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.