I grew up at St Martin-in-the-Fields where inclusion was seldom mentioned but usually practised. One of my godfathers was a gay priest who had served there and the community largely supported the ordination of women, particularly since Joyce Bennett ministered among us from 1984. The 1998 Lambeth Conference declaration was a bombshell; some LGBT+ close friends left the church completely, unable to be connected with a body that rejected them. When Inclusive Church was formed St Martin’s was an early supporter, hosting services and events for LGBT+ inclusion and women’s ministry.
A short time later I was struck by significant illness and became largely housebound. By 2011 I was keeping a toe in the door of church but not really feeling at home; energy, understanding and barriers made it hard to get in and join in. It was a time of austerity which had a particularly hard impact on disabled people. The run up to the Paralympics also saw the beginnings of the Welfare Reform Bill and Bedroom Tax. Newspaper stories of ‘benefit scroungers’ and the rise in disability hate crime made society an increasingly hard place.
I turned to the church looking for help. I thought that the church would be preaching to society about the inherent value of people and the need to build a society for all, sharing the Gospel story of hope with the poor and marginalised and championing the most vulnerable. I found it saying nothing. In fact, the central body of the church of England had also practised austerity, cutting its funding for disability work by 90%.
I remember going to Clare Herbert, newly returned to St Martin’s as Lecturer in Inclusive Theology, and asking her what the church was doing? Clare told me that Inclusive Church had recently expanded their focus to include disability and would definitely be doing something. I found that disability was actually just a bullet point on IC’s website but Bob Callaghan, the then national coordinator, offered to work with us to put on a disability conference.
I knew nothing about putting on a day conference but Clare & Bob knew a lot! I knew about being disabled and understood how it felt to be asking for access as though for favours, having to explain what I need and sometimes why. I wanted a space where access was woven into what we did rather than added on, where barriers were understood and accessibility was the culture not the strap-line And so we worked together for almost a year to put together a conference. We called it Opening the Roof because we were opening a conversation; neither beginning The Conversation nor coming with answers, but holding a space and seeing who came.
I remember sitting at registration half an hour before we were due to begin, looking up and seeing a long queue for the lift. And I rejoiced! Because there were people in different types of wheelchairs, people with guide dogs, white sticks and walking frames. Suddenly I was surrounded by the people I had worked so hard to imagine and prepare for. It was a joyous day, full of life, hope and faith. I genuinely felt, this is a foretaste of the Kingdom.
Ten years later the conference is a space uniquely for rather than about disabled people, who are the majority of planners, speakers and delegates. It has resulted in two books, Disability & Mental Health, and two booklets, Calling from the Edge and Something Worth Sharing. Inclusive Church has supported this work in the long term, in partnership with St Martin in the Fields, enabling a growing movement of disabled Christians to gather, to resource each other and the church.
In 2014 Bob Callaghan invited me to staff a stall at General Synod, bringing some of the conference messages to the heart of the church. I continued to staff the IC stall for some years, bringing disability alongside colleagues work on sexuality and gender. In 2016 I became an IC trustee and learned more about others’ painful exclusion through ethnicity, sexuality, gender and gender identity, experience both distinctive and parallel with my own. I believe we are called to bear witness and work in solidarity with one another, that all exclusion is the same exclusion.
I’ve just been elected to the Church of England’s General Synod. I have energy-limiting chronic illness and will be using around three weeks’ worth of capacity for each group of sessions. But how else will our voices be heard? No work will be complete until all are able to access and fully participate in the life and work of the church.
Fiona MacMillan is a trustee of Inclusive Church and chair of the Disability Conference planning team.
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