On the Value Of A Human Person

We all know we live in challenging times. When we are under pressure or under challenge, perhaps even under persecution, it’s often the case that what we really think about the things that matter comes more readily to the fore. We don’t have the strength, or the capacity, to pretend. We get closer than we usually do to saying what we really think; we prioritise the things or the people that are most valuable or precious to us; the values we hold and the lengths we would go to to gain or to protect them become obvious, when we would usually try and keep our personal and privately held motivations to ourselves

Over the last few weeks, I’ve read too many times that the lives of ‘vulnerable’ people should be sacrificed, in whatever sense that particular thought is expressed or meant, so that everyone else can ‘get back to normal.’ This isn’t theoretical, it’s personal. To me. If you think, or say that stuff, do you know what it says to me when I read it?

It makes me think you think the lives of disabled/elderly/unwell people are worth less than those who are, at the moment, none of those things. It makes me wonder if you realise you may well, sadly, be any of them, or all of them, someday.

It makes me wonder what you would do in response to a govt policy, now or in the more distant future, which said that ‘we can’t possibly afford to support people’ or something like that. Would you vote for a party saying that? I wonder these things. It’s more than possible that one of the outcomes of the economic and health and social care policies pursued during 2020 and beyond will have societal consequences. They will undoubtedly have fiscal consequences. All this bailing people and industries out was not, I believe, done out of largesse. We and our descendants will very likely be ‘paying back’ what has been paid out for a long time to come. In these uncertain circumstances, who will be valued, prioritised, encouraged, supported? Can we afford to support those who aren’t at present able to work to support themselves? What happens if we make the decision that ‘we’ can’t? My question would rather be, can we afford not to?

All of us have changing circumstances. Not only that, but they are constantly subject to change and often the change is outside of our control, however hard we try to pretend we have it all sorted. Not all of us live to an old age, but all of us are vulnerable, all of the time. All of us have underlying conditions. Some of us have over(?)lying conditions too. Do we want to live in a society that seeks to deny or demonise this idea? That’s one of many things I think is at stake here. The slow, gentle progress towards a thinking which makes covert or overt eugenics seem to be a sensible policy. And that is not acceptable to me.

If you’re a Christian like me, the language being used in public discourse, often by prominent people of faith, ought to give us pause for thought. Is the value of a human life only measured in terms of an economic unit, our productivity and net give and take? I don’t think people would say it is, but in practice it looks like a lot of think that way, judging by what we do, what we think and what we say. We all need to come to terms with the uncomfortable truth that ‘vulnerability’ is a breath away for any of us. If and when you or I become vulnerable, how do we want the society we are part of to respond or treat us?

And, speaking to people of faith again, how are we going to work to show that there is a hope-filled way of living which shows what a huge lie it is to think that ‘survival of the fittest’ has ever been a good way to choose how to live? Our faith ought to have something to say about this idea. If you’re not a person of faith, your ethical senses ought to start tingling, all of ours should, wherever our foundations are found and placed. Either every human being is of equal value (I believe this deeply) or they are not. If the prevailing wisdom is going to be that each human being is only valuable if able to perform certain functions, I think this is hugely dangerous and will oppose it with every fibre of my being.

 I know others have other views. My main point is, it actually hurts me to see what I perceive to be hard-heartedness towards others coming from people. I hope that I don’t fall into that trap, but I know I do sometimes and I’m sorry for that. It is not ‘woke’ to say that it matters greatly how a society behaves towards those who are poor, or vulnerable. If we harden our hearts and look after ourselves, good does not automatically follow. 

As an impaired and disabled person (those are not the same thing) I have spent a lot of time thinking about how I am valued. It follows that if I think I’m valuable then others ought to be too, no? If I decide because of the prevailing wind of things saying that I’m not valuable because (pick a reason) I wear glasses, can’t walk, can’t reach high shelves or cupboards, sometimes find it hard to do my job because of physical or mental/emotional impairments or ill-health or myriad other reasons, then it follows that I can both isolate myself from reality and also not value others. I am forced to look up to those whose function is higher than mine and I am forced to value them more highly. Is that the way we want it?

Alternately, if others are allowed, or even positively encouraged, to ascribe value to me and place me on a particular echelon or rung simply due to my impairment or functional ability, voiding my God-given personhood and identity, that means that it follows that beneath a certain echelon or rung a person could be deemed not valuable enough, too expensive, too needy and so on. It might seem that we in Britain are a long way from seeing or describing people in this way, but the recent debates in media and on social media about vulnerable people leaves me feeling at beast queasy and at worst fearful. I might be deemed valuable at the moment because I’m a public figure in a job which some people think is worth something, but it won’t always be that way. What happens when the protections afforded to me by my role in society are taken away? It’ll happen one day. It could happen to any one of us.

Jesus said that the way that people would know that those who followed him were his followers was that they would love one another. This is not a theoretical concept. It needs to be seen in practice and only when it is seen in practice can we truly be able to call ourselves Christians. Whether you consider yourself a Christian or not, I would say that loving one another, in the way of sacrifice, service, working for the good and benefit of all, those ideas should form the core of who we are or seek to be, whatever our ideology. If we love one another, that means that I don’t need to spend so long worrying about loving or taking care of myself (although valuing the self is important, certainly) because someone else will love, care for, support of me. That might seem twee or naive to you but I would contend that it is only when we live this way that we can claim to live in anything approaching a decent society. At the moment, the promotion of the cult of the individual, which we see everywhere, including in the Church, means that if some people at the bottom of the ladder’s rungs are gently eased off their perch, we don’t see it or don’t mind quite as much, because we ourselves, and the core of family and friends around us that we love, are ok. This is not a long term solution. It’s short-termism born out of fear. We need each other. Each person is precious. Each life is valuable. At present it is undoubtedly the case that not everyone agrees with my last two statements. The battle is on, one heart and one mind at a time, to turn it around. At the moment, on the particular evening that I’m turning a series of tweets that I fired off at relative random into something a little more formed, I find myself concerned. What are we about, as people? What do we think is important?

I’m vulnerable. You’re vulnerable. We’re all vulnerable. We have just celebrated Christmas. Some of us still are celebrating Christmas. At Christmas, we as Christians mark the birth of a vulnerable baby (all babies are inherently vulnerable) ‘born to save the sons of earth, born to give us second birth’ as the Carol you’re now humming goes. God decided that each and every human life was of such value that it was worth taking the slightly madcap and undoubtedly a little bit dangerous step of becoming vulnerable in order to both fully identify with what it is to be human and also to show us that the way to true fullness of life is the way of sacrifice, of true self-giving. It’s not fashionable, it’s not cool, it doesn’t make sense to most people, but as long as it makes sense to enough of us, there’s a little bit of hope that things can be different, that they can be better. I don’t want things to return to normal. Normal wasn’t and isn’t good enough for me. I want to see life transformed, one heart and one mind at a time, so that we can truly say that we did our best to love one another, whether we think of ourselves as vulnerable or not. Wouldn’t that be nice?


On Pain

I can’t concentrate. I’ve not been able to concentrate for a good few weeks now. Every time I move, as well as sometimes when I don’t, several parts of my body hurt at once. Even lying down results in yelps of discomfort. Not fun.

A few months ago I pinned a joint in my shoulder from twisting around the wrong way. It was painful and expensive to ‘fix’. Now that the weather has turned damp and cold, the problem has come back. With it has come pretty constant back and core muscle spasms, shooting nerve pain up and down both of my legs, tight ankles, fairly fixed shoulders, neck pain, stomach spasms and nerve pain in my hips, along with ringing in my ears (a fun one, that) and increased shaking/tremors in my right hand and wrist. Secondary symptoms include grumpiness, irritability, even more tiredness than normal, feelings of weakness and failure as I’ve not been able to be the kind of person  I want to be or, through the evil fallacy of comparing myself to others think I need to be, and a greatly increased appreciation of the joys of Netflix.

