Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

Question: “What is the definition of theology?”

Answer: The word “theology” comes from two Greek words that combined mean “the study of God.” Christian theology is simply an attempt to understand God as He is revealed in the Bible. No theology will ever fully explain God and His ways because God is infinitely and eternally higher than we are. Therefore, any attempt to describe Him will fall short (Romans 11:33-36). However, God does want us to know Him insofar as we are able, and theology is the art and science of knowing what we can know and understand about God in an organized and understandable manner. Some people try to avoid theology because they believe it is divisive. Properly understood, though, theology is uniting. Proper, biblical theology is a good thing; it is the teaching of God’s Word (2 Timothy 3:16-17).  

 http://www.gotquestions.org/what-is-theology.html

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On Saturday 11th June 2016 three of us from the Lancashire Roofbreaker’s network went to this event in Manchester.

Looking at the definition of theology above, then the conference certainly did aim to understand God, as he is revealed in the Bible and in the lives of disabled people.  It wasn’t well attended considering how many disabled people there are in our churches, but those who were there could be seen to have some form of disability, some had none visible disabilities and one or two were there because they ministered with disabled people in the church (that’s me!).

These are small beginnings but important.  It is better to start the discussion with 20+ people than to keep on ignoring the issues.

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The day began with a talk from the lovely Ann Memmott (@AnnMemmott on twitter) who I’ve mentioned a few times before.  Ann knows her stuff about autism, because as well as being a national advisor and trainer, she is autistic.  I love the way Ann teaches about autism. I have learned so much from her about what living with autism is like, and people’s reactions to the label.  She tells us how it is predominately sensory based, that there really are as many females as males who are autistic and that faceblindness and social confusion are part of how her autism affects her.  She explained how the labels ‘high functioning’ and ‘low functioning’ are not at all helpful. The point was well made that it is society’s lack of understanding and accommodation that makes it most disabling.  The wrong lighting and too much dishonest language, for example, makes it harder for autistic people to access everyday life.

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The second talk was from Zoe Hemming (@zoehemming) a curate in the CofE who is also physically disabled.  She talked about how she came to be disabled and how she hadn’t wanted to be defined as “one of them”.  With honesty she shared how this has led her to understand that to be human is to be limited.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, it can actually be good as we learn that we need to rely on God and others. My favourite quote from her was this: “Our culture tells us that independence is the only way to live with dignity.  This sets us all up for failure.  The church joins in with this delusion.  This sets us all up for failure as Christians too.”  We are all limited, we all age, we all become more dependent on others.  Maybe we should realise that a bit sooner and get on with being interdependent and enjoying the community and humble faith this brings! Dependence on each other and our God is where our strength is found.

image    Third to speak were the ‘trinity’ of Dave  (@DisbilityJ), Bill (@billbraviner) and Kate (@KtTup)  from Disability and Jesus.  Dave talked to us about his story, how getting his first guide dog, Abbott changed his life and his faith and about how ‘coming out’ as being disabled can be very hard yet very liberating. He was very angry at losing his sight for a while and said, “my friends were more concerned about my bad behaviour than what I was going through.”  That surely is a challenge to all of us in church.

Bill spoke about how we develop a theology of disability by looking at how
socieimagety and the church ‘sorts’ people.  The tendency to put people in boxes limits what they can then be allowed to do and how they are perceived as being useful.  (Just think about the DWP assessments!) Even when we put everyone in the same box marked ‘human’, there is the temptation to draw a line somewhere, that again boxes people in.  The point is that the spectrum of humanity is broad, deep and wide – surely that’s why Jesus said his love was broad, deep and wide…and high…in fact big enough to include everyone!  I loved the last slide of how to be church interdependently – Recognise gifts, accept diversity, admit our need for mutual nourishing, start with abilities and practice radical hospitality…church is open to anyone and everyone.

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Kate talked about how we are made in the image of God and asked some important questions about what this really means when we have disability.  Does this mean that disability is part of God’s creation? Is there disability in heaven?  Questions to think about that couldn’t really be answered in one day.  However, it was good that she also read from 1 Corinthians 15 which says quite clearly that our resurrection body will not be of the same substance as our earthly body and for that I am grateful indeed! She also challenged us to think whether there is a hierarchy of value in the church. Is our value dependent on how useful we are?  Now that is a good question…  She gave the example of the migrant crisis as to how we judge the value of people.

