How can churches enable disabled people to be more involved in the life and mission of the church?
Perhaps the greatest challenge ... is to take this message beyond an audience of those with personal involvement in disability to the wider church and then ... to our local communities and the nation, Hobgen says. (PhotoBucket)
This was the central question raised at the Enabling Church conference at Westbury-on-Trym Baptist Church in Bristol in the United Kingdom on Saturday, July 6, as a varied group of 130 people gathered on one of the hottest days of the year.
The conference, and a recent one in Houghton Le Spring, Tyne and Wear, were follow-up events from the original Enabling Church conference in London in 2010, also arranged by Churches for All and Premier Christian Radio.
Many of the speakers were either disabled people or had personal experience of the issues from family and friends.
Bishop Paul Hendricks, representing the National Catholic Disability Network, gave the keynote speech emphasizing the need for the church to follow Jesus Christ's example of reaching out and welcoming people who are often excluded from society and how by doing this we enrich the church.
A series of speakers then gave insights into a wide variety of issues affecting disabled people and their relationship with churches.
The nature of identity was explored by Haydon Spenceley, an Anglican candidate for ordination, explaining the variety of "voices" that try to impose an identity on us.
The importance of communication with the deaf community was addressed by Janice Silo, who uses British Sign Language (BSL) and whose powerful words were translated into spoken English by one of sign BSL interpreters.
Social interaction with people with autism was discussed by Ann Memmott, advisor to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Autism (APPGA).
Tony Phelps-Jones, director of ministry for Prospects – a Christian organization that "provides advice, training and resource materials to equip churches for effective ministry and outreach" – spoke about how those with learning difficulties may be enabled to participate in church life.
Christina Gangemi spoke on the power of using story to integrate those with learning difficulties.
At the end of a busy morning, Mat Ray from Livability – a Christian organization seeking to help "disabled and disadvantaged people achieve real choice, independence and opportunity" – introduced the Churches Inc. charter, a simple statement of belief and intent to enable individuals and churches to work for the full inclusion of disabled people in church life.
This charter would give churches a simple first step toward improving the inclusion of disabled people.
During the lunch break, there were plenty of opportunities to network both with other attendees, many of whom were disabled, and with the speakers as well as look at a range of resources from a number of organizations.
After we reconvened, a video message from Malcolm Duncan, pastor at Gold Hill Baptist Church, encouraged us to remember that disabled people are first of all children of God and therefore should be included in the life and mission of the church and empowered to fulfill God's calling on their lives.
Then Kay Morgan-Gurr, general director of Children Worldwide, talked about issues facing children and young people with disabilities.
Gordon Temple, chief executive of Torch Trust – a Christian organization ministering to persons with blindness – addressed the issues faced by those who become disabled because of accident, illness or old age, noting that many experience a form of grief at their loss of mobility.
The issue of the effects of an aging population will become an increasing important issue for our churches.
Mike Townsend, who is involved with the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), Torch Trust and Through the Roof, spoke about how the rise of church involvement in local community can be broadened to include building links with those who are disabled.
The series of sessions on specific issues was closed by Jonathan Clark discussing the care of those who care for family and friends with disabilities, who sadly can be easily forgotten by churches and the agencies focused on supporting disabled people.
Roy McCloughry, from St John's College Nottingham, gave the final address, speaking powerfully on how the church can make a difference in society, through challenging wider assumptions about success and individualism by the way we form inclusive communities built on relationships of love, enabled by the love of God.
The overall themes emerging were to challenge the assumptions that many people still hold about disabled people:
● That they are passive recipients of care and ministry with limited abilities to minister to others
● To relocate the "problem" of inclusion from disabled people to the church and its attitudes
● To empower the full inclusion of disabled people through real relationships and deep friendship
Perhaps the greatest challenge in the future is to take this message beyond an audience of those with personal involvement in disability to the wider church and then beyond the church to our local communities and the nation.
As a local pastor, living with a disability, who is embarking on academic research into the inclusion of disabled people and other excluded groups in Baptist churches, I was encouraged by the passion and desire to work together to include and empower disabled people within the life of the church.
Martin Hobgen is an ordained Baptist minister serving as the pastor of Limbrick Wood Baptist Church in Coventry, U.K. A version of this article first appeared in the Baptist Times of Great Britain and is used with permission.