Strictly Come Dancing

Strictly Come Dancing Logo: Gold glitterball with the series name across it, radiating blue rays and glitter.

Well, this is unexpected. Never thought I’d be blogging here about Strictly Come Dancing. Random references to Doctor Who and superhero comics, sure, but not a celebrity dancing competition. I mean, I watch it, but never really felt the need to write about it.

But last night, EastEnders actor Rose Ayling-Ellis took home the Glitterball trophy. For those who haven’t been following this series, Rose is profoundly Deaf and a BSL user, and so that was reflected throughout the series, perhaps most notably when one routine had a period of silent dancing. And none of this journey was about sympathy or pity or “Aww, look at the Deaf girl”; Rose was a damn good dancer who won an exceptionally close competition. This was really about representation for a community that isn’t often showcased on mainstream TV. And this is a big deal, because while this was going on, Channel 4’s subtitles went down for weeks and the government was drawing fire for not having BSL interpreters at their televised Covid briefings.

So why am I talking about this on a Bible blog? Simply because I believe that the Church needs to learn some lessons from this about representation. Too often we’re too slow or too lazy to make adaptations, and while we sometimes make worship accessible, worship leading remains out of reach.; how many stages or pulpits are accessible to a wheelchair user? And yet when that is the case, we’re not learning from the faith stories of those who are Deaf, those who are autistic, wheelchair users or those with invisible disabilities. And yes, that means embracing theologies around disabilities, but also just freeing up everyone to use the gifts God has given them, of realising that Pentecost extends to languages like BSL, SSE, Makaton and any other method of communicating.

So I celebrate Rose winning Strictly. I celebrate my Church and their commitment to bringing in BSL interpreters. I celebrate these things, but I also pray that they’re not the end of the journey but the start.

World Toilet Day

Sign reading “Stop! Did you wash your hands?”

“There are no unsacred places,” said the poet Wendell Berry, “There are only sacred places and desecrated places.” God is, by his very nature, everywhere, whispering between blades of grass, between bricks and mortar, between atoms and molecules, and so every bush has the potential to burst into divine flame, every silence becomes an opportunity to hear God speak.

So. Toilets.

Toilets are a space we take for granted, at least in the affluent West. We treat them discretely and don’t really talk about them until a plumber is needed. And to be fair, that’s the well-mannered thing to do. People deserve their dignity, their privacy, their respect. And so churches don’t often talk about toilets.

But in the Book of Judges, Ehud assassinates King Eglon while he’s relieving himself. In the 1800’s, some pastors in the US used Deuteronomy 23:12-14 as a reason not to install a toilet in their church; meanwhile, some translations of the Bible seem to politely translate Matthew 15:17 to avoid Jesus talking about latrines or sewers, and at least one interpretation of 1 Kings 18 has Elijah trash-talking the prophets of Baal by asking them if their god is busy taking a leak. The Bible is a bit more earthy than we give in credit for.

Today is World Toilet Day, an initiative of UN Water designed to draw attention to the lack of sanitation and hygiene around the world. A lack of decent sewage systems has a huge impact throughout the world, from the immediate issues around hygiene and infection, to social problems. Around 4 billion people don’t have access to safely managed sanitation systems. Many teenage girls can’t attend school due to the lack of changing facilities, while the need to walk to the outskirts of town or to a river leaves many women vulnerable to sexual assault. Meanwhile, this short film shows how many disabled people can’t go out because the lack of accessible toilets in public spaces (and here’s a question to ask next time you’re in church – in which cubicle is all the cleaning kit kept?). In a world blighted by pandemics and poverty, there’s a desperate need to talk more about toilets. There’s a need to see our church toilets as part of a sacred space that can be a blessing to others (and if you want ideas on how you can do that, check out Toilet Twinning).

Once, at a convention, the writer Terry Pratchett was part of a panel of writers who had been asked to design a fantasy city over the course of the day’s events. He got into arguments, because he was the only one asking how the hypothetical city got rid of its sewerage. But he was right, because without a sanitation system, people die. Without access to adequate facilities, many people cannot fully join their community.

“There are no unsacred places,” said the poet Wendell Berry, and so maybe how we think about toilets can be a way of loving our neighbour, maybe the things we choose not to speak about reveals the people we’re willing to ignore, maybe we need to ask God to reveal his image in those hieroglyphs we see all around us.

Symbols representing disabled, female and male toilets

A Pentecost of Accessibility

Blind man in a yellow hoodie touches the face of a reproduction of the Mona Lisa.

There has been a lot of controversy recently around online church; some see it as a pale imitation of the real thing, others see it as vital to establishing faith communities among those who are unable to access physical buildings (for what it’s worth, I’m in the latter camp). The situation has been exacerbated by COVID-19, with frustration over lockdown boiling over online and the Church Times unhelpfully proclaiming “WORSHIP BANNED!”. But while Coronavirus has pushed this conversation forward, it’s actually revealing something that has been going on for years – our churches aren’t always accessible enough.