If you’ve seen me recently, whether at work or socially, you probably don’t know much of this, even though I have moaned about my shoulder a lot. I’m good at keeping going. I have an over-developed sense of duty I inherited from members of my family. I have a fear of failure a mile long, or longer, which tells me that if I admit to any or all of this, someone somewhere will say that I’m not ‘enough’, that I can’t do my job, which has become somewhat tied in with my identity and so on. I’m a vicar. Christmas is coming. It’s a busy time. All vicars say they’re busy, all the time, but from mid-November onwards, it’s actually legitimately true. My diary is pretty full for the next few weeks.

I know a lot of people who live in similar situations day by day. It’s easy to get so self-absorbed that I can think I’m the only one who experiences this kind of thing. As it’s the International Day of Disabled People today I thought I’d write a nuanced reflection on what it’s like to live with pain.

It’s crap.

Having got the nuanced reflection out of the way, here are a few more thoughts.

I preach a lot about the perfect love of God casting out all fear. It came up yesterday as we were looking at Advent, a time of waiting and preparation for both remembering Jesus’s birth all those years ago and looking forward to the return he promised to make sometime in the future. Please, let it be soon. When we talk about things like fear, hope, trust and so on, it’s very easy for them to become glib, over-used statements, particularly in a society in which feeling pressurised for our faith is usually people daring to question us or call us out for some of the more blatant contradictions and hypocrisies which most people see very clearly in contemporary Christianity. It’s easy to be a Christian in the UK, or most of the Western World. It really is. Christianity was never designed as a project of societal governance. It really wasn’t. Christians are meant to serve, not be served. They are meant to trust and obey, not demand adherence. So, in this country, when the perfect love casts out fear, it means something quite different, I would imagine, to what it might mean to a Church family waiting for, expecting, pain, even death, for the simple reason of being known as a follower of Jesus. All things need to be held in perspective.

That said, here’s a fear I have as my body asserts itself: this pain won’t end before I die.

Here’s another one: how do I talk about joy and hope when I don’t really feel it myself?

Aging with my impairment scares me. It’s not been massive fun so far.

I’ve achieved a lot in my life. Disabled people do that. Loads of them. It’s not that noteworthy.

But it does feel like I’m fighting against a tide a lot of the time. The tide is mostly flowing in the sea of my own mind. I am very sensitive to any sense that people might view me as weaker, different. I hate disappointing people. Especially because of tiredness or impairment-related stuff. I hate it so much that I do it quite often. And so I hate that too. Whether anyone else disables me or not, I quite often disable myself. I think ‘you won’t be able to do that’, or ‘people like you don’t get to do things like that’. I really do. That’s part of my daily internal dialogue. I share it because however many ramps or lifts are put in to make the built environment more accessible, and I’m deeply appreciative of every single one, the biggest battle I face as someone who lives with pain and impairment is to change my own response to it, or allow God to change it for me. It’s been such a part of me and my life and experience that I don’t know what a ‘good’ response or attitude to it is anymore.

But I do know that it hurts. A lot more, recently.

On this International Day of Disabled People, I’m thinking of and praying for all those who aren’t able to moan about their experiences on the internet. All those who aren’t able to articulate requests for understanding, for opportunity. And I’m thankful to a God who considers disablement to be an abomination. A much greater abomination than some of the other things Christians shout about as abominations, of that I am certain. God does not disable people, so why do I, why do you? Why does your Church? Your denomination? Your workplace? If you see it, call it out, root it out, kill it at source.

A time is coming when there’ll be no more pain, no more fear, no more death, no more tears. It really is. It can’t come soon enough. While we wait for it to come, let’s bring closer the time when there is no more disability, no more discrimination. Let’s start with ourselves and choose not to disable or discriminate. And then let’s talk to the people we love, the organisations we work with and for, everyone we possibly can, to make it clear that although pain is a reality of life, there’s no need for it to by feeling like admitting to being in pain is a weakness that dare not speak its name.

I might get into trouble for this.


Things You Learn Lying On the Bathroom Floor

This blog is also forming the basis of a piece I’ve been asked to write for this weekend’s event at the Vatican, Living Fully 2016. This looks like being a fantastic event. I’m sad not to be attending, but very happy to be able to offer this contribution to the discussion and debate. 

Things You Learn Lying On the Bathroom Floor

Recently, I was enormously privileged to be asked to both preach and act as a co-best man for two dear friends of mine, Matt and Ruth. This happy event took place towards the end of a period of seemingly frenzied activity in the life of the Churches in which I am Assistant Curate, The Emmanuel Group in Northampton. I was nervous before I spoke. There’s so much that one wants to say in a wedding address, particularly for close friends. Fortunately, I managed to strike the balance between providing a warm up for the best man’s speech later that evening and speaking words of love, truth and blessing to Matt and Ruth from God as they began their married life together.

Prior to that day, the week had contained several other events which had been noteworthy. A couple of apparently serious incidents involving people in the life of our Church community provided both opportunities for exercising ministry and opportunities to take on more worry and tension than I perhaps should have done. In the same week, I found myself praying for the new Mayor of Northampton, Cllr Christopher Malpas, as he began his term of office by inviting me to be his chaplain. I can tell you that these events are not normal in the course of my life and work. What is normal? And why might I begin a piece about disability, fear and leadership by talking about things which to other ministers might seem fairly normal, even mundane?

Let’s return to Saturday night. It’s around 10pm, the wedding is starting to wind down and I’m laughing at another joke from a friend I see far from often enough. And then it happens. I feel a tightness around my core, the muscle group that stretches around the middle of my body. I know what’s coming. Fortunately,  I manage to attract my wife’s attention before I am unable to speak, and she propels me along to the bathroom, which is mercifully vacant. As the door closes, wave upon wave of spasm hits me and I am doubled over in agony. I can’t breathe. I can’t speak, except in groans and to say the most important word I can think of at that moment: ‘sorry’. I’m sorry to my wife that she has to see this, to deal with it. I’m sorry that I nearly had an ‘episode’ in a very public place. I’m sorry that my body is out of control. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

In short order, I’m lying flat on the bathroom floor and, in the cold light of day a few days later, I’m not ashamed to say that I am whimpering. I am scared. What if it doesn’t stop? It did last time, a year and a half ago, when an over-busy Christmas period ended with me on my parent’s lounge floor putting a dampener on the beginning of our Christmas celebrations. It did immediately after I arrived home from playing a show with my band (in a former life!) in Trafalgar Square to (I’m told) 10,000 people, but what if it doesn’t this time?

Fortunately, it did pass. I was able to re-enter the fray of the wedding before too long and have spent most of this last week recovering my equilibrium. But there were a few moments lying there on that bathroom floor, and I say this advisedly and without seeking to overly dramatise the event, where my life, and my immediate future, flashed before my eyes.

During those moments, convinced that my body was letting me down, I decided that there was no way I would be able to undertake in future the functions of the priestly role. What use would I be to people if, when under a modicum of stress, my body decides to stop allowing me to work?  From there I find myself in a cycle of reflection. What is the priesthood about? Does it require bodies and minds to be of a suitable consistent standard to be acceptable to God and deemed as priestly? Leviticus 21, particularly vv16-c20 has the potential in thought processes such as these to be a source of terror and a weapon of tyranny.

The Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles.

This passage, taken in context, is about ritual purity or impurity. However, for me, at times when my sense of worth has been challenged, it has the power to rear its head as a judge and jury: I am not enough. I couldn’t be. My body does not measure up and because my body doesn’t, neither does the rest of me. You might read this and feel like my exegesis is off (it probably is) and that I’m being overly-dramatic (I very well may be) but feelings and deeply-internalised thoughts can be heavily consequential and hard to shift or shake off.

