Blogging Against Disablism Day 2015: Disability and Christian Churches

This post is part of Blogging Against Disablism Day 2015.

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Churches do not, on the whole, have a great record with disability.

Stories abound of exclusion, discrimination, and even injury and deaths of disabled people at the hands of churches.[1] And these stories are often not being told by disabled people themselves. While there are plenty of charitable groups working on issues of disability in the churches, until recently there had been few groups led by disabled people.

Which is shocking, when you think about the long, tangled history of disability and the Christian churches. Disabled people were used by the early churches to legimitise their beliefs – if we can control ‘demons’ better than you, then our beliefs are clearly better, they said, using people with epilepsy as their examples[2]. Miracles were the bread-and-butter of the churches in the medieval era, when the churches were suspicious of medical treatment that did not go through them, and when the power of saints and relics was used to support the churches’ authority. Later, the Poor Laws gave the local churches a great deal of power over ‘deserving poor’ disabled people – not least in helping to decide who fit that category. Victorian charitable institutions for disabled and other disadvantaged people helped soldify what we now know as the charity model – which has been very disempowering for disabled people.

There are signs that the tide is turning in the churches, though. User-led groups of disabled Christians are springing up, making use of the social media tools that can amplify the voices of those who were once kept silent. Disability and Jesus have been leading #fullaccesschurch days recently, asking people to tweet about their experiences as disabled church members. Disability-accessible action like this is starting to make a difference, starting to draw the attention of the churches.

The Church of England, in particular, continues to wield a lot of influence in society. Which is why I sat up and listened when ‘Disability and Jesus’ asked the very thought-provoking question, above, on the #fullaccesschurch feed today. “If things get worse for disabled people after the election is the church ready to stand in the gap?” Although the churches have made a few noises about cuts since the coalition came to power, I can’t be the only disabled person who has felt that, from its privileged position in this country, there’s so much more it could have done. At the same time, I can’t be the only person who is nervous about the power over disabled people’s lives that is being passed to the churches in our society, with food banks and other resources now being managed by many faith groups. This has implications for disabled people that need a lot more discussion and consideration.

But first, a #fullaccesschurch is needed. A church that doesn’t close doors and put up walls against disabled people is a church that may have a right to participate in a debate around meeting disabled people’s needs. If we’re going to trust them to plug any gaps that any unscrupulous government creates, and if we’re going to trust them to stand up for us to said government in the House of Lords (C of E bishops) and in the social marketplace, then they need to put their own houses of God in order first.

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If you’re a former Christian who left the churches for reasons related to disability, or you’re a current church member who is disabled, I’d love to hear from you. I’m doing research into the experiences of disabled people in the Christian churches. I want to see what the general picture is for disabled Christians today. How well included are they? Are my experiences of exclusion unusual, or the norm? I’m writing about my research on my academic blog. So far, I’m getting an interesting mix of results. Follow me there, or at twitter, to hear more about it.

See also my post for the last #fullaccesschurch twitter access there.

References

[1] Some references: great books to read on this subject include Nancy Eiesland’s ‘The Disabled God’, Kathy Black’s ‘A Healing Homiletic’ and Sharon Betcher’s ‘Spirit and the Politics of Disablement’. There are lots of examples there of disabled people facing exclusion from churches. And lots of examples of good practice and real inclusion, too.

[2] Nicole Kelley writes about this in the excellent book Disability Studies and Biblical Literature. She looks at the way that epilepsy was used by the early churches to establish their power.