In practising its sacraments the Christian Church finds its deepest purposes reflected. In the sacrament of baptism a person is brought into relational union with named persons (Father, Son, Spirit) and he or she obtains belongingness with the Church. In participating thereafter in the sacrament of communion the Christian continues in fellowship, re-membering again her or his entry into and full participation within the ecclesia holy, catholic, and apostolic. What makes a congregation a church, in other words a bearer of the identifying marks of “The Church”, is found in its participants utilising opportunities to learn and teach the Word, the Sacraments, and Discipleship. It is to the question of access to giving and receiving ministry in each of the cognitive, emotional, physical, social and spiritual domains that I wish to direct the attention of this essay.
I begin with the question of what might be a positive, inclusive Christian view of disability regarding the Church, its ministry, and its sacraments, and what is discordant about other views. While liberationist theologies proclaim that there is no such thing as common human experience, I offer that human experience itself suggests the same. In this way to speak of “the disabled” is to offer a disservice to a broad group of people who are each unique. Conversely the Church has, at times, considered all disabilities as either the consequence or punishment of sin, or a trial of obedience to be endured and welcomed. “The disabled” were therefore to be avoided as sinners, or venerated as living saints, but there seemed no place for them to be welcomed as sister-brothers. John Foskett, a mental health chaplain in the United Kingdom, noted that meaning can be found in suffering only through faith, scientific views of suffering cannot address the topic of meaning, but that is not to say that the purpose of suffering is meaning-making. Suffering has no intrinsic purpose. It is true that pastoral care which speaks of the hope found in Christ, even in the suffering of Christ himself, conveys love that secular forms of advice cannot, but the theological meaning which can be found in mental illness does not mean that madness (to use Foskett’s own term) is a positive trait.
I once heard the story of a young woman who, while she was on her honeymoon, suffered a nerve injury which paralysed one side of her face. She became frightened that her new husband would not want her any more. “Perhaps”, she is said to have thought, “if we’d been married for a lifetime he would have that history of love to look back on, but with only our courtship and a few days of marriage what history do we have?” The story ends with the young husband coming to the hospital and twisting his mouth around so that when he kissed his bride their lips would meet. The parallels between this story and our received traditions of Jesus are evident, Jesus is the only whole person and he makes everyone feel whole. But it is not good ministry to say to a paraplegic or a schizophrenic that “all are broken anyway” and each person in need of the Great Physician’s healing. To say to an amputee that “yes, you are missing a limb but we are all in the same spiritual boat,” is to miss both the possibility of learning from another’s lived experience of life without that limb, and the pertinent story of self-identity of that person who already believes him- or herself whole in Christ and therefore not requiring of condescension or understanding of his or her imperfection. Rather than speaking to people with disabilities of how “we are all disabled in some way” regarding the perfection seen in Christ Jesus, it behoves practitioners of good ministry to speak of the wholeness of the person who is the fullest possible expression of the imago dei despite a personal insufficiency of serotonin, functioning neural-pathways, or fingers.
In The Disabled God Nancy Eiesland prescribes accessibility for all to the rites and sacraments of the congregation: those who have been disenfranchised through disability have a personal responsibility to access the socio-symbolic reality of faith. Inversely the congregation is obliged to pursue access to the socio-symbolic reality of those of its members who live with a disability. Kate Swaffer, who was diagnosed with Young Onset Dementia at age 49 speaks of “prescribed disengagement” and of how she was directed by her diagnosing doctor to retire from all forms of life including her job and her tertiary studies, to put her affairs in order, and to start attending sessions at her local high dependency aged care facility in preparation for a permanent move due to her immanent senility. Kate rejected this advice as unsuitable for a woman of her age, and proceeded to do all that she could to remain active and alert, albeit with the help of her husband and the disability support service at her university. Eight years later Kate has completed an undergraduate and a postgraduate degree, written two books about her lived experience of dementia, two further books of her poetry, and is a passionate speaker and advocate for the human rights of people with dementia.
In her essay “Enabling Participation” Ann Wansbrough writes of feeling alienated in church by prayers and messages which seem ignorant or denying of her lived experience of disability. This saddens me since, as Wansbrough has observed, the participation of all members of the congregation must matter to leaders of worship if collective worship is to be a worthwhile activity of the church. Worship which is self-centred on the part of the worship leader, or the majority, is disempowering to others and excludes their full participation in this central activity of the Church. Wansbrough understands that the key to inclusive worship is engagement in real life between those who lead worship and the congregation; I suggest that Kate Swaffer might agree with the sentiment.