A combination of the glorious fulfilment of the law by Jesus and the belated flourishing of institutional common sense has made it possible for a slightly more representative selection of the Body of Christ to be considered suitable for ordination and leadership in his Church. I found it instructive, however, that it was in the moment and aftermath of reduced functionality that my sense of priestly identity, something which I think I know can only be imbued by God, was challenged, by me, in my own head. Have I, have we, in rightly emphasising the importance of honouring God in calling, training, equipping and sending leaders, misplaced our sense of balance? I would argue I certainly have, perhaps you have too.

We all know that the weaker (in whichever sense we are denoting weakness, certainly impairment does not equate to weakness in all cases) parts of the body are to be given the greatest honour. We know, too, that the greatest, and arguably most powerful acts of Jesus came in his weakest moments. In submitting to suffering, in emptying himself of all but instead of imposing his will and his way on all people, so that those very same people could have eternal life, life to the full, access to the grace and peace of God. Our God was not in human terms physically, mentally or emotionally, at his strongest when he was at his most efficacious.

And yet, as I writhed on the floor in agony, it was my ability to prove myself effective in the future, immediate and long term, as a minister that I most worried about. To put it bluntly, if this situation didn’t improve, or change, I wouldn’t be able to do my job. Rightly or wrongly, probably wrongly, this was my instinctive reaction, one that I had to fight against in the moments of uncertainty that followed for me in the proceeding days. I don’t believe that anything or anyone but God can give a person what is necessary for them to be a priest. Neither could anyone but God truly revoke that calling and identifying. 

The diocese in which I live and minister, Peterborough Diocese in the Church of England, has been fantastic for me as I explored a calling to ministry, had that calling affirmed, trained and now am completing the second year of my curacy. At most stages along the way, my impairment has been a ‘live’ issue. Both the diocese and I have had to work together on finding approaches to life and ministry that are appropriate and effective for me. I want to say here that I greatly appreciate the care, support and incisive challenges that have been given to me by my Bishops, my Archdeacon and other senior staff in the Diocese and wish to honour that. I had, and have, at least as much to learn about the ways in which I can live as a priest as ‘the Diocese’ in this regard. Similarly, my Training Incumbent, Margaret Johnson, truly has enabled me to flourish during the two years I have worked with her. I am incredibly grateful for that. These might seem like unnecessary things to say in a piece like this, but I think they’re important. Many people and institutions have collaborated to ensure that I have become able to live and work out the calling that God gave me. I know other people with impairments and disabilities have had good experiences in this regard, whilst for others similar processes have been hugely painful. There is, though, hope.

Our Churches benefit hugely from being ministered to by people who run the full gamut of the wondrous glory of God’s creation. Some of these ministers will be all-action, placed in physically and emotionally demanding situations and circumstances. Some will be able to offer less physically. Still others will offer a level of academic rigour in their dealings with Scripture and theology that will be far and above that offered by other ministers. There is not a minister of the gospel who does not, in offering to serve God and his people, find themselves in the position of needing to sacrifice, to suffer for the outworking of their calling, whichever element of themselves, their lives, or the lives of those they love might be squeezed for the sake of the Church. Ministry, like the Christian life, looks subtly different each time it is gifted by God to a person. Therefore, there is not one ‘successful’ approach to Christian ministry, there are, in effect, as many as there are ministers. Some need to be catalysts, some pragmatists, some spend more time listening, some tearing down the walls of unjust structures, physically. What do all have in common? They shine the light of Christ into the world, as sacramental presences, drawing communities of worship and praise around the divine, communities that are then sent out to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God. An effective ministry is not a busy ministry per se. As Eugene Peterson (who always says things that I wish I’d thought of first) says, the busy pastor is the lazy pastor. A good point for reflection, that.

An effective ministry is one that points people to Jesus and his glory. People with impairments and disabilities, temporary and permanent, have at least as much to offer in this as those unfortunate enough to think that they are in no way impaired. Indeed, I, as an impaired person, have a crucial role to play in this. Without us, the ministry of the Church is limited, deficient. With us it is more fully equipped to minister to the world in all its breadth. Those of us involved in this event know this. Pointing out to the Christian world and the world at large that fullness of life, abundance, grace and mercy, as well as brokenness and blessing can come in many shapes and forms is an urgent prophetic mandate in our day. If that means that the functional demands made of priests and ministers have to change or be more readily flexible in some instances, as time goes on, a wider and wider spectrum of the Church is, happily, coming to this realisation too. then so be it.

God identifies us as his children, reconciled to himself in and through Jesus. that word will not be unspoken. I wonder how many people God calls to ordination for whom his word of affirmation and invitation is never heard because our expectations and requirements do not permit it. For the Church holy, catholic and apostolic truly to be living fully, we have to continually be open to expecting the unexpected from God, for him to breathe life where there were only dry bones, for the wind of the Spirit to blow in unforeseen, unlikely places. On that bathroom floor, it felt once more, and all the more, unlikely that I had what it takes to be a leader in Christ’s Church. Yet here I am, when I am in pain and when I am not; when everything is working and when it is not, privileged and blessed to be such a leader, learning and growing all the time. I pray that we would be open across the breadth of the Church, to affirming the calling to Church leadership of more people who may look at first glance like unlikely ministers, but on whom the Spirit rests. Then we may, writhing on the bathroom floor in weakness, or rejoicing in the strength that only the joy of the Lord can bring (or whatever the opposite of writhing on a bathroom floor is), truly be living fully.




#fullaccesschurch – An Impossible Dream?

This past week, Disability and Jesus lead David Lucas declared a day of social media action with regard to disability and access to Church. It seems to have been an extremely fruitful and wide-reaching demonstration of unity and desire for change amongst those with an interest in disability and Church, along with a much-needed poke to people at all levels of Church life to think about whether the Church of which they are part is a provider or denier of access. Even General Synod got in on the act tweeting its support for the campaign. One can only hope this is followed by action. If you want to learn more about what was said, the stories that were told on the day, the conversations that sprung up, and some of the hopes that there are for what is to come, you can follow the hashtag for the day here. Much was achieved in a short space of time. Much more may be to come.

Naomi Jacobs has written an incisive and constructive response to the day here. I’d encourage you to read it.

Over the last few months, as I’ve spent my first prolonged period in full-time Christian ministry, one of the key areas that I’ve found myself struggling with is that of authority and control. As a Church of England (Assistant) Curate, there are some people that would defer to me in a lot of things. Thankfully not many of them are in my Church! Some people like to be under authority, they like to know where they are. They like boundaries, a sense of what is right and wrong, what or who is allowed in, and who should be kept out. Some people are, naturally, quite the opposite, straining against any boundaries that you might set as a leader, and indeed questioning what right any leader might have to set those boundaries in the first place. I’ve written before on the question of who, and what kind of person, do we want to be led by. Another way of putting it is, who do we want to submit to? Some of us want to say that we submit to God, but I myself find that a daily, or several times daily, decision that I have to make. Others are happy to submit to authority exercised by government (Jesus seems to have told us to do this, but what does it look like in our lives and in our society?)

We want to accept that God has us in the palm of his hand, that nothing can take us from his hand because we have been given to Jesus, as today’s lectionary gospel reading tells us. To do this, we work towards accepting that we are part of a new family, we have been adopted in to God’s family. We were adopted not because we chose to be, because we satisfied some criteria of suitability, but because God desired it to be so. We are his. All of creation is reconciled to God in and through Jesus. We have been brought together. It has happened. We are no longer strangers to the arms of God, as an excellent recent Vineyard song puts it. We might feel like it. You might not even think that God exists (well done for reading this far if that’s your point of view). We have, though, been included in God, and in his family. We are invited to lives of full participation. Full participation in what God is bringing about. For some reason best known to himself, he wants to partner with us in bringing hope, joy and peace to the poor, the widow and the orphan, the dispossessed, the unjustly treated, those who treat unjustly (or, to put it another way, everyone). This is the holy improvisation that we are invited to. None of us know how to do “Church” well, and what is Church anyway? All we’re called to do is love God with as much as we can, love ourselves, and love our neighbours. If we do this, if we believe in Jesus, the one he has sent, then we are doing what we’re supposed to. Jesus said so.

