The annual disability conference with St Martin in the Fields and Inclusive Church is always a joy to attend, for me. Sharing life and faith with fellow Christians is a blessing indeed.
One of the questions I asked this year, as part of the talk I gave on disability, access and church was, “What are we accessing?”
So often, church leaders may assume that disabled and neurodiverse people are accessing the building. Of course, they might well be. There could be a reason that they wish to look at the building itself, for example if they were visiting as part of a history project. But, mostly, it’s not about accessing a space. It’s about accessing precious time with God. Accessing a Holy space in which to pray. Accessing a building with friends and fellow Christians, to share life, togetherness, friendships, worship, prayer, Communion perhaps. Accessing support and encouragement. Accessing ways to flourish, to lead, to become disciples of our beloved Lord. Accessing a safe place to talk, to share, to listen, to collaborate.
If we have put someone in a church space, and they can access none of those things, what have we achieved?
The conference has become more than the sum of its parts. It’s not about people turning up in some academic way, reading formal papers about how to do this, or that. Which chair, which space, which ramp, which loop, which size print. All of that is important, of course. But it is about being included. Being enabled. Being loved.
For me, as an autistic and disabled Christian, being included in churches has been one of the toughest of things. I won’t say that outside society is perfect, but generally there’s a willingness to see people like me as equals in most ways. A view that we can work together and solve things together. In some churches, there are a few who take a more problematic view of disability and neurodiversity. Views that might think we belong elsewhere. That we are too much trouble. Too much bother. Too much cost. Often without a moment to even find out if those things are true.
Yet, of course disabled and neurodiverse people are bringers of so many gifts, to community and to God. Of love, of fellowship, of prayer, of perseverance, of patience, of dedication, of finding ways around obstacles. Each person is a person made in God’s own image, a beloved creation, very much part of the One Body. And very much having something to teach, something to share.
I have been greatly blessed with finding new and wonderful friends on this journey. Friends who offer such support, and such enablement. Friends who allow me, and others, to serve, and to lead. To create and to rest.
In the comfort and joy of the Church, the underground conference centre, Chapel and café, there is fellowship aplenty.
One man spoke to me during the day. He said that, for years, he had been unable to access churches, and had nowhere to worship, nowhere to belong. In this event, he had found Church. At long last. I fought back tears, because that was a precious moment, worth more than gold. To be a space where someone can belong, at last.
We may measure things in how many seconds it takes, how many minutes, how many hours, how many £ and how many people. But, God’s measurement isn’t in any of those things. It’s in love. Each of us measures up just fine, and we all – every one of us – belong under his loving gaze.
We all have something worth sharing.
By Ann Memmott, member of the planning team for the Inclusive Church/St Martin in the Fields Conference on Disability and Church