Hallinan suggests that it is central that the local congregation defend its members with disabilities against the medicalisation of their spirituality. My experience as a person with a mental illness was to value the medical treatment of my symptoms of depression and anxiety, but to match that with a personal desire to protect my capacity for spiritual ecstasy and my exercise of pastoral empathy from being pharmacologically dulled. This is not quite the point that Hallahan was making (she’s more interested in the desire of some to add spiritualisation as a treatment) but her phrase rings true for me. I am not “sick” just because I am an introverted mystic, but neither is Christian meditation and/or exorcism the whole solution to my physical lack of serotonin and my disequilibrium in gut flora.
The question might then be asked how a church can include people with disabilities as members. A simple solution is to treat all Christians as brother-sisters and not as objects of mission. Subjects of love yes, with consideration for their humanity (we don’t ignore their unique needs for accessibility), but never as “cripples” requiring only charity.
However, the unique experience of living with a disability must never be overlooked or assumed by the community seeking unity by inclusion. As an example, I offer the story of one member of a congregation to which I belonged struggled with the language of the Eucharist. She would decline the invitation to receive the elements if she heard the servers using language along the lines of “the body of Christ, broken for you” since she understood from scripture that Jesus died without any broken bones. She confided tearfully to me one Sunday that to speak of a broken Christ was heretical to her. Yet for others, including me in my emotional and cognitive disability, to speak of that which was whole, the living, functioning physical body of Jesus, as “broken for me” on the cross speaks of Christ’s redeeming all brokenness by adopting it. The one who had healed the infirm and had restored sight, mobility, and even life by his touch, dies in the depth of despair of exsanguination and exhaustion. The perichoretic Son of the Father dies alone and forsaken. I understand that this is what the Eucharist can recall for somewhat permanently broken people. For some the dis-abled, rendered-incapable Jesus is a necessity because he identifies with disabled people. Because of my broken mind, I have no trouble speaking of a Jesus who dies with his bones intact, but his flesh pierced and torn and his heart broken (and ultimately impaled), even as I acknowledge my friend’s literal attention to scripture.
Stookey describes the sacraments as utilising the real stuff of the earth as a sign that all hope is not lost and redemption is possible. All that exists, and all who exist, are bound by existence to the purpose of Creation which is divine self-expression: Stookey observes that humankind was made by God to be shared with. This should involve all of humankind and include, without qualification, those members who are less able than the rest in some facet. It is my opinion that such earthiness in our view of the sacraments speaks of universal belonging.
Hauerwas wrote that in baptism all Christians belong to each other, thereby all children belong to the congregation of parents such that the burden of care is the vocation of all members, not just the biological parents. I suggest that the same is true of the brother-sister relationship between adult believers. In the work of the congregation to seek to include the disabled man or woman I must begin with the understanding that he is my brother, (she is my sister), my own.
At this point it is pertinent to ask how a church can best minister to people with disabilities. I understand the Church to be a foreshadowing fellowship of the now and arriving Reign of God, especially within the New Creation, words borrowed from Volf. Volf went on to describe how the City of God is the people, not the place nor the infrastructure of the place. The city is the people amongst whom God dwells: a local church is a body of neighbouring believers who practice the sacraments and are in community with other congregations. Indeed Volf has said that “where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, not only is Christ present among them but a Christian church is there as well”, and this speaks to me of inclusion of all believers by their involvement. Since the time of the first churches the mark of the Church has been participation in baptism and Eucharist: a woman or man becomes a Christian through baptism and practices his or her faith through publicly accessing the Lord’s table. Volf offers that ecclesiality requires communion and that any church is only a part of The Church for as long as it is ecumenical. A church which excludes any Christian (someone professing faith in Jesus Christ) from the practices of the Church is no church and has no part in the Church. To minister to any believer, including the believer with a disability, is therefore to enable and encourage him or her to practice the faith by participating in the practices of the Church.
