Theology in Practice: A Tale of Three Masses – 1*

Church image

Image of a church with steps leading up to it. Photo by Reinante el Pintor de Fuego. Creative Commons Licence

Image: a church with steps leading up. Photo (cc) Reinante el Pintor de Fuego.

Hoping to make a bit of a semi-regular series of theology/theory in practice, to complement more theoretical thoughts. Although to me, ‘regular’ tends to mean ‘more than once a year’. So we’ll see how it goes!

I’ve been to three churches recently, where I had very different access experiences. Which is interesting, because they were ostensibly very similar churches: all Anglo-Catholic and located within about five miles of each other. I’ve anonymised each church. From my very partial, largely self-focused viewpoint on access, I found St A’s reasonable, St B’s fairly terrible, and St C’s excellent. I surprised myself with what I found accessible. As a starting point for talking about access of all kinds in churches, then, this week we have a tale of three masses. Today: St A’s.

Church: St A’s.

Service: Weekday evening in Holy Week.

I’ve attended this church before, but not for some years, and not while using my current usual mobility aid. I arrived to find a good ramp up to the main entrance, with the heavy front doors propped open. Good so far. There was then a set of doors with windows in. While probably not too difficult for most people to open, these would have been near-impossible for wheelchair users to negotiate. I just about managed to open them. There were church wardens and welcomers on the other side of the windows, nattering away so that they didn’t notice me struggling.

The next barrier to negotiate involved seating. The pews here are of the Victorian, close-yourself-in-with-little-doors-so-as-to-avoid-your-neighbours type (note: this is not an official architectural designation). I have no idea where a wheelchair user would place herself in this church – there’s no removed space among the pews, and there’s limited space in front of them. I sat inside a pew and left my walker outside it. This turned out to be an error, as the procession came past my pew at one point and they all nearly fell over my walker (now there’s a deviation from Anglo-Catholic ritual that would have looked interesting). No one warned me of this in advance or suggested I might want to put my walker elsewhere.

There were some examples of good practice in the service. The church has hearing loops for hearing aid users (no BSL – I haven’t seen BSL in a church service for years, although I understand there are some churches which are well-known for it). Large print service sheets and hymn books were available. They were using an interesting mix of auditory and visual ritual, which is one of the things that makes Anglican services more accessible to me personally (as an almost-exclusively visual learner) than, say, Baptist ones. I don’t know how people with learning difficulties would have fared with the language-heavy sermon and many readings, but that’s fairly typical of Anglican churches, and this one was less language-heavy stuff than some. (I’d love to hear about churches that do this stuff more inclusively for their members with learning difficulties. I’d also like to hear about how people with learning difficulties feel about the way services are conducted. Fortunately, that’s where research will come in!)

Just before communion, a church warden noticed me and asked if I’d like communion brought to my seat. This was very helpful, but I refused, as I was capable of getting up to the altar (and I like to stand for communion). Instead of accepting this, however, the warden kept insisting that it would be a good idea. I don’t know whether he was worried for me or for the ‘look’ of his church’s service, but his pushing the issue distracted me from worship and made me uncomfortable. Church staff: offers of help are lovely, but do try to believe disabled people when they tell you they can cope. Thank you.

Conclusions? Wheelchair-accessible, with provisions to assist some sensory-impaired people – which is better than many churches. Staff would probably benefit from some disability equality training and impairment-specific advice. An atmosphere of such careful ritual and order in worship that I didn’t always feel comfortable being different – this could affect people with other impairments even more. I’d give this church 5/10. (This is a purely subjective figure and many other disabled people would probably disagree with me. Hurray for variety and diversity.)

Two more church reviews in this series still to come, later in the week.


“…when you give a banquet or a reception, invite the poor, the disabled, the lame, and the blind…” Luke 14:13 (Amplified Bible translation)

*Credit goes to my long-suffering partner for the title. (Attribution. Love it, live it.)

About Naomi Jacobs

Disabled PhD researcher and equality activist. Researching disability and Christianity at SOAS, University of London.
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10 Responses to Theology in Practice: A Tale of Three Masses – 1*

  1. naomijacobs says:

    Sally: And I’ve just looked up the passage and realised I’ve misquoted it. But at least I was close!

  2. naomijacobs says:

    Sally: In terms of “I have come to bring sight to the blind”, you mean? I absolutely think a social model approach to disability, where society takes responsibility for the barriers it creates, can be one interpretation of that. I’m looking forward to the Biblical studies aspect of my PhD (when I finally start it!) – I’m keen to explore more about the ways in which Biblical interpretation has been used both to oppress and empower disabled people.

  3. Sally says:

    freedom for the prisoner- part of Jesus manifesto in Mtthw. – surely our interpretation is too narrow…..

  4. naomijacobs says:

    Heather: I do intend to write a bit about ‘why this subject’ at some point, but I’m nervous to. As you know, my field is sociology, not theology. I’m new to the theology game, and my terminology, theoretical basis etc aren’t strong. I will attempt a separate post on ‘uncovering the roof’ soon, but I hope that everything I write here will soon start to contribute to a wider picture of what’s going on in the church, with ideas about why that matters. But thanks for the reminder. Keep bugging me till I write it!

    And I have a four-and-a-half-foot-tall walking frame that you do NOT want to get rolled over your feet while I’m leaning on it :P

  5. Heather says:

    Can’t wait for St B and St C’s!

    Another question, though: why should the church be accessible to all? Shouldn’t disabled people just worship at home out the way of the rest?

    *removes hat of devil’s advocacy before getting clouted by mobility aid*

    OK, I’m obviously being facetious and but I’d love to read you blogging some more about why you feel so passionately about this, and hence the empirical basis for your standpoint. Or whatever the terminology is…

  6. Sally says:

    Thank you for this, as a minister with several chapels in my charge it has made me think about access. one of my chapels is OK one good the other currently terrible!

    I’ll look forward to reading the other reviews.

    • naomijacobs says:

      Thanks, Sally! Always glad to hear about ministers who are thinking about access. The best advice I can give is to consult with disabled church members, visitors and local people before doing anything, then getting some training for staff involved with the church in question. Glad to hear the post was helpful. More to follow!

  7. frank says:

    PS. nice to see you are still blogging! Your posts are really interesting.

  8. frank says:

    Interesting experience. I think you’re right about more training for people to help them know what to do in different circumstances. Perhaps you could offer them some! It sounds like the physical building needs some adaption as well, surely it should have had this in line with various regulations?

    • naomijacobs says:

      Frank: I only wish legislation actually had any effect. The DDA is largely unenforceable. It’s a common belief that everywhere must be accessible nowadays because the law says so, but in reality a large proportion of places, from businesses to public services, are not. There are no funds available for churches to make adaptations, so they mostly don’t. It’s far more impressive that this church has ramps than you’d think.

      Thanks for comments! I can’t always blog with any regularity as my energy levels vary, but I’m keen to try and keep up with it.

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