And so, and here’s the kicker, it troubles me when all we seek is inclusion. For inclusion and exclusion to exist and be exercised, there has to be someone making the decision to include or exclude. Someone, somewhere, has to have been given, or taken for themselves, the power to decide who is in and who is out, what is acceptable and what isn’t. A lot of our society is built on premises like this. I’m not sure that God designed it that way. Perhaps it was designed that way. There’s every chance I’m wrong and I’m speaking out of turn, but is it enough to give “power”, “control” and “authority” to the Church to include or exclude according to theology, economic “realities”, buildings or anything else, when the actual possibility of hope is not just to be included in something I was previously excluded from, but to participate in the way of life all of creation was originally designed for? There’s not a person alive, or an institution in existence which is able to reverse God’s declaration of life, hope, and a future over the creation he has reconciled to himself. I can preach up a storm, theologise (entirely speculatively I might add, just as I’m doing here) until I’m blue in the face. I can lock a certain group out of my building or my community life (literally or figuratively). I can validate this with all the proof-texting, systematic theology and apparent tradition and reason in the world, but that does nothing to diminish the power of what God has said and what God has done. All are welcome, all are welcome. All have a part to play. There’s not a Christian in the world who doesn’t have a ministry of some kind. There’s not a person that God does not want to be part of his family.

To simply ask the Church for inclusion ascribes the Church with too much power, I suppose is my point. What actually needs to happen, in my view, is that all of us who lead Churches at any level need to humble ourselves. The Church is God’s. It is not ours to maintain. He is growing it. He is extending its borders. It’s not ours to include or exclude. It’s ours to acknowledge that all are “included”. No-one is in the kingdom of God to passively watch the show as it unfolds though. We are making the show, with God as our director. He’s calling us to improvise our parts after the pattern of what we see him doing. To limit the scope of the Church to that of an ever-expanding club is to miss the point entirely. God is far ahead of us, preparing a place for all of us. Do we really want the Church to contain and belong to all of us? Or just some of us?

#fullaccesschurch already exists? Do we want it to or will we continue to think we have the power and the authority to pretend it doesn’t? Is it an impossible dream or a reality that we deny at our peril?


“Get the Ball”

In something of a departure for me on this website, today I’m going to write about football (or soccer, the real football, without all the padding and protection, for my American friends). If you don’t like football, but usually like reading what I have to say, then I feel like perhaps I should apologise, but please do read on and give me the benefit of the doubt.

For those of you that haven’t navigated away or moved on to that all important next email, here goes.

I’m 30 years old now. For all bar the first 6 years of my life I have been an avid watcher of Northampton Town Football Club. For all bar about 3 years (1996, 1997, 2006 and 2008, see I can name them) they have been uniformly dreadful. It’s what comes of being a League 2 (fourth division in old money) club. You don’t expect much as a fan. You hope for more, but you don’t expect much. Football is meant to be fun, it is meant to be something of an escape, it’s meant to provide hope and possibility in the midst of (mostly) humdrum existences. I used to think it mattered more than that. I used to seethe inwardly every time my team lost (often) and rise above cloud nine on the rare occasions a resounding success was recorded. In any of the four years I’ve mentioned above, you would regularly have found me in ecstasies of joy, hope and possibility, extolling the virtues of, variously, John Gayle, John Frain, Chris Freestone. Andy Woodman, Razor, Sammo, Bayo, Martin Smith, Mark Bunn, Luke Chambers, Bradley Johnson, the list goes on and on. I could tell you why each of these people, in turn, and sometimes at the same time, were the closest representations of God on Earth at that given time. I could explain why we would win, must win, would surely win. These players and the teams they were a part of gave me so much joy.

Several other years have found me deriding incompetence of an almost epic nature in several other players. It would be unfair to name them, but I always find it interesting that the majority of players who leave Northampton Town do not go on to feature heavily for any other league club. The club is what it is, somewhere between 65th and 92nd every year in the ever-altering league table of quality. It won’t ever be a Premier League club. It probably won’t ever be a Championship club either (it’s the hope that kills you). It might well cease to be a Football League club one day, but there’s as much chance, at least, that it won’t. Suffice to say, mediocrity is often a kind description of what is on offer at Sixfields.

Over the last year or two, though, I have fallen out of love with Northampton Town, and football in general. There are several reasons for this. One, I think, is being 30 now, and married, having a house and a job, and realising that most of the people I support week by week are just like me, leaving young adulthood for being “grown-ups” and that they are being paid more than I ever will to “entertain” me. Except it’s rarely entertaining, so basically they’re like magicians who can’t make a rabbit appear out of a hat, even though they were paid to put it there themselves in the first place. Another reason is that football, to me at least, has seemed increasingly joyless. This follows from the first one. A lot of players don’t even look like they enjoy playing. I don’t need badge-kissing, shirt waving, or even effort (which I would have thought a pre-requisite anyway) but I would like to see that people are enjoying what they’re doing. Northampton’s players rarely enjoy what they’re doing. This might be because they aren’t very good. It might also be because those charged with managing them appear much more keen to point out mistakes and incorrect decisions than they do to applaud success. Recently I’ve had the “pleasure” of sitting just down the touchline from the home bench. The single most common utterance emanating from said bench is “get the ball”. I kid you not. Sometimes, players are told to “get up him” (the mind boggles). At others there are hand signals, which I can tell you are summarily ignored by those they are designed for. I watch. There are players who, when told to go forwards, go backwards. There are players who, when told to “tuck in” (sartorial elegance obviously being crucial – I know that’s not what it means I’m being pithy, alright) most definitely do the opposite. There are many occasions in every match where abuse of the most vile kind is routinely hurled at a player for making a simple error. Mostly though, “get the ball” rings out from our bench, like an increasingly desperate mantra. On this basis, I think I could be a football manager. I would have thought most players, finding themselves without the ball, are quite aware of the need to “get it” as soon as possible, but perhaps not. Perhaps this helps. I must remember this if I ever get a job interview as a football manager. Similarly, “do it”, applied to a player in possession of the ball, seeking an option, often forwards, can be heard equally regularly. Now, far be it from me to know what they have been told to do during the week, but whatever “it” is, it seems that often, the players have forgotten, or decide to think for themselves. This is not allowed. Thus we find ourselves back at the beginning of the cycle, either leading inevitably to abuse, or advice to “get the ball”.

When I was young, before it became patently obvious to me that being a footballer was not going to be a possibility for me, I aspired to be one. To be one seemed to be to embody hope, possibility. A whole town, even a rugby loving town like Northampton, would be behind you on a Saturday. You had the potential to make people, a lot of people, very happy indeed, whilst also having the enormous privilege of doing not much more than keeping fit and kicking a ball around every week. Now though, football matters too much. It is too serious. it causes too much angst, anger, worry. No-one should play or watch football with fear. What’s the point of that? When a team, or a player, needs to be told to “get the ball”, what’s it all come to? More to the point, when someone can be paid an (at least) reasonable sum of money to professionally advise this course of action, where are we?

Of course I hope that Northampton win more games than they lose (they better). Of course I will be there cheering them on and hoping for a better future for them. Of course, we all know that football is only a game. Don’ we?


Can You Be Disabled and Be a Man? (Sorted Article)

Can you be disabled and be a man?


It’s the kind of question that probably brings out an immediate “yes” from you, dear reader. Perhaps even a “why are you even asking that question?” Perhaps you’re reading to see if I’m about to be incredibly crass, even offensive. Perhaps you’re about to turn the page (no, wait, come back, it’ll get good in a sec). While the immediate answer to the question might be straightforward, sadly, as we’ll see here, some of us actually live, and think, like the answer is a lot more complicated.