Cahalan describes practices as bodily acts, suggesting that they must be embodied to be enacted: practices are only such if they are done, and to be done they must be learned. Since it is the role of the minister (clergy) to teach the practices it is pertinent that these Christian leaders ask how the practices can be modified to fit modified bodily forms. In the same way that a teacher must consider the needs of a child who cannot fully engage in PE so the leader of the congregation must look for creative ways of engaging and ensuring participation of all worshipping disciples. How this might be orchestrated in any given circumstance is beyond the scope of this paper, other than to say that the consideration of the person with a disability as a complete brother-sister in faith is paramount. The person with a disability is no less a Christian for his or her diminished capacity in one area or another.
Eiesland speaks of her own experiences of stigma and practical excommunication due to her physical incapacity to participate along with the congregation. Eucharist became for her a “ritual of exclusion and degradation” where she “felt like a trespasser among the whole-bodied”. I too have lived experience of what Eiesland describes as “the default initiation for the disabled”, the laying on of hands, and the stigma and exercising of coercive shame of not being healed of a disability. Yet she writes also of the great strength she has received and been able to offer at other times through this Charismatic offering; Eiesland and I have each been ministered to by being invited to minister to others.
When author John Swinton was asked how he would wish to be treated if he were diagnosed with a cognitive disability Swinton responded that he would want to be cared for and loved just for who he is, even if who he is had become difficult to handle. This is the nature of the gospel and the way in which God responds to us. Swinton went on to say that when wellness is thought of within a theological framework it can be described as life in the presence of the relational God rather than the simple absence of illness. With his focus placed firmly upon the person rather than the person’s condition or behaviour I believe Swinton gets to the heart of the question of ministry. More so in the situation of a person with a dementia, Swinton speaks of dementias as an erosion of the self, and asks that if salvation is given freely to those who call on the LORD (Romans 10:10) what happens when the LORD is forgotten through cognitive diminution. I understand that to be ministered to is to be reminded of one’s value as imago Dei and as an integral constituent of the community of faith: even if all that one can bring is one’s self that is enough. (We are remembered by the LORD even if we forget God.) By faith we are brother-sisters alongside people who have disorders, not people who are each a disorder (or disordered persons). In this regard the maintenance and development of relationships is central to the congregation’s work in conveying the message and reality of hope which is the very centre of ministry. Where Swinton has observed that the primary loss of people with a disability is not the loss of ability but the loss of value accorded to them by a society frightened by the presence of the disabled it is the role of the local church to subvert this tendency. The offer of friendship on equal, not patronising terms, is imperative.
As a final investigation into the ministry of the church to people with disabilities it is requisite to ask how a congregation might empower those same people to minister to the Church. LaCugna offers that to do what is true, (which is how she chooses to define “orthopraxis”), requires that each Christian engage meaningfully in relationships which serve God in word, action, and attitude. The question I would like answered is what this looks like in practice, and that if it is a true statement on the part of LaCugna then how might each Christian be made welcome and assisted to participate in ministry activity.
In Paragraph Seven of its Basis of Union the Uniting Church assumes responsibility for the discipling of its members, which is to say those it has baptised, and Cahalan believes that disciples have a communal and a personal relationship to Jesus and to each other. In agreeing with Cahalan and mindful of the Basis of Union the necessity of the (Uniting) Church offering opportunities for all members to act as ministers toward each other seems obvious. This is the meaning I take from the Biblical understanding of a “priesthood of all believers”, not that there is no need for a paid clergy but that each Christian can be of help to his or her friends, neighbours, and encountered strangers.
From such an understanding I see two paths, the first of which is open to all disciples. Christians as Christians, without prejudice to their uniqueness, are gifted in ministries by God through the Holy Spirit, and are accountable to God and the Church for the employ of those gifts.
The second path, which is not distinct from the first, is the recognition of the unique gifts provided within the lived experience of disability. My experience of physical and mental illness has provided me with an enhanced awareness of my kinaesthetic and emotional self, and Eiesland writes of a similar understanding suggesting that people with disabilities understand that they cannot take their being for granted. Where daily life is more challenging for the person with a specific disability than for people with a more complete ability the awareness of that specific element of personhood or existence is enhanced, not as simply as heroic overcoming but as a deep knowledge to be shared and taught. To use a Biblical example we might think of the greater insight of Job in the final chapter of his tale regarding what he knew of God and personhood in the first chapter. Through his experience of loss and renewal it is fair to say that Job came to know God far more intimately: the sense that he came to know God “in the Biblical sense” does not seem inappropriate to me.
