Friday, 12 December 2014

Book Review: Disability: The Inclusive Church Resource

Disability: The Inclusive Church Resource
Theology by John M. Hull
Darton Longman and Todd, 2014
ISBN-13: 978 0 232 53065 0

This handy little book, which is in a small format and only 96 pages long is the first in a series of resource books being published under the aegis of Inclusive Church. The book is divided into sections: firstly an Introduction by Clare Herbert, who works with Inclusive Church in the Disability field; secondly: a section called 'Experience' giving reflections/stories from people with disabilities associated with churches; thirdly a theology of disability by John M. Hull and fourthly a short resources section.  A similar format will be maintained throughout the series of books.

Clare Herbert's introduction focuses on the challenges of inclusion-the need to take time to understand the various and individual needs and gifts of each person and their life as a whole, not solely that part of it which interacts with church as an institution.  She calls for us all to slow down and learn to listen to others about disability, but also about other areas of inclusion which concern the church.  She also raises the point that inclusion of people with disabilities is about wider issues than just ramps and large print service sheets: it needs to be about the whole person.  Clare's introduction sets the tone for the book and it is a high tone which I think is worth listening to for the sake of including everyone not just disabled people.

In the 'Experience' section: five people with disabilities and one carer describe their experiences interacting with church. They are a mixture of lay and ordained voices. These are powerful stories and contain at least as much theology as the explicitly theological section which follows them.  All of them resonate with me in one way or another, but that which resonated with me most was that of Rachel.  She says:

"I hope that what I represent as a disabled priest will teach the church, and indeed people in general, that inclusiveness is about much more than the physical environment. Disability is not something to be 'allowed for' or excused but something to be truly embraced. I say this not as part of some sort of secular equality agenda but because each person who crosses the threshold of the church, disabled or not, is made in the image of God and is to be regarded as precious for that reason. It is the role of the church, first and foremost, to welcome people by virtue of their unique humanity, whoever they are, not because you might believe that as a disabled person I especially need to be 'looked after'. However unwittingly, if we are not careful, such all-encompassing kindness can become oppressive.  We must allow disabled people to grow within the church, to become the people God has intended them to be; that includes allowing them the room to question, to make mistakes, to be angry, to be dismissive, in common with their brothers and sisters.  I believe that if disabled people are allowed to truly flourish  in the service of the church, in whatever capacity, then the effect would be transformative. ... In all the areas in which it operates, the Inclusive Church agenda should be recognised as being about acknowledging the fullness of God at work in all people, whatever their circumstances."

In his theology of disability, John Hull first asks where we would find Disability Theology on a theological map.  He proposes that the questions raised by disability interact with all branches of theology, but that there is also a specific genre of disability theology which is looking at championing the needs and gifts of disabled people and an area of frontier theology where theologians seek to interpret the experience of disabled people through theology so as to break down the barriers between disabled and non-disabled people.

John Hull then goes on to talk about how language is used in terms of disability in both the Bible and everyday life: language itself can be disabling, particularly due to the additional cultural meanings associated with it. The terms 'blind' and 'deaf' are particularly emotive.  He says that we need to reflect on the context of Biblical passages in terms of disability as well as other issues (e.g. feminism) when determining the authority and interpretation of scripture.

John Hull then goes on to talk about how views of disability can critically acclaim and broaden our view of theology: for example celebrating difference in creation and affirming the counter cultural nature of the gospel in being sceptical of the culture of normality which is prevalent in today's culture.

Finally, John talks about how disabled people can be seen as good news for the church and Christianity as good news for disabled people, not by being associated with miraculous healing, but by helping the world to realise Christ's community of inclusive love and by bringing marginalised groups into all areas of the church as full members both of congregations and in ministry/leadership roles.

John's theology can be a little harder to unpack than some of the earlier sections of the book, but it provides an excellent theological foundation on which to build a more inclusive church.

The final section of the book is a resources section: the beginning of the section give some suggestions for how churches may wish to approach becoming more inclusive to disabled people, which I think are excellent.  The range of organisations and resources quoted are also a good selection.

