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.



A Song A Month

A Song A Month For February 2016: Light Has Come

I’m really pleased today to release the video blog for February’s A Song A Month, ‘Light Has Come’.

Most of you reading this will know that I’m a disabled person. I try not to bang on about it all the time, but being disabled is part of me, it’s not something I can easily avoid, and so instead I try and embrace it, without making a fuss.

Years ago now, I did a Disability Studies Masters by Distance Learning from the University of Leeds. One of the key people on the course, Colin Barnes, challenged me to write songs about my experience of disability. ‘We need more protest songs’, he said. I always fought shy of writing about disability, mostly because I didn’t feel I had the language to write about it well in a song. I haven’t wanted to be a protest songwriter. I’m no Martyn Joseph.

Over the last few years though, perhaps as I get older and some of the idealism of youth wears off, I’ve found myself finding the UK a harder and harder place to live as a disabled person. I personally am a very fortunate man. I have a family, a wife who I love and who loves me. I have a faith which sustains me, and I feel like I’m able to make a contribution to my community, and to society, in a variety of ways. The fact remains though that I am in physical pain of one sort or another all of every day (like a lot of people, a lot of whom have it worse than me) and more than this, mentally and emotionally, I face challenges and hurdles to overcome many times daily, because I use a wheelchair and am disabled. It’s hard to explain or quantify. It’s simply how it is. I hate being disabled. Much as I’m supposed to be well-adjusted to it all, I wish I wasn’t.

But I know full well that my life isn’t as hard as it is for a great many other people, whether they are disabled people, or whether they experience other things in life which marginalise them and make them part of minority groups they never asked to be in. I truly believe that, as people of social conscience, Christian or not, we are called to be prophetic, whether we’re off faith or not. I believe we’re called to stand and hold one another to account for how we treat each other, whether we are ‘successful’, functionally well, impaired, old, young, or anything else. It saddens me to sense a corporate, societal, hardening of heart towards people with disabilities. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps I’m entirely mistaken, but that’s my sense.

February’s A Song A Month is a humble offering, inviting us to see that there is a better way to live, a better way to treat one another, to treat ourselves. A Light Has Come.

Thanks once again to Pete Thorn for playing on this song, and his help with the video.

Download the lyrics to Light Has Come by clicking here


Where Have I Been?

As usual, there’s a lot going on in my world. I’ve not done so well recently at posting about it here. I’ve been popping up online here there and everywhere though. One place is on Threads (you can keep up with my occasional writing on that platform here), writing a snappily titled piece called ‘Why The Marris Bill Frightens the Life Out Of Me’ (see what I did there?). Read that here

Yesterday, I appeared (at short notice, talking off the top of my head) on Helen Blaby’s BBC Radio Northampton lunchtime programme talking about the awkwardness of disability. 8 or 9 minutes of me on local radio. I bet you can’t contain yourself and have already clicked on the Listen Again link here. I start waffling around the 13.10 mark. Thanks to Helen for having me on, and finding me amusing.

I’m continuing to write as and when I can fit it in for Drowned in Sound and Clash. Click the names of the sites to find where I’ve been most recently.

There’s always more going on, but that’ll do for now!

I’ll be back with a roundup of what I’ve been enjoying musically recently soon.


#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?


The Seduction of Difference

This is a tentative post. I know I’m not much known for being tentative in what I have to say. Sometimes it would probably help me if I was a bit more restrained. That said, what I am sharing this morning has been on my mind for a number of weeks and it just won’t go away, so, in a sense, I need to write it, even if you don’t need to read it. That’s most of the reason people write and say things anyway isn’t it, the faintly ridiculous conception that what we have in our minds is so crucial, so necessary for the future of mankind that we have to get it out immediately. I’m fairly sure that most of my opinions, including this one, have been written and talked about by other people in the past. They must have been. After all, if nothing else, theological college taught me there’s no such thing as an original thought. So, with various caveats in place, and having lowered your expectations of the quality of this piece sufficiently, here goes…

I think as a society we have fallen for something which I’m grandly (see, it is capitalised, that makes it grand) calling The Seduction of Difference. Just this morning, I heard UKIP’s Health Spokeswoman (apparently they have one, although it has to be said it sounded as if she’d just got in from a heavy night out) declaiming loudly that we don’t want “Health Tourism”. “We” in this case is us, you and me, right-thinking British people, unsullied by foreign genes or history, unless they “add” something to society (the “adding” is a nebulous concept. I think we all get to collectivise together and decide just how much “adding” is sufficient in order to pass go, collect £200 – but not Universal Credit, oh no not that for Johnny Immigrant, unless they pass a test, which we set, naturally – and keep Pall Mall to ourselves). We wouldn’t give a Work Visa to someone with a pre-existing health condition. Nobody wants this. Apparently. Well, I for one have never thought about it, but on reflection, as I sit here with my pre-existing health condition (the mind boggles at what a post-existing health condition might be, I suppose that’s death, unless we’re being eschatological this morning) I am not sure that I want to be disqualified from anything simply on the basis that my health might have some impact on my productivity, should I ever wish to emigrate. That day marches ever closer. House for Duty Priest in the Bahamas I’m looking at your job description.

