On twitter, the tag #fullaccesschurch is gaining support among disabled Christians calling for access to the churches. It was created by the user-led group Disability and Jesus, who have encouraged disabled people to use it when tweeting about access difficulties they face at church. It was the official hashtag of the excellent Towards a Theology of Disability conference, also a user-led event, in the summer of 2016.
The concept of ‘access’ may suggest the built environment, to some people. And while that’s an important part of disability access, it’s not the whole story. In the twitter conversation above, for example, a user of the hashtag tells me that there is poor access in churches for autistic people. The #fullaccesschurch tag has been used to talk about access to churches for people with mental health problems, people with sensory impairments, those with learning difficulties, and disabled children… The emerging interpretation of the concept of ‘full access’ to churches, across the disabled Christian community, is very broad.
Disability studies, too, talks about access in diverse ways: there is a focus on access to the built environment, but there’s also research on access to leisure, access to transport, access to education, and more. The definition of access there is often unclear, though. Accessibility is “a slippery notion… one of those common terms which everyone uses until faced with the problem of defining and measuring it” (Gould, 1969:64). Sometimes research draws on legal definitions of disability access, or practical access criteria for building codes or town planning. On the whole, though, disability studies research avoids the term altogether, presumably because of its lack of clarity. However, I am using the term in my research — because it’s being used by the community, and that matters in the kind of research that I’m doing.
I’m now writing a chapter on the stories of four of my participants. I began by thinking about these as stories of inclusion (to churches) and exclusion (from them). In writing the chapter, though, I have realised that the concept of ‘inclusion’ is a problematic one. It began as a positive concept, involving “the creation of settings in which difference is encouraged and valued” (Cameron, 2014:79). Instead, though, Cameron says that even in settings claiming to be inclusive, in practice “disabled people are still more likely to be met with patronising tolerance than with respectful acknowledgement as equals” (2014:80). Equality, he suggests here, where institutions — like churches? — fall short. Equality, I will argue in my chapter, is the goal behind the idea of a ‘full access church’. I will argue that such equality requires transformation.
In a previous chapter of my thesis, on mainstream disability theology (which is often not written by disabled people), I’ve talked about how this theology often focuses on welcome. Welcoming disabled people into our churches, argue many theologians, is what is needed. Inclusion, in short.
But when churches bring disabled people into their environment, when they try to include them in to their space, are they really changing what they do to accommodate others’ differences? Are churches looking at their practices and asking how far those practices exclude people, and how they could really challenge themselves on this? Are they asking what their environments communicate about who is welcome, and what their practices quietly reveal to people about their own value? Are they considering what they are saying to their blind members when they have not made their websites accessible to them? Are they asking what messages are communicated when the main church building is accessible to wheelchair users but the altar is not? On the whole, ideas of inclusion, of welcome, tend to focus on bringing people into spaces that already exist, rather than on changing institutions to make room for difference. Instead, transforming churches, in terms of their spaces, practices and culture, may be one way forward towards full access for all disabled people to all churches. More than simply asserting that the gospel is for all, a transformation of churches would make the gospel truly accessible to all.
Real transformation would require churches working in collaboration with the disabled Christians who are the experts on their own needs. The stories featured in my chapter include examples of people who tried to encourage their churches to transform their spaces, practices or cultures, but did not find that church communities were willing to do this.
