I’ve now led More than Welcome workshops (a day of teaching, discussion and practical examples that asks people to rethink the role of disabled people in their local church) half a dozen times. I have been encouraged at each event by the positivity and the action that is underway around the country.
I’ve heard brilliant stories of people with learning disabilities encouraged to lead church intercessions, church buildings being turned around to be more welcoming, churches experimenting with sign language, with dementia-inclusive services, with autism-friendly worship. Yes, most churches still have some way to go to be truly inclusive, but it is so inspiring to hear about this forward motion.
One of the key principles we want churches to understand is that there’s very little point working hard at getting the practical issues right – whether that’s an accessible building or even a good welcome at the door – if disabled people are then ignored and left out once they are inside.
This means that whatever your resources and however old your building it could be a relatively small change in culture that leads your church to become a place where disabled people can be fully involved.
It’s all about perception. What do we really see? Do we just see the disability? The wheelchair? Or do we see fellow disciples with a disability? Brothers and sisters looking for friendship and fellowship?
I keep coming back to St Paul’s analogy of the church as a body. I was recently discussing it with a local vicar who happens to be disabled. “Everyone thinks that the last bit – where Paul talks about ‘the weaker member’ – is about disabled people”, he said, “But maybe disabled people are actually the eyes or the ears, and other parts of the church are foolishly saying ‘we don’t need you’.”
This is exactly our goal in the More than Welcome events. We want to help those who attend to go back to their churches determined to enable their disabled members to truly play their part – to the benefit of the whole body.
And the key is getting the whole body on board. Listening to story after story at each event, I have noticed one repeating theme: The best, simplest and most creative ideas don’t come out of the blue – they come out of relationship. The churches that are making significant changes are the ones that have invested in really getting to know their disabled members, listening to their frustrations, and also encouraging their gifts.
This fits with some research undertaken by Through the Roof’s All of us Complete report (https://www.throughtheroof.org/abd/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/All-of-US-Complete-WEB-FINAL.pdf) which is profiled elsewhere in this edition and worth a read. When TTR asked disabled people across the UK what they wanted their churches to hear, the number one issue was their longing for real friendships rather than superficial inclusion. A common cry was, “Help me to develop genuine relationships in the church, not just Sunday acquaintances.” Alongside this was a simple longing just to be accepted in the way that other people can take for granted summed up by one comment; “Accept us as people…and share love, friendship and companionship with us in safety, allowing us to encounter all that is wonderful about our faith.”
Yes, this is difficult and challenging, and will undoubtedly require some major adjustments and changes to our services.
But if you want things to change and don’t know where to start, why not start here: will you choose to go out of your way to offer acceptance and build friendships with those with disabilities in your church? And while you’re at it, remember to receive acceptance and friendship in return.
If you’re inspired to improve your inclusion and don’t know where to start, or have a story to share about what your church has done, join us at a More than Welcome event.
Visit www.livability.org.uk/morethanwelcome for more information. There are more planned in the coming months.