Chichester Diocese was represented at Lambeth Palace recently when the Archbishop of Canterbury hosted a conference on Disability and the Church of England.
Rev John Naudé, Diocesan Disability Adviser and Associate Vicar at The Point Church, reports on the event.
"Bishop Martin asked me as the Diocesan Disability Adviser and an adviser to the Church of England’s Ministry Division on Disability to attend this conference. It was an honour and a privilege to be part of such an occasion. In my previous role as a Disability Adviser and now as an Ordained Anglican Priest I have never seen the Anglican Church make such a powerful statement as I witnessed at the conference. Particularly in its desire to include disabled people within the leadership of the church, and to see itself as a welcoming place for disabled people.
"Archbishop Justin Welby opened the conference with a statement that he believed disability access should have priority over heritage and that our churches need to be accessible to all. When he was Subdean of Coventry Cathedral, there were plans to build a ramp to allow access to the chapel, but it was not approved for heritage reasons. He stated that ‘we cannot put heritage above people’. I remember when I went to Ridley Hall to study as a wheelchair user, that English Heritage wouldn’t make a ramp into the main entrance of the chapel because of its ‘heritage’. What they approved instead was to build another entrance by knocking a hole in the north wall. This gave me a feeling of being excluded as the other students entered the chapel and seemed to look worse than having a graded ramp for all to enter,
"Thankfully attitudes have improved with regard to access, but this is not enough. When the Disability Discrimination Act first came into force in 1996, I was often asked ‘what is the minimum we have to do?’ 20 years later I am still being asked that question. Not all Disabled people use wheelchairs. In fact, wheelchair users are a small percentage of those in our population who have a disability, but they are easily recognised and labelled. However, we forget those with hidden disabilities such as Epilepsy & Autism, or those with hearing and sight loss, because they can ‘walk’ into our churches. ‘Access’ is not the only issue, since the way we welcome disabled people into our churches can also be vastly improved. Part of the conference explored this and how we should be looking at disabled people’s God-given gifts and how these can be used in God’s Church.
"Professor John Swinton of Aberdeen University gave two keynote speeches. One of his memorable quotes for me was ‘in order for people to belong, they need to be missed’. Are disabled people missed in the Church? My experience would be that they are not, in fact, they can positively be excluded through the attitudes and limited access within our churches.
"There is much room for improvement in how we treat disabled people, but having a conference hosted by ++Justin, who was present for the duration of the conference, will hopefully send a positive message that the Good News of Jesus Christ is a message for all people, and that disabled people are a mission group who have not heard this wonderful news. What’s more, disabled people have a role to play in enabling God’s Church, his Body, to be fulfilled. Especially if we are enabled to play our part within His Church, not left on the sidelines, but actively used with the gifts God has given us. ++Justin demonstrated by his presence and humility that he wants this to happen within the Church of England. Thank you for the hope you have given at least one ordained individual with a disability."