This kind of transformation is compared with conditional ‘welcome’ by the disability theologian James Metzger, in his challenging response to the Parable of the Banquet, which is so often quoted by as a reason to encourage disabled people to come into churches. In the parable, from Luke 14, Jesus tells the story of a man who was preparing a great banquet, but whose invitations were all rejected by people with flimsy excuses:
“The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’
“‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’
“Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’”
Metzger boldly turns the most common interpretation of this parable upside-down. If this man represents God, he argues, then this is a very ambivalent portrait of God and his reasons for ‘welcoming’ people, or not, into his kingdom. If you are a Christian, you might be offended by Metzger’s conclusions — he thinks that “The disabled cannot trust and likely would not wish to cultivate relations with the ableist, capricious, paternalistic God who surfaces in this parable” (2011:23.10). He observes that here, in being compelled to come in to suit the whims of the host, “the poor and disabled are stripped of agency and autonomy, an experience not unfamiliar to them” (2011:23.6). This experience is not unfamiliar to the people whose stories are featured in my chapter, either, some of whom spoke about having their needs ignored and their expertise invalidated in their churches. “Compel them to come in,” says the ending to this parable, an ending that is not always quoted. Does this call for a transformation, a dismantling of the church structures that exclude, so that all can worship? Or is it a conditional welcome, based on being able to survive in a church environment designed for the ‘mainstream’?
Metzger does not end on this depressing note. He says that the parables can still be seen positively by disabled people, perhaps as representing a Jesus who acknowledges the difficulties that ordinary people will have with God, “encouraging them to remain in conversation with God” (2009:75). Perhaps looking at the Bible through different lenses, seeing the possibility that disablism and exclusion are sometimes present there — and in other sources that churches use for their approaches to disability — could help churches in moving from shaky principles of inclusion to real transformation and full access. Not all Christians will agree, and that’s good. Another feature of the stories in my research is the diversity of theology and Christian perspectives that people hold, influencing their views on disability, and shaping their ideas on how churches can create access for all. (Glimpses of that can be seen in this chapter, although later chapters will consider diverse theologies in more depth.) But a critical approach to such concepts as ‘welcome,’ ‘inclusion’ and ‘access’ is important when looking at stories where people have felt excluded from, and included in, churches. This chapter of my thesis will consider the circumstances that create a sense of exclusion or access for disabled people in churches, and whether anything might be learned from the ways in which these participants’ access to churches is either impeded or enabled.
The stories in the chapter that I’m writing now reveal diverse experiences of access, exclusion and church transformation. They include the experiences of a woman with ME/CFS who has difficulties accessing activities when they are held at times of day that are difficult for her; a couple who are blind and are struggling in a church where their needs are often forgotten; a wheelchair user who cannot access large parts of the cathedral she attends. These stories are also not just about physical access. They show that the culture of a church can exclude people, as with the blind couple who cannot take part fully in social activities because of the ways in which their church organises them. They show that church spaces can shape church practice, as with the wheelchair user who does not have access to the high altar at her church.They show that disabled people’s experience of church can be transformed by small changes in culture, as with the woman who felt acknowledged and accepted through a mention in the church notice sheet that people were welcome to sit through the service if they needed to. These transformations of ‘the way things are done’ in church, whether small and simple or larger and more complex, can help people to feel that their bodies and minds can play a full part in that church community, different from the socially constructed norm though they may be.
There were many more stories of participants that I could have represented in this chapter too, other stories about different kinds of access, including those of my several autistic participants and people with mental health problems. (Their stories will absolutely be represented in future chapters: it’s just that they’re going to fit better in, for example, the chapter on church cultures and how they specifically exclude some disabled people with particular needs.) But these four stories give a glimpse of some of the ways in which a transformational theology and practice of access in the churches, rather than a passive theology of welcome, might help to create conditions in which people are fully and practically included. In which they are enabled to worship and be part of community, all their needs met, as much as non-disabled people’s needs are met in churches. In which disabled people might truly find a ‘full access church’.
I look forward to sharing the chapter with you, when my thesis is finally written and published.
Cameron, C.. (2014). Inclusion. In: Cameron, C. Disability Studies: A Student’s Guide. London & Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. 78-81.
Gould, P. (1969). Spatial Diffusion. Resource Paper No. 17. Washington, DC: Association of American Geographers.
Lucas, Dave. (2016). Disability and Jesus. Available: http://www.disabilityandjesus.org.uk/. Last accessed 16th November 2016.
Metzger, J.. (2010). Disability and the Marginalisation of God in the Parable of the Snubbed Host (Luke 14:15-24). The Bible and Critical Theory. 6 (2), 23.1-23.15.