All in all, this is an excellent short introduction to an inclusive theology of disability with many practical points which would be useful to churches.  It is a book which would be accessible for a wide readership and yet provide much food for further thought and action. Being a short book, it would also be suitable for those with limited time but who want to become more inclusive.  I heartily recommend it to all.

Monday, 1 December 2014

#adventbookclub Walking Backwards to Christmas: Anna part I

Along with various twitter friends, I'm taking part in the #adventbookclub organised by  Pam Webster, we're reading Stephen Cottrell's Walking Backwards to Christmas. Here's my first post:

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage,  then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

As I was reading this, I remembered a recent conversation with my vicar, whose name is Anna, where she commented that it is her destiny to turn into her Biblical namesake - the batty old lady who is always hanging around the church.  I couldn't comment about the 'batty' bit, but was thinking that being the person who is always hanging around the church doesn't seem to be a bad thing. But do we listen to the wisdom which these elders have acquired by hanging around the church, in the presence of God, for years?  There seems a lot we could gain by paying attention to that openness.

This seems to connect with the definition of a prophet: I wondered if a prophet is someone who has spent so much time waiting and watching before God's face that she can see and discern things which others cannot.  Hence, Anna recognises the Holy Family among the whole throng of people around the Temple, and is able to praise God for God's revelation in Jesus where others didn't see it.

At the beginning of Advent, this reminds me to spend time opening myself to God, hanging around in God's temple, just being among the busyness, and also to remember to look for God given wisdom - prophesy if you like - in unexpected places.



Friday, 3 October 2014

Eyes Wide Open

This is a belated post for National Poetry Day which was yesterday (2nd October).  I thought I would post a poem I wrote after attending Deaf Worship at the Greenbelt Festival a few years ago.  It was conducted in British Sign Language with translation for the signing impaired, and the theme was awareness: having eyes wide open to God. This is particularly important in the context of D/deaf worship in community where participants need to have their eyes open in order to lipread or watch the sign language of others, but I think it has something to say to all of us as a way of looking for God in the world.

Eyes wide open

Eyes wide open
To the glory of the Lord
Shining in person, grass and
Unexpected grasshopper
Neatly folded on shoe

Eyes wide open
To signs
Of worship and praise.
Expressing God's love through 
The whole body.

Eyes wide open
To catch a Glimpse
Of joy as the inexpressible
Is touched upon
Without Words. Beyond words

Eyes wide open
To the Stranger
And the Stranger 
Signing 'I love you'
One handed

The other hand to
Embrace the Other.

Eyes wide open
To see beneath the skin
Through the barriers
Erected by fear and hate
To the lovely core within

Eyes wide open
To the complete
And utter Joy
Of the dance and signs 
Of life.

Sign Language I Love You
'I love you' (American Sign Language) From:

"I have called you by name, you are mine...

... when you pass through the waters I will be with you; 
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; 
when you walk through fire you  will not be burned
and the flame will not consume you"

So says the Lord in Isaiah 43: in many ways it is a simple but profound  message and one which brings much comfort. However, along with many others I think, I can find it difficult to take in this immense faithfulness of  God's love, especially when life feels hard even when those hardships are relatively minor. One of the things which helps me to remember God's love and faithfulness is being communicated by name as happened at both celebrations of the eucharist during the weekend I mentioned in my previous post On the Importance of the Eucharist

This, and a fabulous blog post by Claire, one of the priests who administered communion, started me thinking about how important being reminded personally of God's love in this way can be.  Communicating people by name can be a tricky business; it could feel exclusive in many situations such as in a 'normal' parish where visitors, or even those with less easily remembered names, could feel excluded if not given communion by name. They could be given the impression that God's love is only for the favoured few who are given communion by name and are 'first class Christians' so to speak. However, I think that in particular situations giving and receiving communion by name can be an important expression of God's particular love for and relationship with each person. 

