‘Perfectly and wonderfully made’: Fiona Macmillan speaks at the General Synod launch of the booklet ‘Something Worth Sharing’

Good afternoon Synod members. I’m Fiona MacMillan and, like many of you, I’m a new member of Synod.  I’m also a trustee of Inclusive Church, chair the Disability Advisory Group at St Martin in the Fields and lead the planning team for an annual conference on disability and church which has been running since 2012.

I’m delighted to welcome you to this event launching at Synod a disability resource, Something Worth Sharing, one fruit of these conferences. I’m joined today by some of the authors, Tim Goode and Emily Richardson, and by Bishop Sarah Mullally who wrote the introduction. We’ll hear from each of them little later on.

This event is hosted by Inclusive Church. We’re known for our early focus on sexuality and gender, particularly women’s ministry, and today we’re glad to share with you something of our wider work. We’re here in partnership with St Martin’s and Heart Edge, and with Accessible Synod. Towards the end of this session we’ll hear a few words from Ruth Wilde from Inclusive Church, Jonathan Evens from HeartEdge and Zoe Heming from Accessible Synod. But first let me say a little more about why we’re here today and what we bring.

Historically the church was amazing at caring for people on the edge of society, practising  faith in action by feeding, housing and caring for people who  would have suffered or died through poverty, sickness or prejudice.  Many great institutions, hospitals and charities began with people living out their faith, particularly in the 19th century.

Yet for 50 years now the disability rights movement has campaigned for greater autonomy and, while society is changing – albeit going backwards  at the moment – the Church has  always been slow to respond. In a society that lauds strength Disabled people are an uncomfortable presence, but in a Church which preaches the Gospel paradox of strength in weakness we’re still seen as objects for pastoral attention rather than agents of change, often treated as healing opportunity or problems.

For the last 10 years I’ve been part of an amazing team planning conferences on disability and church.  It’s a partnership between Inclusive Church and St Martin in the Fields, now hosted online by HeartEdge. Together they hold space for a conference not about disability but for, of, and by disabled people. Often isolated by experience or geography we gather from across the country, and now from further afield. We  reflect together on theology and faith, we share our experience and ideas and by doing this we resource each other and the church. 

At our 2014 conference blind theologian John Hull suggested that disabled people have a distinct prophetic ministry to the church and that, in order for the church be the church, to fulfil its prophetic ministry to society, it needs disabled people[1].

Disabled people  live with the daily knowledge of our own weakness, our dependence on one another and on God. We’re in the business of noticing need: our own and other people’s, the needs of society and church. Many find creative ways to take part – not despite but within the barriers and experience of our daily lives. Some learn to dive  into our places of pain and find, as  Methodist theologian Donald Eadie says, ‘My world cracked open, and life broke through’. People often see disability as being broken but ‘There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’[2]. The host is broken in order to be shared.

Something Worth Sharing was written in response to requests from disabled delegates. ‘This once a year is great,’ they said, ‘but how do I create change where I live? My church isn’t interested and I don’t know where to start.’  In 2018 we held a conference on this theme and have turned the conference ideas into a booklet so we could share it more widely. The booklet has six sections, each with a narrative from speakers, ideas from delegates and signposts to further resources.

It begins with an introduction from Bishop Sarah, includes a piece by Tim Goode on Structures and one by Emily Richardson on communication. I’m delighted to welcome them here today; we’ll hear from them in a moment.

This resource also includes Sam Wells talking about the foundational nature of practical theology. ‘All theology is practical,’ he says, ‘and all practice is theological.’. He challenges us to do what we believe.  Sam often says that the renewal of the church will come from the edge, that the church needs to go out to the edge and find what God is already doing there. 

Well, disabled people are living on the edge. In society today we are much more likely to be living in poverty, less likely to be employed, find it harder to access higher education or live in suitable housing. Disabled people face barriers and discrimination in every aspect of  daily life – including in church. But in this work together we are not waiting to be included, we’re living on the edge – living where we are and responding with what we have.

Psalm 139 tells us that we are all – ALL  – perfectly and wonderfully made.  So being blind or deaf isn’t wilful avoidance or sinful action, and if they’re your lived experience you don’t want to be where people sing this, however catchy the tune. This is more ably outlined by June Boyce-TiIlman in a section on Language.  Perfectly and wonderfully made.  And if your brain is wired so you think differently, feel the world differently, communicate differently to most people, you are still wonderfully made. You don’t want to be somewhere where people call you disturbed, difficult or demanding, simply tolerate you or leave you alone – as Ann Memmott outlines in the section on Access.

In my booklet piece I’ve shared the model of our starting place at St Martin’s, where disabled people led the conversation, identifying issues and suggesting solutions  We’ve learned that barriers are often invisible to those who don’t experience them and the best ideas to make things better come from those who understand what’s not working.

We wrote this resource in response to requests from disabled people asking where to begin. We offer it today as a way to grow churches and communities where disabled people can get in and join in. Disabled people are as much a combination of needs & gifts as everyone. We are ALL a combination of needs & gifts, and when our needs are met our gifts can flourish. And so we offer this resource – because we all have something worth sharing.

[1]    John M Hull at Transforming Our Vision (Conference at St Martin in the Fields, London 2014)

      Also in Disability: The Inclusive Church Resource  (DLT 2014)

[2]    Leonard Cohen ‘Anthem’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Future_(Leonard_Cohen_album)

Fiona Macmillan is chair of the planning group for the annual conference on disability and chuch, a partnership between Inclusive Church and St Martin in the Fields. She is an IC trustee. Something Worth Sharing is based on the 8th conference. The booklet can be downloaded from this page of the website.