So far so flippant. But is it?  You see, it is logical to say that someone who doesn’t “add” to society shouldn’t find a welcome in it. After all, if they’re foreign, they have a society of their own. Apart from those who are fleeing persecution, genocide or other things like that. Seems to me they are of no fixed societal abode. But where does it stop? If we keep out those who are not indigenously British, and have a pre-existing health condition, isn’t it logical to extend the exclusion to those who are British and have one? After all times are hard for the economy. We all pay our taxes. We don’t want our taxes to support anyone but us. We don’t want to consider ourselves a society, least of all a compassionate one. It’s survival of the fittest dontcha know. And any time it feels like we might not be the fittest, the goalposts must be moved, so that we can feel good about ourselves again. Until our world becomes so small, so inward-looking, our perspective so warped, that we consider ourselves the centre of the universe, and all other people merely irritations in our glorious orbit.

Fortunately I’m a Hard Working Man, from a Hard Working Family. Some days I think I might count as a Real Person (seriously, that’s a slogan being used in the election rhetoric. What’s an Unreal Person? Boris?) so I’ll probably be ok, but we’re on a slippery slope that I’ve written and spoken about before. We are Seduced by Difference. We are fearful of the other. We want to protect ourselves, more than caring for the poor (who will always be with us, someone famous said that once). We want to protect ourselves, only seeing others flourish if we can flourish along with them, or at least on their coat-tails. We are told we deserve this. We are told, therefore, that anything that stops us flourishing must be quashed, squashed, eradicated. Scared of homeless people? Ignore them. Want an excuse for your  lack of contentment? We’ll find one. It’ll probably be economic. Want a vision for a better, brighter future? We don’t really have one of those.

Except we do. Some of us at least. We just celebrated Easter. The recognition that someone who was so radical, so different, so uncontrollable that the authorities of the day had him killed, changed the world, the entire course of human history. Jesus stood up to the injustices meted out against humanity and defeated them. He also took the consequences of any just judgement which might be counted against us. He did this so that we, you and I, might have life, have it to the full (what an idea), and that we might share that life with others. Sure, Christians bang on about eternal life all the time, but what’s the good of that? Well, in my opinion, eternal life starts now. We’re called to a life of holy improvisation. God has shown us how to live. We’re to love him with everything we have, whatever that looks like for each of us. We are to love others, putting them before ourselves, to be a compassionate society, to suffer with those who suffer and rejoice with those who rejoice. What would society look like if we did that? If we committed to the “other” in the full and certain knowledge that we are exactly the same “other” to someone else. What would it be like if we drew that “other” closer, rather than pushing them away? If we were brave, believing that all people are of equal value, regardless of ability or lack of it, economic contribution, education, ability for self-knowledge and awareness or lack of it.

After all, what makes us human? It is that God pursues us as his beloved creation, constantly, consistently and without reservation. He did this to the extent that he died for us. He didn’t die for us that we might impose strictures on anyone else, elevate ourselves above them so that we feel like we have power or authority which has been ours all along. No, God calls us to a radical kind of self-love which has at its core an awareness that without God, and without others, we are not ok. It is only when we love God and others that we can truly love ourselves, because we see ourselves in the context of God’s passionate love for us. We are important, because he says so. So is everybody else. Because he says so.

So health tourism? What nonsense. Oh for a nation which puts the needs of others before its own. A nation that truly understands what a privilege life is, so much so that it shares that privilege as widely as it possibly can. Let’s not live fearfully. Let’s not vote fearfully. Let’s hope and pray for local and national leaders who rise above the petty, the soundbite and who ignore the temptation to score cheap points with policies bred on fear, which only spread its power.

So it’s not about me. It’s not about you. It’s about us. What are we going to do to share life, love and hope together? That’s a question worth asking, and answering in the way that we live our lives, today and tomorrow. A day is coming when there will be no more tears, no more pain, no more suffering, no more death. It is. Honest. I know it doesn’t feel or seem like it, but it is. In the meantime, we have God, the Holy Spirit to be our friend, guide, counsellor. We have ourselves, and we have each other. I’m more confident standing with you than against you. Can we do that? Can we stand together?



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






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!

Disability News

Enabling Church 3.6.14

I’m looking forward to speaking at the Midlands Enabling Church Conference 2014 next Tuesday (June 3rd). For more information on the conference you should visit the Enabling Church Website – this is an important day for anyone involved or interested in living and working with disabled people in Churches. I’ll be  offering some thoughts on Identity and Future Hope in Disability.

Other more important/eminent/noteworthy people speaking at the event include Joni Eareckson Tada, John Swinton and Roy McCloughry. It’s an event teeming with expertise and wisdom and a real privilege for me to be involved. Don’t miss out.