This can be a particularly powerful experience for those of us who find it difficult to accept and believe at the deepest levels that 'God loves me' and 'God is calling me'.  It can be much easier to believe that God loves everyone else, but feel unworthy of God's love oneself: something I frequently feel.  Therefore to be given the gift of someone, through whom God is working, telling me that God loves me through God's sacramental incarnation in the Eucharist is the most amazing and powerful thing.  This is a love which has no edges, where none are unworthy and all are special to God individually as well as generally. Wow!  This is too large and wonderful to fully contemplate.  The only possible response I have is wordless worship, and being moved to tears of joy.

The Chapel at Compton Durville facing the altar with large wall mounted Franciscan Tau Cross
The Chapel at Compton Durville
This experience first happened at the Anglican Franciscan house at Compton Durville, in Somerset (which has now sadly closed) where I used to go on retreat.  Receiving the eucharist daily is awesome enough as it is, but on Saturdays and sometimes at other times, a retired priest called Arthur, who is a close friend of the Community, would celebrate the eucharist.  He must have celebrated the eucharist hundreds if not thousands of times, but each time he celebrated it was as if he was celebrating for the first time: a really fresh, alive sense of the presence of God.  This seemed to be felt by everyone present and was a great blessing to all.

I used to retreat at Compton Durville several times per year and so eventually got to know Arthur a little.  One day he gave us all communion by name, including me.   This was a significant turning point or me: when I realised that God turned to me, loves me and calls me as me, however imperfect.  Sometimes that knowledge of God's love and faithfulness is hard to hold on to, but the memory of God's powerful call and love through Arthur 's, and now other priests including Claire's and Kathryn's mediation is helpful at these times.

God is truly an incarnate God, incarnate through the bread and wine at the eucharist and flowing through others who open up a channel for God's love on Earth. 

Friday, 25 July 2014

Book Review: Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome

Freaks, Geeks & Asperger Syndrome:
A User Guide to Adolescence
Luke Jackson
2002, Jessica Kingsley
ISBN-13: 978 1 84310 098 0

Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome

Luke Jackson’s account of adolescence with Asperger Syndrome, which he wrote at the age of thirteen, is lively and informal in style.  He is self-aware and writes with a considerable amount of humour about his own condition and the associated conditions which affect various members of his family.  He presents a positive but realistic picture of Asperger Syndrome: having said that he views it as a gift rather than a disability; he also acknowledges some of the more challenging aspects which can be experienced by those with Asperger Syndrome. However, I feel that the book often concentrates on earlier childhood rather than adolescence, so the sub-title ‘A User Guide to Adolescence’ might seem a bit misleading in certain chapters.  Many of the issues discussed, however, are important in both childhood and adolescence.

Luke starts off by talking about Asperger Syndrome, where it fits within the Autism Spectrum and about diagnosis as a label versus a signpost. I think, in many ways these first few chapters are the most significant in the book as far as awareness is concerned. He makes the important point that many young people (or even older people) with Asperger Syndrome would rather know why they are different to others as this helps them to develop strategies for addressing the challenges of life and to understand themselves better.  He also has an excellent discussion about whether young people are likely to exaggerate their symptoms to fit their diagnosis, which he felt was often a fallacious argument; something with which I would agree from my own experience.

In the fourth and fifth chapter, Luke provides excellent discussions of fixations and sensory sensitivity, both of which seem to me to be balanced and well researched.  He generally tries to take into account that others may have different experiences to him within Asperger Syndrome, but sometimes the tendency to think that everyone is like him or can be helped by the same strategies which have helped him comes out (he is not unique in this – many books written by authors who are not on the Autism Spectrum have a similar tendency).  Chapter six, where he discusses physiological differences, is a case in point: he majors on allergy induced autism and the gluten-free and casein-free diet which has helped his family so much, but it is unclear how common this form of Autistic Spectrum condition is in reality. (I suspect that if it was very common, the gluten-free, casein-free diet would now be much more widespread among people with Asperger Syndrome than it appears to be, but I don’t have good scientific evidence for or against this so would need to do more research.)