17% of the population of the UK, according to the 2011 census, had a disability (as disability is defined by the government). 16% of the population of the UK, according to the same census, were under the age of 15. Stop and think about that for a moment. There are more people in this country who are disabled than there are children. Judging by the amount of children there seem to be in the country that means there must be a lot of disabled people around somewhere.


According to a recent survey from SCOPE, 43% of people said they didn’t know any disabled people (seriously, how is that possible?), whilst two-thirds of those surveyed said that they felt uncomfortable talking to a disabled person. As a disabled person myself, I can vouch for at least one of us (me) being a little odd, but seriously, what is that about?


As a Church of England minister (with attendant white plastic dog collar), a wheelchair user, a man with an increasingly impressive (and manly, so my wife says) beard and a penchant for wearing purple trousers, I have a fair number of experiences of people staring at me in the street. I, of course, prefer to think that they stare at my because of my film star good looks and suave, debonair charm, but I fear it might be something else. Thinking about it, perhaps it’s no wonder that 66% of people might be uncomfortable talking to me. I remember one particular occasion when a young gentleman stared at me again and again as he walked away from me up the high street, incredulous at the wonder of my beard (I assume) until he walked in to a lamppost. I may have chortled. I remember another in WHSmith (that bastion of propriety) where I was calmly going about my business and a guy came up to me and said, apropos of nothing “I f*****g hate disabled people” before getting in the lift and disappearing. I was a bit baffled by that one, but at least he made his point succinctly, and he thought I was a person.


As entertaining as these experiences, and others like them can be, though, I have a growing sense that fear, and a sense that I am somehow “less-than” as a disabled person, are coming, or returning, into play in our society. In most times in history, the clearest way of seeing how a society is doing is to look at how much compassion it shows, in general and to those considered to be its weakest members in particular. I don’t personally think, necessarily that impairment = weakness. Far from it. It’s pretty clear to me that in the way God created the world, at the very least the possibility of impairment was present. Nowhere are we told that people’s bodies and minds would not be different from one another. Nowhere are we told that we would all go through life like some cross between Jesus, Arnold Schwarzanegger and George Clooney, the perfect specimens of humanity in every conceivable way. Christians have no problem, it seems to me, holding up Jesus as the ultimate example of what it is to be a man, but he was nothing special to look at (the Bible, Jesus’s best PR, tells us so itself), was quite prone to losing his temper, said the wrong thing all the time, and most of all, achieved his greatest success and victory by becoming impaired to the fullest extent possible, before defeating death in the resurrection, but maintaining his scars. Jesus’s “blemishes” were part of who he was as he showed that he was who He Was.


So, we have a problem. As a bloke, I feel like I’m constantly being told that I have to prove that I’m worth it. Whether that’s through “contributing to society”, through how much money I earn and how nice my house is, whether I’m a net drain on the state because I take too much money in benefits as opposed to the amount of tax I pay, whether it’s the money paid on drugs and medical treatment to keep me going from one day to the next could perhaps be better spent on someone closer to the Clooney Utopian Model of Man, my sense of self is constantly under pressure. You might think I’m being silly, or facetious, but look at the questions asked about benefits and welfare in Britain (and other parts of the world at the moment). They all, in the end, come down to what we think a human life is worth. There’s a danger that we’re moving the goalposts, so that less people who are actually men, can be considered such. As soon as we stop viewing each other as equals, beloved of a Creator (a foundational aspect of creation) and view each other in terms of a hierarchy, we are in trouble. And the thing is, as a man, I feel that’s one of the things I’m constantly challenged to do. I’m to measure myself, and my success, against others. It’s competition that I’m engaged in, survival of the fittest. If I’m not seeking more money, promotion, more security, more happiness, more recognition, then somehow I’m not doing life properly. I’m letting myself down, and I should get out of the way and let someone who really has the hang of this capitalism thing achieve all the success they deserve, because they work bloody hard.


We have a tendency, I believe, to socially disable others in our society. Social disablement is the constructing of society in such a way that others are excluded and unable to take part. This happens all over the place. Whether it be trying to get into buildings, onto the Tube without feeling like death from having my face in someone’s BO-filled armpit is just around the corner (alright, this happens to everyone), finding it harder to get work (it is demonstrably harder to gain employment as a disabled person), build relationships, form community, or whatever it is, we live in a society where we like to keep each other in our places, where the only way that we can be “socially mobile” is if we deserve it. Do you deserve to be upwardly mobile? Do I? Who gets to decide that?


This is all fine until things stop working. We slow down. Bits start to sag, fall off, fall out, or stop to stand to attention. What makes a real man then? Does what a man is change when you get older, when you gain more experience, when you become senile, when you’re round the corner from death? In our culture it’s easy to think it does. It’s easy for us who might be in the prime of life to value ourselves more highly than those whose function, or intelligence, or productivity is lower than ours, but what happens when we become one of those people who functions less well, is less productive, needs to be looked after more than we can look after others? By some people’s logic there’d come a time when none of us are valid humans any more and we should all be gently assisted off this mortal coil. It is actually a fear of mine, hidden away deep down somewhere, that this might happen to me someday.


If what a man is, is down to how much power or authority we have, how much autonomy we exercise over our lives, then all is lost. Jesus lost everything to save everyone. We have to learn how to have less, to be less powerful, how to need to be less in control, so that we can understand that impairment, loss and decay are important parts of life. 95% of us will spend some time in a wheelchair at some point in our lives. It’s alright, it’s quite good fun. Have you seen some of those Wheelchair Rugby players? And anyway, if you could sit down all day, why would you walk around? I’ve never understood that.


To me, what it is to be a man is to be who you are, when people are watching and when they’re not. It’s not about how strong or weak you are. It’s not about what you do on your best day, or even on your worst. It’s about the spark of the divine that is within each one of us, recognizing and responding to it as far as we are able, and learning contentment. Ideally we’d learn to live together, like and love ourselves, love others and, at a push, love God too. If we’re going to do that, then elevating ourselves over and above other people has no place in our lives, our communities or our societies. And even if we were going to view ourselves, or someone else, as better or worse, it certainly cannot be on the basis of physical, mental or emotional ability or lack of ability. To view ourselves and others like that is to step on to a slippery slope which allows us to dismiss or eradicate those we don’t deem necessary, as I said. This is a chilling thought.


I have a hope that things can be better than this. I have a hope that we will learn to accept ourselves and others and stop fearing each other so much that we think it’s ok to practice injustice on one another as we disable one another. After all, we actually all need each other. Impairment and disability might well be coming to all of us at some stage. Ultimately, though, my hope rests in the idea that the God who impaired Himself to the largest extent possible for us all, also achieved ultimate victory, so that our broken senses of self and perspectives on life, love, hope and freedom could be fixed and renewed. There will come a time when we will no longer disable each other, whether we are impaired or not. Maybe I’ll be able to walk in heaven. Maybe I’ll have a gold-plated wheelchair. Maybe it doesn’t matter in the slightest. What does matter is that I’ll be who I was always meant to be, in the place I was always destined to be. So will all of us.


So can you be a man and be disabled? Of course you can. Should men be disabled? No they should not. We should not live and behave in ways which disable each other. Do we really believe that every living person is of equal value? Are we going to live like that is true? If we do and we are, then we can make it one of our goals to accept that sometimes we will be weaker than we want to be. Sometimes we will have impairments that we don’t want to have, but we can also make a promise to ourselves and others to not devalue or disable someone on the basis of what they can or can’t do. Jesus doesn’t do it. Neither should we. Jesus lived a life of radical love, generosity and self-sacrifice. Let’s do the same and follow his example.


Thanks to Mat Ray at Livability for the statistics






Greenbelt Talk 2014

On August 25th 2014 I had the privilege of sharing a platform with Mat Ray from the charity Livability as we talked on the topic Disability: Are We Talking About It Enough? – a talk aimed at people of faith and their Churches. As the talk wasn’t recorded (sorry, no idea why) I thought I would put my notes here so that anyone who wants to remind themselves of anything I said, or anyone who might be interested, but who wasn’t there, might be able to see where my part of the hour went. So, here it is, please enjoy!


