(Still) Calling from the Edge: Conference Review 2021

So much can change in a decade. In 2012, I was at the first conference on disability and church at St Martin-in-the-Fields church. Hosted in partnership with Inclusive Church, this unique conference was the first time I had ever experienced an event organised by disabled Christians, for disabled Christians. I had the rare experience of talking to many other people like me as we shared the relief of knowing that we were ‘not the only one.’ Back then, we were scattered among a Church of England whose disability ministry was led by non-disabled people. Many of us honestly believed we were alone in our prayer for a church that listened to our voices. We did not yet know how God was already turning the tide.

Fast forward ten years, and a growing community is forming around the annual gathering, now informally known as the Living Edge conference. This year’s conference theme, (Still) Calling From the Edge, reminded us how far we still have to go before disabled people are treated with justice and equity in churches. Every year the conference brings together a faithful disabled Christian movement, hurt and marginalised by the church’s broken theology of disability but still committed to calling for change in the church. This October the community once again gathered online to share our hurt, our hope and our wisdom. We were blessed by the voices of disabled and neurodivergent leaders, visionaries and activists, calling out to the church from the edge.

Sarah was our opening storyteller this year, sharing a resonant story of this community on the edge. Sarah attended the first conference in person, posting a sun lounger to St Martin-in-the-Fields so she could lie down during the event. But as her health has deteriorated, Sarah has become “an involuntary hermit—an accidental anchoress,” living and praying from her bed. “I have to meet God here because I’m never anywhere else,” Sarah told us, through a powerful balance of words and silence that echoed into the quiet of her life. At times her shrinking world has been isolating. But when the conference moved online as a result of COVID-19, and continued to meet in small online gatherings in between, Sarah found that the disabled Christian community was opening up to her again. In a church that often devalues the image of God in disabled people, access to community matters. Sarah sees her worth reflected in other disabled Christians. “The conference is one of the few places I’ve come across where I don’t have to leave a part of myself at the door, like a pair of dirty boots,” she said. I think many disabled Christians can relate.

Fiona MacMillan brought us this year’s keynote speech, remembering ten years of the conference inspired by her vision. When she saw disabled people gathered for the first time, it was a “foretaste of the Kingdom” for Fiona. She took us through highlights of a decade of unprecedented gatherings. She remembered blind theologian John Hull’s talk, where he told us that disabled people are not a pastoral problem for the churches but prophetic potential. We were reminded of disabled Methodist minister Donald Eadie’s radical contention that “theology must not be left to the fit and strong,” but that the church must receive from disabled people, in “encounters with a powerless God.” Fiona told us how the work has rippled out beyond the disabled Christian community. Through the conference, disabled people have resourced the church, from the resource booklets Calling from the Edge and  Something Worth Sharing to the Inclusive Church books on disability and mental health—watch out for new editions soon. As the conference enables the participation of disabled people, Fiona has seen how it enriches guest and host alike. And it is vital that this has always been disabled-led work. For disabled people, church can be a lonely, painful place. “We are likely to be the only voice hearer, wheelchair user, D/deaf person in the local church,” Fiona said. “Otherness can be exhausting, but we find strength when we find each other.” We are still calling from the edge, still asking the church to take disability seriously as a social justice issue—to enable our leadership, participation and belonging. Fiona’s talk was a fantastic summary of ten years of gathering for change. Thank you to Fiona, without whose hard work and steadfast commitment to the conference, this community would not exist.

Next we enjoyed a session of Godly Play, led by Sam Wells, vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Sam has shared theology with the conference every year since 2012, and this year he brought us the story of Samuel. As a gathered conference and afterwards in small groups, the community shared thought-provoking ‘wonderings’ in response to the story. We wondered how Samuel came to accept that God was calling him. We wondered what vocation means, and how it feels to have something unpopular to say about justice. We wondered how Hannah must have felt to give Samuel up, after her years as a marginalised woman who could not bear children. Sharing the story of God and God’s people with other disabled Christians is rare and precious, and these small group discussions are always a highlight of my conference.

