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Places of Belonging Links Theology, (Dis)Ability, and Practice

News St Martin – Talking Points

Friday 1 November 2013

‘Places of Belonging,’ a day-long conference on disability, mental health, inclusion and God, brought together 75 people from greater London and beyond – to pray, to reflect, and to envision new ways of being community in which everyone’s abilities are valued and shared.

The conference, a partnership of the parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields and the progressive Anglican charity Inclusive Church, was held on Saturday 19 October 2013 at St. Martin’s, Trafalgar Square.  Speakers included the Revd Rachel Wilson (on her call to ordained ministry as a person with Cerebral Palsy); St Martin’s parishioners Mims Hodson and Susan Wolfe (on the shape of belonging in mixed-ability settings); and Prof. John Swinton, Chair in Divinity and Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen (on the power of openness, experience and friendship to make our communities real places of belonging).  The day was chaired by St Martin’s parishioner and Co-Chair of the St Martin in the Fields Disability Awareness Task Group, Fiona MacMillan, and by Revd Clare Herbert, Lecturer in Inclusive Theology at St. Martin’s.

It began with a powerful exercise inviting participants to ‘try on’ a difference for the day.  Revd Alex Gowing Cumber of Inclusive Church provided materials and sketch out possibilities: spend part of the day in a blindfold, and find someone to help you move around; spend the day with a body part taped up and immobilized, or with finger-paints, or ear-plugs, or drawing materials for occupying attention and settling the mind.  This was a different kind of conference, in which patience, openness, collaboration, and attention were built into the practice of the meeting itself.

Rachel Wilson spoke of coming to see her often ‘misbehaving’ body as a site not of hostility, but of deeply-felt belonging.  She raised the question of each person’s calling (framing it for herself as a newly ordained priest).  ‘What is the shape of my priesthood, if no priest I’ve ever seen looks, moves, or behaves like me?  In what way has God called me to my particular vocation because of, not despite, the shape that I’m in?’

Mims Hodson traced her path from isolation and depression to ‘the most important place I belong – with God. God didn’t mind me being angry with him; he totally understood why I would feel that way.’  She described how relationships with Christ, with friends, and with fellow parishioners had kept her alive; and how they continue to help her discern mystical experience from what is dangerously psychotic.

Susan Wolfe affirmed the importance of places and spaces where ‘disabled’ people can make real contributions, where their work, insights, and loving connections are given the room to make a real difference in the community’s life.  Even cutting cheese and putting out crackers can be a place of inclusion – or of dismissal.  The powerbrokers and gatekeepers in our congregations can do much to invite everyone’s contributions.  By asking and by paying attention, leaders can learn to respect the abilities, the needs, and the limitations of each member. ‘We are winning,’ Susan concluded; ‘we can do it one cracker at a time.’

John Swinton’s keynote address, ‘Moving from Inclusion to Belonging,’ underlined how diversity among human beings is not the exception, but rather the norm.  There are many different ways of experiencing the world.  Sighted and unsighted; upright and chair level; fast moving and slow paced; hyper-rational and deeply emotive – the list could go on.  ‘Difference is normal,’ he affirmed; the real question we need to unpack is why we choose to mark out certain forms of diversity as undesirable or less-than-fully-human.

As a former mental health nurse, Swinton urged Christians to put experience at the heart of our thinking, and to leave diagnosis where it actually belongs.  Christian believers – most of all! – should be in the business of taking experience seriously, including those spiritual experiences that modern culture considers quite ‘strange.’  Diagnoses like ‘schizophrenia’ or ‘cerebral palsy’ are technical tools that physicians define and redefine over time.  Conversations outside the surgery should be about persons, their experiences, and their stories. 

For Swinton, friendship is the key element that moves us from condescending acceptance to real mutual belonging.  Aristotle believed friendship was for social ‘equals,’ but the Christian perspective is broader.  God’s offer of friendship through Jesus points to practices of transformation, justice, gentleness, and peace. 

What does it mean to be guest, and to be host, in a community of the ‘able’ and the ‘disabled’?  The conference ended with a powerfully moving Eucharist in which both presiders and congregants were a mixture of the walking and the wheelchair bound.  That mixture invited participants to slow down the rhythms of spoken word and of sacrament.  We modeled through liturgical practice the kind of community that is patient, open, collaborative, and attentive.

‘Places of Belonging’ is a follow-up from the smaller ‘Opening the Roof” workshop held at St. Martin’s on 20 October, 2012, also co-sponsored by Inclusive Church. A number of participants from this year’s conference have already begun planning further follow-up.  Under the wings of a hovering Spirit, the movement to turn our churches, and our society, into true places of belonging is already well underway – one conversation, one friendship, one biscuit at a time.

John Falcone
Pastoral Assistant, St Martin-in-the-Fields