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.