After a break from lunch, we heard from Jemma Brown, our second storyteller. Jemma, who is blind and a part-time wheelchair user with a chronic illness, told us how she cannot separate her disability identity from her identity in Christ. At a time when she was facing disability discrimination, Jemma prayed in desperation to a God she did not believe in. She continued to face ableism, but she has had God on her side ever since. “I believe ableism is a sin,” she told us, “but praise God for grace.” In an echo of the Samuel story, Jemma knew she had to speak out about disability in the church, especially when she came to last year’s conference and connected with the conference community. It was a moving example of what Fiona said earlier: community empowers us to speak. Jemma is now studying theology and working as an intern in a church that has understood Jemma’s distinctive gifts—a rare experience for a disabled person with a calling to ministry. As part of her digital ministry, Jemma creates TikTok videos on disability theology. “Jesus would make his online content accessible,” she said. After Sarah’s story, Jemma’s words were one more reminder of how much more accessible this conference has become as it has used technology to move online, reaching out to the disabled Christian community and beyond it.

Workshops followed, and I was delighted to join Krysia Waldock and Dan Barnes-Davies in a thought-provoking session on challenging power. Like others, I spent many years feeling that I had to leave my disability activism at the church door. So it was a blessing to share ideas about disability campaigning in the church with other disabled and neurodivergent Christians. One more welcome sign of change through the conference.

There were so many great workshops available, it was hard to choose between them. Pre-conference workshops had already helped us to prepare creative work for the event. June Boyce-Tillman and Rachel Noel led a music workshop, teaching us how to write hymns and chants of lament, based on Psalm 130.  The hymns, recorded by the Choir of St Martin in the Fields, were premiered on the day in a beautiful presentation by Professor Boyce-Tillman. Jonathan Evens led an art workshop inviting us to illustrate an inclusive Last Supper through painting, photography, poetry or prose. The creative works were presented in an audio-described gallery, where delegates were invited to create their own work in response. Tim Goode and Tim Rourke led a workshop exploring vocations on the margins, each telling their own vocation stories along with Ruth Wilde. Finally, Hannah Lewis invited delegates to reclaim the margins in a workshop on liberation theology.

We closed with profound liturgy written by Emily Richardson and led by Emily, Bingo Allison and Hannah Lewis. As we prayed with our bodies, using gesture and British Sign Language, we were led in a celebration of themes from ten years of conferences—from Opening the Roof and Living on the Edge, to Just As I Am and Thinking Differently About God. Among just a few powerful words, Emily prayed, “Though we still call from the edge, give us courage to keep calling. May our lone voices join together in a call for justice, inclusion and hope.” It felt like the central moment of a conference where we will continue to pray and campaign for all these changes in the church together, as we move into our second decade.

We are still calling from the edge. The conference remains one of the only places where I can look around and see the disabled people of God, speaking for ourselves. The most listened-to voices on disability and church are still those of non-disabled people. “They speak from the centre, not the edge,” Fiona told us. But over the past ten years, this conference has become a space for the disabled-led conversation about disability and church that we have been longing to hear. It is growing into a community that resources disabled leaders and amplifies disabled Christian voices. It shapes disability theology, spinning out into ground-breaking discussions like Fiona MacMillan’s Shut In, Shut Out, Shut Up on the HeartEdge platform.  Through the Living Edge conference, disabled and neurodivergent Christians are showing the church another way to think about different bodies, distinctive minds, and lived experience of oppression. The way of the Christ of the margins, who ministered from the edge, to the edge.

Dr Naomi Lawson Jacobs was until recently a member of the Disability Conference planning team. They were involved in the HeartEdge series ‘Shut in. Shut out. Shut up with IC trustee, Fiona MacMillan, and others earlier this year.