Good afternoon. It is a real pleasure and privilege to be able to spend a few minutes with you this afternoon. If you’ve been listening so far you will have picked up that Mat and I do not think there at the present time the church is making the most of the opportunity that it has to change the tone of the conversation regarding disability in our society.


I do not seek more power or influence for the church in the conversation merely so that people might be made to conform to our way of thinking, after all it’s not as if we all agree on what we think anyway, rather, I seek more influence for the church in this conversation because I believe that the church has something distinctive and unique to offer within it.


Whereas throughout society disability is almost uniformly seen as a negative thing which needs to be eradicated as far as possible and where it cannot be eradicated ignored, the church instead has a different message. We have a God who allowed himself to become disabled to the fullest extent of any human person in all of history in order that salvation might be made available to all and that none might be excluded from the offer of his love and participation in the coming of his kingdom. We have faith in which weakness is celebrated rather than something to be avoided and God whose power is made perfect in our weakness. The Christian Scriptures tell us that the body of Christ, the church, being as it is made up of many parts, is only complete when its weakest members are given the greatest honour. Is this the kind of society in which we live today? Are those who are weakest, whether they be impaired or not, given honour, and deemed not just necessary but crucial in the enterprise of societies to succeed to the fullest extent possible? I don’t think they are. I think we live in a society in which many people would prefer that they were not faced with disabled people or the prospect of disability. Only this week, Richard Dawkins made his reprehensible remarks about the moral duty incumbent on us all to ensure that foetuses which have the possibility of Down’s syndrome should be aborted. While of course this is an extreme view and one which I expect Prof Dawkins wished to express in a more nuanced fashion, I think we in the church are faced with a growing clamour in society to understand why disability should be tolerated. This has far-reaching consequences, not least in the areas of medical ethics in terms of abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia. What a society does not deem valuable it can eradicate with an increasingly clearer conscience.


Now, a couple of caveats. I do not in fact think that, if you are impaired, you are necessarily weaker. Far from it. I hope that some of the Scriptures I’ve already mentioned also indicate that God doesn’t hold that view either. Impairment of God led to salvation for all. Impairment, or the possibility of impairment was present in the original creation. The world God made was very good, good enough for Him, and within it, the possibility of difference, of differing abilities and strengths and weaknesses was built-in. Impairment, development, loss, change, ageing, these were all parts of the original creation. What was not is any hierarchy other than God first, man second, and most certainly what was not present is social disablement. For those who don’t know, social disablement is what happens when I am disabled or disempowered or disallowed from being or doing something in a society because there are barriers erected to stop me doing so. For example, not being able to enter a building, because there are steps, not being able to use a bathroom in a place, because you can’t get a wheelchair in, being denied a job on the grounds of disability, being denied access to salvation, or having my ability or suitability to receive the gifts of God in salvation on the basis of an impairment. These kinds of things have no place in the kingdom of God.
We all need the life, love, hope, peace, joy and freedom offered to us by Jesus Christ. All of us, whether we claim to understand anything about Him and who He is and what He did or not. Jesus lived, died, rose again and ascended once, for all, for us. We don’t have to understand it, it’s probably best we all stop claiming that we do, but we are adopted in to the family of God, heirs to the promise of the spirit of peace. Jesus has done it, it is won, it is for us, so that we can be for Him.


If, in the original creation, all are created equal (let’s just accept that they are), what goes wrong? It’d be easy to just say sin in a serious tone of voice and move on, but it’s deeper than that. Because we choose not to live the way we were designed to, we don’t know how to relate to god, or one another, or ourselves. We’re a mess basically. In trying to put things back together, we fall into fear, selfishness, grabbing for power and authority wherever we can get it. Autonomy is the order of the day. Choice, freedom, which is really no kind of freedom at all. We decide what kind of society we want to be, who’s in, who’s out and how we’re going to include and exclude, on the basis of behavior, economic viability, whether we’re worth it.


Here’s the thing. God already did that in creation. Jesus already did that in the cross. Everyone has the opportunity to be in. It is sacrilegious for us to exclude anyone from the offer of the kingdom of God. Otherwise, how would any of us expect to get in?


Is it about understanding? No. Is it about physical or mental ability? No. Is Jesus all in the head? No. Can I save myself? No. Only Jesus can do all these things.


If we claim that impairment shouldn’t exist, and therefore exclude disabled people because they don’t conform to the kinds of standards we want for our “pure” Church, we are basically telling Jesus to bugger off. The cross can’t happen because it is an offence to our standards of purity. Instead, we need to know the difference between healing and cure. God heals people all through scripture, and today. Ultimate healing, for all, is coming to be the person that they were made to be by God, receiving salvation. Cure is what happens sometimes, either through the medical or the miraculous, when a condition or illness is taken away. We all need the former, that’s the big deal, but because we can’t control it, we sell GOD out by seeking the latter. There’s more to life than this.


God doesn’t include or exclude, he offers full participation to all, in his family, in the coming of His kingdom. It’s only when we live like this that our Churches will begin to live out the radical differences that they have the potential to offer a hurting society.


Most of us think we’re worthless: God made us all to be like Him and grow in to His likeness. Most of us will, at some point, become impaired in some ways, whether it’s physically, mentally or emotionally. This is unavoidable. It is part of life, part of Creation. It is to be embraced. Just as the three parts of the trinity coexist and codepend on each other, so we are to coexist and codepend on one another, as we seek to live to give glory to God. How can we do this if we are elevating ourselves over and above some of our brothers and sisters? How can that be?


Christianity is a future-facing faith. It’s not just for or about now. It’s about what is coming. From the beginning of His ministry Jesus proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom, and so, as well as having the best way to live that there is, now, we could usefully be aware that we have been set free for the purpose of spending eternity with God.


Lots of people ask me about whether I will still be disabled in heaven. Aside from the obvious answer (gold plated wheelchair) there’re a few problems with this question.

  1. We don’t know what heaven will be like, but assuming it is physical, do we really feel like it’ll be like something that we recognize? I struggle personally with the idea of spending eternity in something that looks anything like Northampton.
  2. Scripture tells us that “surely we will all be changed”. As far as I’m concerned, all means all, so if I was changed, I wouldn’t be the only one. It might well be that I’ll be able to walk in heaven, but, honestly, so what? It’s not about me, it’s about God. I spend so much of my life thinking only about me, it’s a scandal.

I realize of course other people think very deeply indeed about wanting to be rid of an ailment, or healed of a memory and so on in the age to come. I don’t want or mean in any way to diminish your desires. Far from it. I believe God loves us enough, more than we could possibly ask or imagine, to deal with us individually, on a case by case basis. What a revolutionary thought. I don’t think God will be constrained by having to treat us all the same. His boundless, matchless love for us is His to offer, not ours to limit.


What I do know is this, whether there is impairment in heaven or not, there will be no disablement. We will, all, finally be free of the burden of not knowing how to relate to one another, not knowing how to love. We will be eternally in the presence of love, grace and mercy. For me, personally, I have a sneaking suspicion that whether or not I can walk will pale in to insignificance next to the possibility of being finally free. That might be a cop out, but in the end, no-one really knows what is to come. We just know that it’s good, better than what we have now, and probably won’t look much like Northampton.




Enabling Church – My Talk

For those who didn’t make it to the recent Enabling Church Conference, the text that my talk started from (!) is below. Thanks to lots of you for encouraging emails and conversations since the conference. I really did appreciate all the feedback i received, and not just because all of it was very nice! So without further ado, here’s the text of my talk. Thanks for reading. I hope that there will be audio for it appearing somewhere soon, at which point I will put that up here too.



