Disability Conference 2022: Wholly, Holey, Holy

On Saturday 15th October, we gathered online for our 11th annual conference on disability and the church, a partnership between St Martin in the Fields and Inclusive Church, hosted online by HeartEdge. This year’s theme was Wholly, Holey, Holy, a riff on the famous hymn inspired by Isaiah 6. Participants were invited to bring their Whole selves, including the parts they often hide, the Holes, and be reminded of their Holiness in the eyes of God. This conference title may have needed a little explaining every time it was mentioned, but as conference participant Hannah Lewis explained, the title came into its own in BSL, as the three meanings of the word each had their own distinctive signs. This was just one example of how members of the conference enrich the experience for all, bringing their own insights to the content!

Covid-19 has forced us to modify the way we gather and so for the third year we hosted the conference on Zoom. This meant that small-talk and introductions were done in breakout rooms rather than at the tea and coffee station, but these moments of connection were still valued for delegates to meet other people and share stories. We were grateful to all who worked hard to bring the conference to life online, including our team of conference chaplains who were available for delegates throughout the day for prayer, reflection and shared silence.

Our first storyteller was Erica Thomas, a Quaker from South Wales. Each year, the conference invites people to share a short reflection of an aspect of their life and the theme of the conference, and Erica gave insights into how the Quaker book of guidance and wisdom, Quaker Faith and Practice, enabled her to embrace her whole self and experience the Holy. After becoming a disabled person, she was looking for ways to fill the holes in her life and tried to reacquaint herself with the Quaker experience of her youth, but found the Meeting House inaccessible, with steps up to the building. “I did not see a welcome. I turned away, feeling shut out.” Thankfully, through perseverance, Erica shared her story of collaborating with her local community and a flourishing, transformative experience where the holes in her life were filled and made whole and holy.

We then heard from Jennie Hogan, an Anglican priest, writer and psychotherapist, who detailed her experience of living with disability in her 2017 book, This is My Body. Her talk centred on the idea of “Theology written in blood” as she fleshed out how her experience of God had been shaped by her experience of illness (and vice versa). When she experienced a brain hemorrhage, leading to a lifetime of medical complications, Jennie noted that “getting better was the only language” she was given. In her book, she explores the notion of the “recovering body” in light of the incarnation. In her talk Jennie reminded us that our fragile, hole-y bodies are made holy and whole through the incarnation, and that our vocation as sick and disabled people is to recognise our vulnerability, our messiness, our scars & our holiness, as we move from a place of survival to a place of recovery.

I find it hard to write about the next section, as I was involved in it and am not prone to self-promotion! Pre-recorded, Naomi Lawson Jacobs and I joined Sam Wells for a conversation about our book At the Gates. This felt particularly like a homecoming for the book, as the disability conference features prominently in the book and Naomi had spoken at previous conferences, as their research gradually developed. The conversation was fun, provocative and hopefully whetted the appetites of those who have not yet read the book. My favourite question from Sam was “Given that Jesus dies disabled and rises in a disabled body, can non-disabled people fully inhabit the image of God?” Like I say, this was a provocative session! Delegates then had a chance to meet in small groups and  reflect on the morning, based around a series of wonderings.

After lunch we heard from our second storyteller, Ruth Lampard. As a priest with M.E./ chronic fatigue, Ruth spoke of how her experience has enabled her to journey with those on the edge. Ruth spoke of herself as a “string vest Christian”, very aware of the holes in her life. However, by learning to pray as she is able, she has carved out a vocation to those experiencing life on the edge. Her reflections on rest, embodiment and pilgrimage were enlightening and affirming.

The workshops are always a fun part of any conference, with the only downside being that it is only physically possible to attend one of the sessions. Workshops included Holey Creativity with Rachel Noel; Caroline Worsfield on Finding Ourselves Within a Bigger Story; Sue Hartley exploring Listening as the First Duty of Love; and Krysia Waldock on Belonging in Faith Spaces. I joined Natalia-Nana Lester Bush’s session on Rest, which challenged us to think in a different way than the fast-paced life championed by the world (and, sadly, sometimes the church) and to embrace rest. Never before have I said that a workshop putting me to sleep is a positive thing, but in this case it was true!

Emily Richardson is a member of the planning committee for the conference on disability and church, and co-author of the book ‘At the Gates‘.