The latter part of the book tends to focus on topics which are more closely associated with school, and provides some interesting suggestions for insights and strategies to assist Asperger students to get the best out of their school life. Many of these can also be extended into other areas of life with a bit of thought or adaptation although this is not explicitly addressed in the book.  Some of the suggestions may seem a bit extreme to teachers and other adults who are trying to assist but in general the solutions suggested are interesting and reasonable, and those which seem more extreme give an insight into the way that the brain of (this particular) person with Asperger Syndrome works.  For example, Luke is very strongly against homework and cannot see the point in it as he has a very black and white divide between school and home.  He extends this strong dislike to all students with Asperger Syndrome, which in my experience is not the case. Also he does not fully engage with arguments for homework such as developing independent working.

The book closes with a glossary of idioms, which Luke uses consciously throughout the book, partly to help his Asperger readers to appreciate idiom more easily, and a useful appendix of resources.

The book as a whole is an easy, fluid read and would be suitable for both young people and adults; it should do much to raise awareness of the gifts and challenges of Asperger Syndrome.  It is enhanced by pertinent drawings contributed by Luke’s siblings.  Although Luke tries to take into account others’ differing experiences, and to a large extent succeeds in this, the book is very much a personal account so it is worthwhile reading other accounts of Asperger Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Conditions to gain a fuller picture. Several suitable books are listed in the resources section at the back of the book.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

On the Importance of the Eucharist

At the end of May, I went to Coventry for the installation of one of my friends as Canon of the Cathedral. It was a beautiful weekend in many ways: meeting lots of lovely tweeps, conversation, laughter, food and last but definitely not least: the eucharist.  I was once again overwhelmed by the presence of God in the Eucharist, so I thought I would like to draw together some of my thoughts in this area.

It all started at my confirmation.  I was baptised and confirmed into the Church of England as an adult and unusually had a gap of six months between baptism and confirmations.  Although it is common for those baptised as an adult to take communion before their confirmation, I did not do so.  I didn't know what to expect at my first communion but having come from a background which was memorialist in outlook and did not place a great deal of emphasis on the eucharist, or the Lord's Supper as they would call it, I certainly did not expect the overwhelming sense of the real presence of God which I experienced on receiving communion at my confirmation.  It was one of the most amazing, enlightening and transforming experiences of my life to date.  It is difficult to describe the sense of the love and presence of God which I felt: there are no words which are adequate to describe it.  ever since that day, the mystery of the eucharist has been a key place of encounter with the presence of God and a place of being fed and strengthened.

This might seem strange, especially from the outside, as God is everywhere at all times and the eucharist 'only' a ritual when looked at from a literal point of view.  Certainly, God's presence is also felt elsewehre in nature, in others, often in surprising places and situations.   However, for me, and for many others in my experience, the eucharist is not just a ritual.  It is a mystery where the presence of God and God's awesome love are made manifest through the humble medium of bread and wine. This awesome sense of God's love  has been conveyed through these humble symbols throughout the centuries since Jesus' Last Supper with his disciples and are a continual expression of Christ's incarnation and passion.

This is the amazing mystery of which St. Francis of Assisi writes so movingly in his Letter to the Entire Order:

O sublime humility! 
O humble sublimity!
The Lord of the universe,
God and the Son of God,
so humbles himself
that for our salvation
he hides himself
under an ordinary piece of bread!

From 'A Letter to the Entire Order' by St Francis, reproduced in A Sense of the Divine: A Franciscan Reader for the Christian Year, European Province of the Society of St Francis 2001. 


Welcome - First Post

Welcome to the Wanderings of WobblyGoose: a random walk (or sometimes crawl) through the journey of life. I have followed various people's blogs for several years and been much inspired, but never had the courage to write myself until now.  This blog is an attempt to formulate some of my thoughts, reflections and ideas and have somewhere to respond to the inspiration I have received from others' blogs.

WobblyGoose has a wide range of interests, from science through social sciences, history and theology. The main focuses of this blog are likely to be around Christian Spirituality and disability.  However, things may develop in other directions as the random walk progresses!

I hope you enjoy the blog.  All opinions are my own unless otherwise attributed.

Thank you.

Wobbly Goose