This is a guest blog post from Emma Major in response to my post on Church Uploaded – Ecclesia in a Crisis. I am deeply grateful for Emma and others, for the gracious way in which they’ve helped me see a huge, personal blindspot in my understanding of church.
Yesterday I read the article “Church uploaded” by Naomi Dawson which opens with, “Imagine, for some strange reason, that during this pandemic we could still keep meeting together in person.”
I was excited to see where Naomi would be taking this article, expecting to read about all the great ways church has been online over the last decade. I thought I would read about the many ways established church could learn from online churches including Disability and Jesus, London Internet Church, Pixel Church and iChurch.
Instead I read about the importance of being online and trying to create relationships online. It is an important subject and one I’m glad Naomi is highlighting but my initial comment was:
“Reading your article is interesting as one of many thousands of disabled person who have been excluded from so many churches for so long. We’ve been church online for years exactly because established church often isn’t a place where disabled people can meet together in person with other Christians. Let me paint a picture: in many physical churches blind people can’t see the words on the screen or in the books or partake in the visual imagery on which we rely; wheelchair users can’t get in the door, can’t sit where they wish, can’t access the altar or the pulpit; deaf people can’t hear the words of a service or conversation of fellowship; autistic people can’t access buildings because of the sensory overload due to poor design; and those with chronic ill health feel like they are judged because they can’t stand like everyone else and can’t attend every week. This is the reality of many churches, this is what “meeting together in person” really looks like for those who would love to be in church but aren’t actually thought about. The fact that physical churches are now exploring how to find relationships online without thinking to ask those who’ve done it well for years is intriguing. The fact that inclusivity of technology is being discussed, especially around those who don’t have online skills, is even more interesting especially when so many established churches are going online without thinking about the ways of being fully inclusive for people with sight or hearing loss.”
From this comment Naomi asked me to write an article for her and I was loathe to do so, preferring to point her towards those who have taught me so much about online church since I became disabled 4 years ago. But she asked again, so, allowing others to provide theological commentary about online church, here are my thoughts.
I lost almost all my eye sight and mobility very rapidly 4 years ago. I went from being an active Pioneer Minister to being housebound in weeks. My faith remained strong but my ability to minister as I had, or even attend church, was vanishingly small. I kept battling and kept attending church with the help of family, friends and the church themselves; but church became a place where I felt excluded and marginalised. I couldn’t access the words of the liturgy and the hymns; I couldn’t see the raising of the communion cup; I couldn’t see who was around me, navigate around the church independently or find people I wanted to talk to. I started to hate going to church because it was the place I felt least able, the place where I felt less of God because of the barriers; I would rather worship God at home. I share this not to place blame on my church, they were loving and helpful; but to highlight the reality of accessing church with a disability.
It took over a year for me to come to terms with my disability, to accept the changes in my physical life, to make peace with the restrictions and isolation and to start to get the help I needed to leave the house. In that time I found Disability and Jesus on Twitter and many Christian groups and resources online; they became church to me. These were places where people prayed, praised, shared, gave and received from their own homes with God at the centre of it all. It was church online that healed my grief and helped me hear God’s continued call on my life. He still had work for me to do for him.
So when I read:
“Would you say that now is the time to be an eye or a foot or a hand on its own?”
I say absolutely not; it never is and yet how many churches are truly inclusive of all? How many churches provide every aspect of their services and ministries accessibly for all? How many churches live stream to their members who are at home with ME or dementia or disability? How many churches have disabled people in leadership?
When I read:
“A huge felt need in COVID19 is for relationship and collective real time community. We’re experiencing isolation and a lack of community and physical contact with friends and family. We need our church family, the body of believers, more than ever before.”
I roll my eyes and ask why this has never been thought of before. 20% of the population is considered disabled; I don’t know what proportion of us are in isolation most of the time but it’s not a small number. When have we been thought about as part of the established church provision? We need our church family! When we aren’t at church it’s not because we are lazy or can’t be bothered; it’s because we can’t get to church or because church isn’t a positive experience. Read that again. Church is often not a positive experience, is commonly not a place where we feel the love of God when we live with disability. For example; if you feel I need prayer for healing then you don’t know how much God has healed me of the grief of my disability or how He is calling me in my ministry for him.
When I read:
“Gathering is an essential aspect of what church is – and one that is even more essential in a time of crisis. We are calling on the church to strive to gather Christians as fully as the limitations of circumstances allow”
I say yes, yes and yes again.
Then I pray that this sentiment will continue after you all go back to your normal church services leaving many of us isolated due to covid even longer (many of us will need to be shielding for months). I pray that physical churches embrace inclusivity. And I pray that churches continue to serve and include and listen to and empower those for whom isolation is normal.
Will the good intentions of accessibility still be in place in a years time when most of your congregation are back in their seats?
Or will we be the invisible again?
Don’t get me wrong, we have found our church communities online, we know the blessing of God and fellowship and worship together online; we will continue to follow God’s calling in our lives. But how amazing would it be if every church continued to offer services online; to hold prayer meetings on zoom, to ring round those they haven’t seen, to offer online resources for families who can’t attend and to ask those with disabilities to follow their call into leadership and ministry.
My prayer is that churches would take this experience of isolation and fear, stress and brokenness and realise that many in the world live this way every day and need the church to embrace everyone as an essential part of God’s kingdom.
Emma is a mum, wife, friend, pioneer minister, blind wheelchair user and poet. She is passionate about sharing the love of God and making church accessible for all. on Twitter and Instagram. My blog is http://llmcalling.blogspot.com