‘In God we have a new dignity and God calls us to fullness of life’. My friends, these are the words that conclude the introduction to the Common Worship baptism service. These are the words written by our Church. These words are a call upon the church to invest in each and every person, each fearfully and wonderfully made, each made in the image and likeness of God, whose image is fully revealed to us in the risen Body of our Lord Jesus Christ. These are words that draw us deeper into the extraordinary grace filled actions of God. And yet we meet in the shadow of a church that has consistently failed to live up to its call to shine a light on the God given dignity of each and every one of us and has denied too many of God’s beloved, fullness of life.
This Synod we have heard one of its greatest and most challenging speeches by Lord Boateng. He may have been speaking directly into the Racism Task Group’s report ‘From Lament to Action’, but he was also speaking into our systemic failure to live out our our baptismal promise. He was calling on the church to change our root culture. For too long, the God-given dignity of women was diminished by the church and denied God’s fullness of life. For too long the God-given dignity of people who are Global Majority heritage has been diminished by the church and denied God’s fullness of life. For too long, the God-given dignity of the LGBTI+ community has been diminished by the church and denied God’s fullness of life. And we are here today because for too long the God-given dignity of disabled people has been diminished and we have been denied God’s fullness of life.
Bishop Sarah, you bring us such hope. As the first female Bishop of London, you embody, for so many, what can be achieved when our God-given dignity is honoured and celebrated and when we bring into reality God’s vision of fullness of life. You have smashed the glass ceiling and, because of your episcopal ministry, young women from all over the world now can see the full opportunities of ministries opened up to them, and we have all seen the overflowing grace of God that has been released. And yet last Monday I spent an hour with Charles (name changed). He is a permanent wheelchair user and when he came and spent an afternoon with me three years ago he was completing his doctorate and sharing his passion and desire to put himself forward for ordination. I had not heard from him over the last three years and was excited to hear how he was getting on when, a week ago, he requested a zoom chat. The Charles I encountered on zoom was a shadow of the Charles I met those three years ago. In spite of all the opportunities Zoom had offered him and he had eagerly taken, despite being an active presence in both onsite and online church, his desire to explore ordained ministry had been quashed by the parish priests of the two churches he had attended over the past three years and he had been denied access to even the very first stage of the discernment process. His anger and his bitterness was palpable. His God-given dignity diminished, his fullness of life denied.
My chapter in the book we are launching and celebrating today focused on the church structures and how we access them. Access is not ramps and lifts. Access is participation, agency, enabling freedom of thought. Access is receiving the dignity and the fullness of life that God is offering each one of us. These last ten years of Disability Conferences have been a clarion cry for a change in our root culture. These extraordinary conferences for disabled people, by disabled people have been manna from heaven in a church that has left disabled people with so little nourishment. We need to change the root culture of the Church of England and much is being done. The recent online seminar facilitated by CEEP and HeartEdge called out Ableism in the Church. Fiona’s extraordinary seminars called ‘Shut in, Shut out, Shut up’ gave voice to the impact ableism plays in diminishing the gifts, talents and ministries of disabled people. There is considerable work going on in the Disability Task Group challenging outdated and outmoded attitudes and cultures and seeking to empower and equip disabled people within the church so that more glass ceilings can be smashed. And these disability conferences will be continuing to feed, inspire and energise disabled people in their prophetic calling to the Church.
At Tuesday’s Anti-Racism debate the Archbishop of Canterbury cried out ‘If not now, when?’. We repeat that cry today on behalf of disabled people. But we must not be distracted by thinking we can achieve our baptismal calling by engaging with each marginalised group as a separate issue to be solved. Our baptismal calling is a unified purpose where all those still on the edge are welcomed into the centre, and when necessary the centre shifts to those who are on the edge. For we are the Body of Christ and in the one spirit we were all baptised into one Body. So let us pursue all that makes for peace and builds up our common life. In God we have a new dignity and God calls us to fullness of life. These are not just words in a liturgy. Let us not just write them, let us not just read them, but let us go out and live them, and through living them let us release the deep wells of grace that are just waiting to be poured out over God’s Church.
Rev. Tim Goode is Rector of St Margaret’s Lee, a member of General Synod and Archbishop’s Council, a trustee of the Church Conservation Trust, and an ex-IC trustee. He is part of the planning group for the annual conference on disability and chuch, a partnership between Inclusive Church and St Martin in the Fields. Something Worth Sharing is based on the 8th conference. The booklet can be downloaded from this page of the website.