Church must help people with disabilities to flourish

By Revd Dr Michael Bird

August 5 2019People living with disabilities need more than inclusion in the church; they need to fully belong to the church, writes Michael Bird.

An important yet often neglected subject of consideration for both our practice of church and the training of clergy must be that of disability. The fact is that our churches are filled with people who are either born with a disability, acquire a disability by illness or accident, or else who age into disability. According to the World Health Organisation, 20 per cent of the world’s population, that’s one in five people, has a disability of some variety. And yet I have never heard a sermon about the topic of disability in my life and it never came up in my theological and pastoral training.

Nancy L. Eisland, a theologian who has a disability, pointed out that Jesus himself was crucified into disability so that Jesus died in an imperfect human body, weak and vulnerable, even helpless, yet God’s redemptive power, love, healing, and beauty were manifested in his broken body.

Furthermore, John Swinton argues that the image of God in humanity is not a matter of relational or rational capacity, emotional intelligence, nor bodily autonomy, neither knowing nor acting, but being known by God as a royal child of God (see John 1:12-13; 1 Cor 8:3; Gal 4:9). We are God’s children by birth and new birth, not by ability or capacity.

Christians must be prepared to defend people with disabilities as image bearers, know how the Gospel speaks a word of grace to disabled people and their carers, and pursue ways for the church to care for the most vulnerable in their midst. Following John Swinton again, I would contend that people with disabilities need more than inclusion in the church (i.e., their presence be tolerated); rather, they need to belong to the church (i.e., be valued when present and missed when absent). We need to ensure that the church is friendly and welcoming to those with disabilities and their carers, and works to see them flourish in their humanity and exercise their spiritual gifts. We need to minister to people with disabilities and find ways in which they too can minister if so called.

The words of John Kilner are particularly apt: “[P]eople with special needs due to disabilities warrant special care and welcome. They have an image-based dignity that does not waver, regardless of their ability or potential ability. Christ, God’s image, models God’s embrace of disability on the cross … through a resurrected but wounded body. All humanity shares in such woundedness and vulnerability in a variety of forms – physical, mental, moral, and spiritual – without losing the dignity of being created in the image of God. Whoever would treat those with disabilities as God does must view them in terms of their destiny as well as their dignity – in terms of God’s intention for them to be a divine reflection as well as their special connection with God. Their glorious renewal according to God’s image in Christ is sure if they are believers and still offered them if they are not (yet).”

Regard for disability is all the more urgent precisely because our culture is sending mixed messages about disability. On the one hand, we have the National Disability Insurance Scheme which aims to address the many needs of people with disabilities in our community, a very good thing indeed. On the other hand, we are being told that is possible to reduce the prevalence of Down Syndrome, or wipe it out altogether (which in actuality means wiping out people with Down Syndrome), through terminations of pregnancies where the chromosomal abnormality is detected. This poses serious religious, moral and ethical questions which need to be debated.

Churches with their clergy, wardens and parishioners will have many causes to advocate for and many concerns to take on board when doing pretty much anything. But consideration of those with disabilities, physical or cognitive, should form part of the planning for any event in the church’s calendar. Sometimes this can be a simple as ensuring wheelchair access, or catering for children with autism spectrum disorder, or offering appropriate facilities for people with hearing loss. To be an inclusive church takes initiative and effort, but it is part of what a real church is: every age, ethnicity, and ability are welcomed to worship the triune God.

Thankfully some good things are happening in this space. The topic of Bible, Theology, Mission, Ministry and Disability is a growing area of theological discourse, so the topic is getting more oxygen. Last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury commissioned several short films about disability and the church and held a conference with the organisation Livability about how people with disabilities can participate fully in the life of the church.

The challenge is for us to be part of the good things that are happening with our own ideas, initiatives, ministries, and commitments, to be truly inclusive Anglican churches for those with disabilities and their carers.

The Revd Dr Michael Bird is Academic Dean and Lecturer in Theology at Ridley College, Melbourne