledge of that is probably one of the most liberating and moving things I have ever experienced. To have my palms anointed at my ordination to the priesthood was a profound experience; you see, I can rarely get my hands to really do what I want, but God has chosen them to be put to work in the service of others.

When you grow up with a disability, the world is very ready to tell you that you’re incapable, destined always to be in receipt of help, and my ordination has literally licensed, indeed mandated, me to work in the service of God and of others; the paradox of that in the face of my disability is glorious.

I hope that what I represent as a disabled priest will teach the church, and indeed people in general, that inclusiveness is about much more than the physical environment. Disability is not something to be ‘allowed for’ or excused but something to be truly embraced. I say this not as part of some sort of secular equality agenda but because each person who crosses the threshold of the church, disabled or not, is made in the image of God and is to be regarded as precious for that reason. It is the role of the church, first and foremost, to welcome people by virtue of their unique humanity, whoever they are.

I tell them about my disability, the offers for prayer (Prayers for what? That I stop being me?), and the confusing attempts to play down the issues I have, ‘Oh well, everyone is a bit forgetful!’ I know that they do not understand me, and that I do not always understand them, but just because you cannot understand it does not mean it isn’t there.

worship of the church has become little more than a celebration of its own belief structure and a habitual repetition of my salvation, my Jesus, our God. This emphasis upon ownership and interior possession again models Christian faith upon the consuming culture where faith itself has become a satisfying product to be consumed again and again because of the happiness and comfort which it brings. Is there then no peace and joy in believing? There certainly is, but it is a by-product of the prophetic mission not its goal.

In a world ruled by the money god, the church of Jesus Christ must become counter-cultural. The Bible, which continues to be the wellspring of the life of the church, is itself profoundly countercultural. Of course, one might suggest that the trouble with the Bible is that it points both ways in the struggle between the rich and the poor, and one might wonder what we are to make of a Bible which contains documents written by and about kings. But the remarkable thing about the Bible is that however great the pressure from the surrounding imperial culture, the voice of the marginalised and the poor is never completely silenced. It is for this reason, among others, that the Bible is rightly regarded as the Word of God. Indeed, the great American prophetic biblical commentator Daniel Berrigan has shown that even the books entitled ‘Kings’ are the products of the prophetic tradition, seeking not to glorify them but to show what a disaster the monarchy was for the covenant between Israel and God.”

The Bible is the story of how God chose a group of slaves, and formed them into a nation, not a great nation or a powerful one but a small nation pressed throughout its entire history between the greater imperial powers. The Bible shows a God who is partial to the oppressed and to the excluded, describing a God who loves justice and who uses the nothings of this world to confound the mighty. People with disabilities have a particular role in enabling the church to be itself, not exactly because of their disabilities, but because of the way that their impairments have been turned into disabilities by a society which has been given over to the beautiful, the rich and the powerful, and by a church which instead of living biblical values has allowed itself to become normalised. In other words, in order for the church to be the church, people with disabilities should accept the church and try to change it from within. There is not so much a question of including disabled people in the church; it is rather a matter of the normal church learning how to welcome those who appear to be different, and in that welcome which embraces difference to rediscover the prophetic calling. The church will become more truly a symbol of the Kingdom of God when it becomes more faithfully a community of inclusive love.

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