Last week I attended a meeting at the Diocese of Manchester on ‘welcome and belonging’ for disabled people in the Church of England. Titled ‘We’ve Been Expecting You: Disability and the Church’, it was a half-day event to launch a report on disability and the diocese that was produced from a 2012 event on disability.
John Gillibrand was an excellent keynote speaker. He began by acknowledging that views on disability can be controversial and multifaceted — from the issue of who gets to speak for whom, to the social model vs other ways of approaching disability. John’s son is autistic and is currently in residential care. John’s story was fascinating. He talked about the stress and joys of being a vicar with a disabled child, and some of the other things that he and his family experienced while his son was growing up. He also talked about the way the church could and should be responding to disabled members. While I didn’t agree with everything he said, and his focus on care (rather than equality) worried me a bit, I did enjoy his talk very much, and it was good to hear about the experience of a church leader encountering disability in his family and congregation.
I raised a question at the end of John’s talk: If we focus on care, rather than equality, will this discourage the church from recognising the ministry of disabled people, and from ordaining them as ministers? John didn’t quite answer the question — he spoke about the discrimination experienced by disabled people applying for ordination, but not about whether ideologies towards disabled church members could affect this. But then, there wasn’t much time to discuss this or the many other issues that arose from his talk.
We then moved on to discussing the report that was being launched on the day, in small groups. Reflections from the floor included the need for things to move on much faster — for example, full level access to churches was proposed in the report, but the Diocese has not reported that this has been achieved. Disabled delegates talked about the difficulties they face in their churches, from a lack of BSL* translation and equipment for Deaf people, to the need for clergy to be trained around issues of disability, or at least to have thought about disability at some point in their training.
It was a very positive day, but the message from those attending was clear. The Church of England has a responsibility, not just to talk about access and inclusion, but to make it happen. There were access issues on the day that illustrated this point: while the building used was very accessible for those with mobility difficulties, there was no hearing aid loop, no BSL signing provided, and the structure of the meeting did not make it easy for neurodivergent attendees. The Church of England is clearly working hard to find out how to make their work and services more accessible to disabled people, but the general feeling at the meeting, from disabled and non-disabled delegates alike, is that it’s time they stopped talking and put ideas into practice.
*British Sign Language