Creating Welcoming Churches: a disability resource for faith communities
Rev. Vicki Terrell
Whether someone comes to church as a casual visitor or is part of the regular congregation, the environment needs to be welcoming. “Creating Welcoming Churches a disability resource for faith communities” (CWC) is a practical guide on how to make church environments more accessible to all people including people living with disability. It was launched in Auckland and Wellington late last year, 2014. The book was made possible through funding from the Joint Special Project Fund of the Association of Presbyterian Women and Methodist Women’s Fellowship in 2013.
CWC was produced by the Disability, Spirituality and Faith Network Aotearoa New Zealand which has strong links both in the church and the disability communities. Most people within the network have (lived) experience of disability. We are passionately committed to making the church a place where all people are affirmed as having gifts to share because we are all made in the image of God.
CWC came from the desire to have a practical book about access to help churches become more welcoming to disabled people. Originally it started with someone asking whether the“Holy, Wholly Accessible” document, produced for the Anglican Diocese of Wellington in 1998, could be reproduced for other churches.
While agreeing in principle that this was good idea, the project grew as we realised that there had been other books published since 1998and the thinking around disability had changed rapidly in the last 15 years. The challenge thenbecame what would make this book new as well as useful for faith communities.
The rise of the social model of disability (as opposed to the medical model) and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, have helped people to understand thatmany barriers faced by disabled people are in the environment and in theattitudes of others. These barriers hinder the full and effective participation of people with disability in society on an equal basis with others.
For many in the group, much of the traditional theology linking disability with healing was problematic. Some people in the group wanted the book to reflect current thinking in the disability sector that communities need to be inclusive environments where all people are welcomed and valued for who they are. In the introduction to CWC the writer interweaves current thinking on disability and inclusion with theological reflection.
The theology of accessibility underpins the entire book. The two basic tenets are
- All people are made in the image of God
- People who follow Christ are called to serve and be served as members of Christ’s body.
The challenge becomes how does the church welcome and enable each member to fulfil their ministry.
The “Information, attitude, action” section has lots of practical suggestions for making buildings, liturgy and community events accessible. While assisting disabled people, many of the suggestions help other people, particularly children and immigrants, to participate more fullyin ministry.
There is advice on interacting with people with disabilities, their equipment and service animals. Much of this information was gathered from people active in the church who have a lived experience of disability. Becoming totally accessible is hard and the book may have errors and shortcomings and we invite critical comments so we can incorporate new learnings in further editions.
Real (life) experiences are highlighted in the book through quotes from disabled people about their experiences in a particular church. There are also stories of churches being welcoming to disabled people. Some are about physical changes which have been made and others reflect on the presence of disabled people in their congregations.
The book has been well received by churches because it addresses theology and practical issues in a clear and concise way alongside personal stories. Many people have commented on the clear layout and how easy it is to follow. There are alreadysigns that some people are thinking differently because of the book. It gently challenges some of the patronising attitudes and encourages a respectful engagement with disabled people as people made in the image of God.
I have been pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm of the disability sector for this book. It has sparked interesting conversations and people working on disability/accessibility areas outside the church have asked for copies. The time spent in careful consideration of the changes in disability thinking and the emphasis on inclusion has paid off because it has credibility in the disability community. There is a real gap in practical resources for community groups who want to become more accessible to all including disabled people. The usefulness of this book goes beyond the church and it maybe a gift to other community groups who are trying to become more accessible to all people particularly disabled people.
Rev Vicki Terrell is an Anglican priest in the Diocese of Auckland and the writer and researcher for Creating Welcoming Churches. Her commitment comes from the two main strands in her life: Christian faith and lifelong impairment.
Copies cost $15 including postage.