I was told earlier this week that disability isn’t a main moral issue for the Church of England. And that's why it’s not included in the big faith debates about diversity and the future of the church.
I’m going to disagree.
I’ve worked for, and with, the Church of England for a very long time. I’m the author of the main guidelines for autism for it. I’m the co-author of the national domestic abuse policy for the church as well. I also work nationally and internationally with many faith leaders. I’ve worked through moral issues around disability for a good few decades. I’m autistic, faceblind, have arthritis and a spinal scoliosis, somewhat dyspraxic, have had crippling anxiety and periods of depression caused by life’s circumstances...and have had an interesting time with breast cancer. Most of my friends and family are disabled. It has been my honour to work with hundreds of fantastic disabled and non-disabled people, especially in churches and faith communities everywhere. So I’ve a fair understanding of the issues. I don’t pretend to speak for anyone but myself, but I can say what I’ve seen, heard, felt and been told over the years.
I'll start by saying there are many fantastic faith leaders and faith communities. Caring, loving, gentle, generous places. My own local church is one such.
I’ll also say this with confidence: A good few Christians tend to force disabled people into one of many artificial and often-horrific roles. I’ve been put into each of these by some Christians.
As sinner who is being punished by God, and therefore deserves their disability.
As a person who is lacking in faith. After all, “If you had enough faith, you’d be cured, wouldn’t you...”. And if they lack faith, they'd better leave the church before their faithlessness contaminates others...
As a person who must trust God and therefore does not need pills, potions, surgery etc. How many have been made very ill by this kind of thinking?
As a person who is beset by evil spirits who need to be driven out of them by exorcism or ritual. One group sat on the child to drive out the demons. They died. Yes, a Christian group did that. Here in this country, yes.
As a person to whom God has given the special privilege of suffering for others. Suffering is seen by some as an especially good thing, to be encouraged and prolonged - a sort of sacrifice on behalf of others. Especially good to suffer a lot in the lead-up to death, apparently. Hmm. I think not.
In the case of autism or learning disability, quite often the person is seen as ‘an angel’, a special virginal character who is some sort of spirit child, not a real person with wants and needs. A person to be kept ‘on a pedestal’ and not allowed a life of their own.
As a burden on the church; someone unable to be of any good use to them, who is just a cost to their time and money. Eyes roll at the very thought that they would be allowed in.
As a danger to the congregation; someone who may act in ways too dangerous to include them. (Disabled people are no more likely to be dangerous than anyone else, in fact).
As easy targets for bullying and abuse by some. We’re only just bringing some of the cases into the light. They do not make for easy reading.
Against this patchy backdrop of theological drought and moral bankruptcy, a few of the debates: Pregnant with a baby who has a disability and will suffer intense pain and hasty death? Some Christians want the parents to consider the unborn baby’s soul, or be told they are murderers.
Want to get married as someone with a learning disability? Some Christians want to be able to say whether that can happen in a church or not. ‘People like them can’t have sex, surely! Yuk!” (to quote something I heard).
Want to get Confirmed, and you are autistic or have a learning disability? Some Christians want to have a say in whether you can understand God well enough, or whether they can turn you away at the door.
LGBTI issues? 30% of autistic people self-identify as part of that group. That’s about 300,000 in the country. We’re not talking about one or two people. How’s that for a big impact on the debate around LGBTI and the church. Oh wait, we’re not allowed to contribute to most of it, because...autistic.
These are moral and ethical issues. These are huge, profound issues. Not least for the millions of disabled people who are routinely and thoughtlessly excluded from church. 14% of the population are disabled. Not people in care homes; people right there as your next door neighbours. People who want to attend weddings and funerals alongside others. People who want to be at the church fete and the concert. People who want to be friends and colleagues, workers and volunteers. People who want to be Priests and leaders.
What is our response as a church? Not even half of our churches have a simple hearing loop to allow those with hearing aids to join in, for example. Big print hymn book? Not even half have that. It costs a tenner. What’s going on here? That's not 'too expensive', that sort of thing. It's not that.
Jesus spent his whole Ministry around, and with, disabled people. Arguably he had at least one disabled follower whom he never cured. He was so respectful of them.
We know that disabled people offer amazing diversity of talent, love, prayer, friendship, finance, gifts – in fact all the very same things that all people offer to a church. We know that many have insights and experiences that add hugely to our understanding of God and of our faith. We know that in Jesus’s parable about the man who invited the rich to his banquet and found they didn’t want to go... the people were told to go and get the disabled folk off the streets and give them a full banquet instead. Not a crust of bread bounced off their forehead as they stand outside in the street. Invited in to the full banquet.
Where is our full banquet for disabled folk right now? It’s certainly in some of our churches. But what of the others?
Is it enough to say, “Disability is not a main moral issue” and to remove it from current discussions around diversity or the future of the church? I do not believe that it is. It is certainly true that very few disabled people are allowed to serve God. And those who wear the vestments of Priesthood wield extraordinary power over who gets through those church doors. One doesn’t have to sit in a pew, alone in that aisle, ignored by the congregation and the Vicar, for long ...before understanding that ‘All are welcome’ is a very hollow promise indeed in some of our churches. Many are fabulous, of course. Don’t get me wrong – I am honoured to have many wonderful Priests as good friends. But there are others who patrol their church gates like guards who see us as the enemy of God. It's soul-destroying stuff. Quite literally.
So how we do create that listening, welcoming, learning environment we need – in our theological colleges, in our congregations, in our home groups and our outreach?
We are not caricatures of people, nor symbols of something broken. We are real, living, breathing, laughing, joking, loving, caring friends, who live with a disability.
It’s not enough for anyone to say that we don’t belong at the table, with that same full banquet.
Disability is a moral issue. Let’s start talking about it more.