Good afternoon. It’s a huge privilege to be speaking to you this afternoon, on the subject of disability, God, identity and the Church. I have 12 minutes, so we’ll have no problems getting through the whole of the subject, ok? First, just a little bit about me:

I’m Haydon, just pushing 30, recently married to the wonderful Jo, just moved house, just about to get ordained as a deacon in the Church of England.

This should indicate to you that if anyone here has trouble understanding who they are at the moment, it’s probably me.

Now, you probably know that around 10% of the UK population can be classed as “disabled” in some way. I’ve always found it interesting that this proportion is not, broadly speaking, represented in our Church congregations and leadership structures, notwithstanding the need for aptitude, the call to vocation from God and an awful lot of formation.

I find it hard to understand why our Churches are not, usually, the one part of an increasingly disparate society that are reflecting the true diversity and welcome of the kingdom of God. We have a mission opportunity and imperative not just to anticipate that people with diverse abilities and impairments will come to us in Churches, but to throw open our doors. The people that our society is increasingly in the practice of rejecting and casting aside should find a home with us. After all, this is what God does. Look at the ragtag bunch of followers Jesus co-opted. Look at the number of depressed and anxious people who are the key characters in the Old and New Testament Scriptures. As an aside I’d hazard a guess that there’s hardly a key Biblical character that would pass a modern psychiatric wellbeing assessment. How many of them would be welcome in our Churches? Would we be up for a prophet lying naked on one side for a year and then turning over on to the other side and doing the same thing? Not sure that would pass a risk assessment…

Anyway, I digress and in 12 minutes that’s a dangerous thing to do. Given that welfare reform and the tide of media-driven public opinion is turning against disabled people, what do we as Christian individuals and communities have to offer as an alternative? I think it boils down to how we know who we are

We know who we are because of who God is. There’s a danger of us building God in our own image. We want God to identify with our weakness in the disabled God, we want God to Heal, we want God to be wise, strong, powerful, victorious, we want a Father, a Mother, a friend a brother, and it changes depending on who we are and what day it is. This is natural, human nature I think, but the truth of it is so much more exciting than that. We are made by a creator God, for Him. We are his pleasure, his delight. In ways that we can never properly understand, every single person who has ever lived and who has ever lived has the spark of the divine within them. The potential and the promise that they are divinely cherished, offered joy, peace, patience and hope now, and in the age to come is there from the start

Jesus Christ is who He said He was, and did what he said he would do
Even though it is very much about the here and now, our faith is about the future too. We have a future, beyond-time hope, as well as a hope for today. It’s hard to remember often when we’re faced with pain, brokenness, injustice and so on, and when we cause those things ourselves so much, but the truth is that God is calling His Church to know who they are by knowing, as far as it can, who He is. As Hans Reinders has so ably demonstrated, it is not simply about how much we “know”, it is about how each and every person, whether they know it or not, speaks something into the world of the divine and points to a future hope in which “surely we will all be changed”.

I don’t think it’s clear cut as to whether impairments will remain in heaven. I have a sneaking suspicion that God might deal with us, in His grace, on a case by case basis, according to our needs and desires. What is clear is that social disablement, exclusion from community and relationship and the denial of ability to participate in the life, love and work of God will not be part of the new creation. Social disablement of this type has no place in the Kingdom of God. As we live out what it is to follow Jesus now, today, social disablement should have no place in our lives, our Churches.

All that said, the Church is God’s not ours. It is not ours to include and exclude people, it is ours to participate together in the privilege of seeing the kingdom come. Churches with disabled people in them are stronger, not weaker, more reflective of the body of Christ. Minister with disabled people, live with disabled people. It’s not for us to decide who gets in. God already did that by dying once for all and rising once for all that all might be offered eternal life. If you pray for healing, pray for healing in Jesus’ name by leading them to the well of living water that leads to life, don’t just fob them off with attempts to cure, unless God specifically calls you to that in that moment.

What kind of God are we introducing and living out to people? Is it the God who will fix them, normalise them, make them like us, or is it something closer to the actual God, one who calls for His creation to flourish and reflect His glory, to acknowledge Him in all our ways and to accept his gracious mercy and forgiveness when we fall short? This is a challenge for me too as I sit before you. It’d be great to have pithy answers, to be able to talk about problems with identity and disability and tell you how to minister to yourselves and one another to make those issues a thing of the past, but I can’t. I fail at knowing who I am all the time. I don’t want to be known as a disabled person, or a depressed person, I am known only in the light of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, and his gift of the Spirit to be with us until his return.

How are we who we are? We are who we are through the unchanging God of creation, redemption, reconciliation, whose promise is sure and whose hope is certain. I have a hope that our Churches will lead the way in society in the coming years in showing that what the world considers weak and not needed, the economy of the kingdom considers a strength and entirely necessary. Let’s participate in the coming of the kingdom together.


Disability and Leadership – Some Tentative Thoughts

At the recent Enabling Church Conference, I was asked if I had any thoughts or recommendations regarding the issue of disability and leadership. From my understanding the question was posed both in terms of being about how best to encourage disabled people to best participate to the fullness of their potential in Church leadership as they are called and equipped, and also regarding how a leader who might be considered “abled” might go about leading those who are disabled within their faith community.

I don’t have a straightforward easy answer, and I haven’t seen much in the literature on disability and Church/theology regarding this issue.  It is approached in Tony Phelps-Jones’s excellent book, “Making Church Accessible to All” ( a good starting point of thinking about varius aspects of working with and for disabled people in Church life), in which he and others strongly contend for an honest seeking of true, every-member, ministry. This is ministry where the gifts and callings of each person (for of course, first every person must be seen as exactly that, a person, beloved and cherished of God and whom we too are called to love) are encouraged to flourish. It might seem that the ministry of people who are weaker, or less able can only be managed, or facilitated by those who are more able, but in fact this would raise a key question for me: on whose terms is ministry in Church, and participation in Church life, being undertaken? If it is on our terms then the first issue that we have to address, I would suggest, is whether thsoe terms themselves need to change, whether our vision of what it is to be a part of the body of Christ, a leader in it to whatever extent, is too small.

If you want to encourage every-member ministry, I think it should be feasible to make it happen, on the provisio that:

  • You have good relationships with those who you are leading and they are keen to be led by you, or by your team
  • Out of those good relationships, you are able to discern, with each other and with God, what that person is called to be and to do. This might require some humility all round. It might require the leader or leadership team to let go of an aspect of community life, so that someone else is able to flourish. As James Lawrence suggests in “Growing Leaders”, we are all leaders, because we lead our own lives, if nothing else, and most of us actually lead more than jsut our own lives if we stop and think. It semes to be human nature to make things hierarchical and to submit to authority. Even people who say they don’t submit are instinctively aware of where power and influence lie and react against it.
  • The last key aspect of  this part of things, I would contend, is to have a wide enough vision of what a person offers. Many people who don’t have the ability to communicate, or have the potential for self-awareness, or self-determination are able to lead people into the very throne room of God, simply through even a smile or a joyful glance. If only we’d let them. As we live in, to coin John Swinton’s phrase, “a hyper-cognitive age” so I think we run the risk of rendring the whole concept of Christian community and life together a pipedream by living as if only certain people, or types of people, are capable of offering us anything which speaks of God. In practice, this might prove difficult, as we are built to expect Church and Church life to look, sound and feel a particular way. But what if God, in forcing us to embrace the diversity of the hear and now, the joys, sorrows, hopes and dreams, suffering and everything else that we see before us, is actually challenging us as a body of Christ not just to be more inclusive and participatorily open, but to have our visions of who He is blown wide open.

If we are committed to every-member ministry, the flourishing of the ministry of disabled people will follow. Each person seen, as they are through the eyes of God, can be encouraged in the direction which best suits them, and the needs of the people. God did it with Moses, with Nicodemus, with Mephibosheth and others throughout Scripture and Church history. He can do it with us and the people that he has called us to lead. I say again, I don’t actually think it is an issue of , necessarily, building a programme, or a plan for the “integration” of disabled people into leadership, or such as this, as much as it is about being willing for God to challenge our views of what Church is, who He is, and what the purposes of our communities of faith are.