Those who have experienced disability are very often knowledgeable guides to the alternative pathways. They (we) are the regular users of roads less travelled because of blockages on the expressway, we are the knowers of the alternative exits (which may be behind you) since our aeroplane really has crashed and there is fire outside the most obvious door. As a one-time Londoner who hosted Australian tourist friends I know that anyone can read a Tube map, eventually, but I know the way so well that I can cross London in four different, instantaneously flexible ways, if required by line closures. As a traveller of alternative pathways my experience of God and the Church is similarly broad and lithe, but no less orthodox for being so.
If the Christian Church is identified in any local place by its proclamation of the Word, its public celebration of the sacraments, and by its modelling and practising discipleship, then this can be no less the case if some of the Christians in any local place are people with disabilities. There is no reason why people with disabilities should be excused or excluded from participation in ministry as practitioners or recipients simply because of their deficiency in one area. To suggest otherwise is to subvert the meaning, and the purpose, of the Christian Church.
Cahalan, Kathleen A. Introducing the Practice of Ministry. Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2010.
Eiesland, Nancy L. The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability. Nashville TN: Abingdon, 1994.
Foskett, John. Meaning In Madness: The Pastor and the Mentally Ill. London: SPCK, 1984.
Hallahan, Lorna. “On Relationships Not Things: Exploring Disability and Spirituality” in Ageing, Disability & Spirituality: Addressing the Challenge of Disability in Later Life edited by Elizabeth MacKinlay. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2008.
Hauerwas, Stanley. Dispatches From The Front: Theological Engagements With The Secular. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.
LaCugna, Catherine Mowry. God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.
Stookey, Laurence Hull. Eucharist: Christ’s Feast with The Church. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993.
Swaffer, Kate, Lee-Fay Low. Diagnosed With Alzheimer’s Or Another Dementia. London: New Holland, 2016.
Swinton, John. Dementia: Living In The Memories of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012.
Swinton, John. “The Importance of Being a Creature: Stanley Hauerwas on Disability” in Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader, edited by Brian Brock and John Swinton, 512-545. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012.
Volf, Miroslav. After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998.
Wansbrough, Ann. “Enabling Participation” in Worship In The Wide Red Land edited by Douglas Galbraith, Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1985.
 Catherine Mowry LaCugna. God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life, (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992) 404.
 ibid. 405.
 ibid. 406.
 Rebecca S. Chopp. “Forward” in Nancy L. Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville TN: Abingdon, 1994) 9.
 ibid. 11.
 John Foskett. Meaning In Madness: The Pastor and the Mentally Ill (London: SPCK, 1984) 163.
 ibid. 166.
 Nancy L. Eiesland. The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville TN: Abingdon, 1994) 20.
 Kate Swaffer and Lee-Fay Low. Diagnosed With Alzheimer’s Or Another Dementia (London: New Holland, 2016) 47.
 Ann Wansbrough. “Enabling Participation” in Worship In The Wide Red Land edited by Douglas Galbraith (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1985) 38.
 ibid. 39.
 Lorna Hallahan. “On Relationships, Not Things: Exploring Disability and Spirituality” in Ageing, Disability & Spiritualty: Addressing the Challenge of Disability in Later Life, edited by Elizabeth MacKinlay (London: Jessica Kingsley, 2008) 98.
 Laurence Hull Stookey. Eucharist: Christ’s Feast with The Church (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993) 15.
 Stanley Hauerwas. Dispatches From The Front: Theological Engagements With The Secular. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994) 182.
 Miroslav Volf. After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998) 128.
 ibid. 136.
 ibid. 152.
 ibid. 153.
 ibid. 158.
 Kathleen A. Cahalan. Introducing the Practice of Ministry, (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2010) 108.
 ibid. 109.
 ibid. 110.
 Eiesland. The Disabled God. 112.
 ibid. 113.
 ibid. 116.
 ibid. 117.
 John Swinton. Dementia: Living In The Memories of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012) 2.
 ibid. 7.
 ibid. 9.
 ibid. 10.
 ibid. 139.
 John Swinton. “The Importance of Being a Creature: Stanley Hauerwas on Disability” in Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader, edited by Brian Brock and John Swinton (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012) 517.
 Swinton. Dementia. 141.
 LaCugna. God For Us. 383.
 Cahalan, Introducing the Practice of Ministry. 5.
 I have lived through Chronic Fatigue Immunodeficiency Syndrome and an Anxiety Disorder alongside Depression.
 Eiesland, The Disabled God. 31.