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After lunch there were questions for the panel.  Great that they were written down and the panel had had time to look at them.  There’s nothing worse in my book than being put on the spot!  There were questions about we have conversations about disability and inclusion, especially if people don’t want to listen.  Bill’s answer was to be gentle but to try and work out why they don’t want to listen.  Is it fear, is it misunderstanding?  Pray for the wisdom offered in Proverbs 2 and speak the truth in love.  There were also questions about training for clergy about disability and access to clergy training for disabled people.

The last session was the opportunity to get into groups and discuss some of the finer points of all the issues that have been raised.  James who came with me relished this part and got stuck in to debates about heaven, healing and the nature of sin in the human condition.  This provided some good discussion on the way home too.  That may have to fill another blog post when I have got my head around it a bit more. 

I decided to do some 1:1 chatting, getting to know some of the other people a little better and finding out what they were doing and also found out a bit more about @inclusivechurch who had a stall there.  They are a charity working with churches to support the inclusion of disabled, mentally ill and LGBT people of faith. I was able to tell people about the work of Through the Roof, Prospects and Urban Saints who I have been working with these past few years, particularly in the areas of intellectual disabilities and autism and children.

Overall, it was fabulous to have such an event in the North West.  It is tiresome to hear of a great conference and to find out it is in London or down south…again!  I can manage the occasional visit to the capital, but it becomes very expensive to go more than a couple of times a year. We need more in our area.  There is a lot going on in churches up here that would really benefit from more connections, discussions and support.

I would have liked to have built upon what we talked about with more reference to the Bible and what it says about God’s relationship with all of us.  But maybe that is the next step. Particularly the nature of God’s healing and what kind of heaven we are looking forward to has a massive impact on people’s faith and however awkward, should be explored within the context of the Bible and God’s promises therein.   We were also discussing on the way home that all the disabled people who spoke seemed to have good intellectual abilities.  I thought that there were two sets of people missing in this discussion, those with intellectual disabilities and those who are parents/carers of children with disabilities.  There are many fantastic parent advocates out there and they want inclusion in churches as much as the rest of us who were there today.  Growing this and extending the opportunity for more disabled people and their advocates to join the conversation will be a challenge but needs to continue.  It is fantastic to begin this adventure with those that were there and it would be good if it will develop and grow as a ‘thing’.  As long as we listen to the Lord, care and love one another and be willing to learn, then hopefully we will begin to have an impact on the wider church.

There are good pockets of inclusion going on all over the country.  Please Lord, keep joining the dots, keep us on your track and give us wisdom and grace. Unless you build this house, we are building it vain. Amen.

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Comments on: "Theology and Disability – working it out together" (6)

  1. Michael Rowe said:

    Ann Memmott is a good and lovely friend. I feel very privileged to have her as a friend. Her honesty and sincerity shine out and she is one of the finest Christians I know, with a lovely sense of humour. While it is very unlikely that I would be classed as autistic (I was born a long time before that was available as a diagnosis) , I have become aware through having Ann and others as friends of just how many characteristics I share with autistic people – which has helped me to understand myself better. I am very painfully aware of how badly and, at times, cruelly Churches can treat people with disabilities. It is often too much trouble to even provide something simple and basic like large print and good lighting for those, like my wife, with poor sight. Providing conditions friendly for autistic people often appears totally beyond their grasp – even if they could be bothered to understand.

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  2. Are there plans to carry on the discussion on another day? So wish I could have worked out a way of getting there. Sounds good food for thought. Love the quote about being human means being limited… believe so strongly we were made to be interdependent, in the image of a triune God.

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  3. Actually, from a linguistic viewpoint, ‘theology’ does not mean ‘the study of God’, but simply ‘God talk’ (the ‘logy’ bit is the same as the Logos or Word in John 1:1 ‘In the beginning was the Word’). So anyone who says anything at all about God is doing theology. Well done you and the conference speakers and participants for doing good theology.

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  4. […] just been reading a post by Lynn McCann (@includedbygrace ) and she comments on a phrase that Zoe Hemming (@zoehemming ) used while speaking at a conference […]

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  5. […] Lynn McCann has done a lovely round up of the day, and of course the day was well documented on Twitter, so I highly recommend perusing the #fullaccesschurch thread. […]

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