I realise this isn’t very practical. If you’re looking for practical stuff, here’re a few quick thoughts.

Most practical considerations can be overcome with some willingness, careful consideration and forward planning. Think ahead and communicate well.

Seeing a “weak” person involved in public leadership is a powerful signal for a community, particularly those who don’t consider themselves disabled. If a Church never receives ministry from a person who they know to be impaired this may well have subconscious effects that we would not seek, such as Christians growing in to the belief that only the strong can lead. Again we only need to look at Moses to see that people who had profound difficulties as far as the world was concerned were able to accomplish much when submitted to The Lord. Churches need to be given the opportunity to grow in their awareness of the vitality of the breadth of creation, and, perhaps controversially, to prepare for the time when they themselves might struggle and suffer. Seeing the presence and blessing of God in those who are disabled could be argued to be an important step in the growth of Christian maturity. We as a Church, exist to glorify God in the world and to prepare for the return of Christ, the Disabled God, to complete the glorious task set before Him by the Father, as the Kingdom is finally and ultimately victorious. In order to get to this point, Jesus made Himself ultimately weak for us. Even if He knew exactly what He was doing and was going to win all along in the resurrection and ascension, the weakness was real, and is something of the patten of how we are to live as His followers. Not necessarily to the ultimate extent of death or martyrdom, but we are to be ready to lose face, wealth, honour or whatever, to consider all of this and more foolishness in the face of the grace of Christ. We are to know Jesus, and in whatever way, to know the fellowship of His sufferings. Too many of us aren’t willing to do this. We want a nice, polished, comfortable, financially viable faith. Hardly anyone in the New Testament got this, so it seems odd that we should expect it, and live like that is our aim.

So how can we see more disabled people in Church leadership? I have no idea. But God calls and He equips. It’s for us to hear and put His call into action, not place barriers in the way of what He is already doing. Affirm the disabled people you already know as beloved, cherished, welcome, crucial to the life of your Churches. Let them minister to you simply by their presence. If they are to take on more formal roles of leadership, or to be trained for “professional” ministry, remove all the physical and attitudinal barriers you can, and encourage every step of the way. A Church in which disabled people are either not present or in which they are only ministered to, is impoverished. Play a part in bringing about the nourishing and flourishing of the Church. It’s what we’re all called to do.

Throughout society, we are seeing that, if a disabled person has the aptitude, the determination and the supportive environment necessary, there is absolutely no reason why anything which is sought cannot be achieved. How much more should this be the case in the Church, called as it is to proclaim the coming of The Lord? I have said time and time again that the Church has the imperative to be a primary actor in the cause of social change in this country, showing the way in welcome and full participation for all. Our vision of victory cannot and must not reach only as far as middle class suburban comfort and being “real” men and women of strength and success. Jesus inaugurated a new way of life, one whose economy requires that the first end up last and the last first. Let’s build Churches which live out this principle, where we don’t seek strength and flee from anything which looks weak, different or scares us, but instead rejoices in the gifts and offerings of all, whatever they are.

These are extremely embryonic thoughts. I don’t even really think I’ve answered the question I was posed. I’m still thinking about it! Please do come back to me for more, for clarification, or just to start a conversation!


Enabling Church: First Reflections

This past Tuesday (June 3rd) I had the immense privilege of speaking at the Enabling Church Conference at The Bethel Centre, West Bromwich. Later, I will post the text of my talk from the conference, as well as audio links to the two deliveries of the talk from the day. I’ll also be blogging in the next few days exploring a couple of key questions and themes which arose for me during and as a result of the day In the first of my reflections, I want to offer a few general thoughts on the day as I experienced it.

Firstly, it was an incredibly exciting and privileged thing to be a part of. To arrive at the venue first thing on Tuesday and find queues into the car park to get in is quite nice as an ego massage for a speaker at a conference (I was by no means at all the main draw, but still, it’s a nice feeling!) It was also indicative that the subject of disability, God and the Church is being taken increasingly seriously in this country. Throughout the day I met people and heard stories of situations where Churches are engaging in the work of moving towards being more welcoming, inclusive and participatory for those with impairments and disabilities of all types. There was so much wisdom and experience, so much passion and enthusiasm in the conference centre. It really felt like a moment in Christian history, as Cristina Gangemi suggested. As she often says, the time is now for disability issues to play a key theological role in the life of the Church. Gone are the days when a ramp, a hearing loop and a toilet are sufficient. A Church which does not refer to weakness or impairment, which seeks to live only in victory and strength, cannot stand. On Tuesday we had the inspiration of 400 people gathered to commit themselves and the Churches they represented, to continue the onward motion and the coming of this aspect of the kingdom.

It was a great pleasure to hear the Bishop of Lichfield speak with such verve and determination to see his diocese lead the way in this work. Roy McCloughry spoke with his customary vigour and insight in inspiring the delegates to seek for greater participation for all at all levels of Church life, including leadership. John Swinton gave a fantastic presentation on personhood and discipleship, particularly in relation to those with dementia or who lack self awareness, showing that knowledge and the ability to articulate oneself is not required for salvation.

Following from this, I took part in the Disability stream, along with some people who were much more eminent, articulate and knowledgable than myself (!). I enjoyed speaking, or rabble-rousing, twice during the afternoon, on identity and disability in Christianity. As I’ve said I will add links to the content of what I said, and explore the themes in more detail, later.

Following my talk, Ann Memmott gave a clear and insightful presentation on Autistic Spectrum Disorders and Church life. Ann is a good communicator and speaks with real candour. I have always enjoyed seeing her open the eyes of audiences to the joys and the concerns of ASD and Church. She has a huge gift at making a complex subject intelligible. Jonathan Edwards was next. He currently works for Prospects, having previously been a senior figure in the Baptist Union. I would love to go to wherever he preaches every week! He spoke with real fire about a Christian response to welfare reform in the UK, in a highly practical fashion exhorting the Church to take its role as the social leader of Britain seriously. The sessions were concluded by an audience feedback slot, led by Cristina Gangemi, Disability Advisor to the Vatican for the Catholic Church (perhaps now you can see why I felt a bit overawed!) where once again it became clear, both times, how much wisdom and experience there was in the room. Roy McCloughry chaired the gathering, and Tim Wood facilitated us all expertly.

As we were running our stream throughout the afternoon, I didn’t get to hear any other speakers, but the theme of the day was clear: The Church is God’s. It is for all, not some. Every Church, every Christian, can do something so that the ultimately enabling faith of Jesus Christ can be accessed by all who seek Him. What an inspiring hope. It was enthralling to see a little way in to the future as the day drew to a close and to imagine how far, with the help of God, we might have journeyed along the road in a few years time.

I am hugely grateful to Gordon Temple, Tim Wood, Churches for All and Through the Roof for the opportunity to experience such a wonderful event and to participate in it. It’s truly humbling for me, as a relatively inexperienced speaker, to work and minister alongside so many people whom I look up to.

So, an Enabling Church? What might one of those be? I believe it is a Church which understands the call to abundant life that is offered to all by the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. I believe it is a Church which lives in such a way that that life is made available to all, from participation in which none are excluded except by their own choice. An Enabling Church is one from which the love and grace of Jesus Christ pour out in acts of abundant kindness and generosity.It is one which is fully reflective of the glorious panoply of the creation and soon-to-be-redeemed kingdom of God. It is one which gives high esteem and honour to its “weakest” members, does not avoid pain and suffering, but journeys together with individuals and communities as they do suffer. It teaches and exists to glorify Christ and Him crucified above all else It is a small, as yet imperfect picture of the final, technicolour coming kingdom. It is something that we are invited to be a part of today.

In my next blog I hope to look at the issue of disability and leadership, both from the point of view of disabled people leading in Churches, and those who are abled seeking best to lead disabled people in Churches, and in family life.