I was reminded of this during today’s commute. I was listening to the Disability Visibility podcast and Alice Wong’s interview with Amanda Cachia. The conversation covers how museums are trying to become more accessible to disabled visitors, not in terms of ticking some legislative boxes, but about how museum curators can use accessibility and technology to bring people closer to their collections. It’s a fascinating listen, and I think it has something to say to the church, because no matter how we like to believe that how our particular worship practices are ordained by God himself and everyone else is slow-dancing with heresy, the fact is we all curate our worship services in certain ways. When we become aware of that, we can start to recognise who gets left out of those services and how we can be more accessible.

Maybe that starts with the online/offline divide, and the false dichotomy that promotes. I’m happy to be controversial here – all churches (or, to be fair, groups of churches) need to consider themselves multisite, with one of those sites being cyberspace. There are people who would like to be part of your congregation but can’t because they’re unable to leave the house, or because your building isn’t accessible, or because they live in a different country, or because they’re digital natives and access information and community differently, or… Whatever the reason, online church is a way to form communities that are open to those who can’t be with you physically. More than that; they are communities in which those who have too often been marginalised are already leading and being pioneers, because online church was their only way to gather together. This isn’t about us graciously deciding to be accessible just because a pandemic has suddenly dropped everyone into the same boat, it’s about humbly recognising where the Spirit has already been at work, often for years, and about taking this opportunity to learn and to join in. Check out An Ordinary Office for an example of what I mean.

This brings us back to the question of who gets to help design our acts of worship and who gets to be involved, and the imaginative ways in which we can broaden that conversation. Going back to the podcast I mentioned earlier, accessibility shouldn’t be perfunctory. It can be a way of releasing more creativity into our churches. How many of our worship spaces have beautiful works of art, or heartfelt memorials, or architecture designed to lift our thoughts towards God… And are there people who can’t access these? What about taking inspiration from museums and TV and seeing if we can creatively use audio descriptions to enhance those spaces? How is scripture opened up when we interpret it through sign language? How much more powerful and relational do our missions become when we use communication technologies to make them a two-way street by which Christians around the world can learn from each other? Can the use of smell in worship (High Church, I’m looking at you!) open doors for parishioners with dementia?

I know this is just me throwing out ideas and not knowing what to do with them; it’s a bad habit of mine. But I’m convinced that accessibility isn’t something we do out of obligation or necessity, it’s something we do because together we are stronger. If d/Deaf people hadn’t been looking at better ways to communicate, we might never have developed SMS or the internet. When we’re all able to design for accessibility we all benefit. Let’s not forget that the Spirit is always at work in the background, and while some of that inspiration may look different, it will unveil another facet of God’s character to the blessing of us all.

25 years ago saw the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act in the UK, legislation that was passed due to the protests and activism of hundreds of disabled people. We should learn from that; the church shouldn’t need to be shamed into becoming more inclusive and welcoming. Accessibility allows us all to work together to share the different ways in which we encounter God. It helps our churches more accurately reflect the Kingdom and makes us stronger through the gifts of those who’ve too often been dismissed as weak. And, ultimately, accessibility is about love and community and fellowship. Our churches should be about that too.

Ability Sunday

Once upon a time, we looked into the sky and the depths of the stars; we saw the storm clouds and the lightning and we put our faith in seedtime and harvest. We did all these things and behind them all we felt something, someone, at work. We heard the whisper of someone speaking, someone present within us but also beyond us.

We carried this knowledge with us as wandering turned into farms turned into cities. Temples appeared in deserts and high streets, then churches and seminaries. Stories turned into texts, the texts escaped into the wild and we listened and read and responded with countless efforts to fathom the majesty and mystery of God.

All of this hides a secret: all the theology and all the sermons put together can’t fully unlock that mystery, a thousand textbooks barely a syllable. And although this quest is noble and important, if the ultimate aim is understanding then it’s nothing more than tilting at windmills.

My eldest son is autistic with associated learning difficulties. He’ll never be a theologian, he’ll never attend a Bible college. That’s not his calling, but he takes the bread and wine alongside everyone else, understanding on a gut level the love and grace of God. If there’s a priesthood of all believers then he’s a priest.

He’s a priest when he puts the chairs away. He’s a priest when he mows the church’s lawns. He’s a priest when he puts together flatpack furniture for anyone who’ll let him. He’s a priest when people witness his servant heart.

God is huge, ineffable, and all our learning is a drop in a divine ocean. But that’s its own kind of grace, because it means that God makes himself known to anyone who’ll listen. The Spirit moves where the Spirit wants, and maybe he’s particularly interested in moving towards those who, in our arrogance, are written off, undervalued, patronised, infantilised. The Spirit is there, and if we don’t recognise that, well, who’s at fault?

On this Ability Sunday, my wife signed to my son “Jesus loves you”. On this Ability Sunday, my son responded with a thumbs up. And in that thumbs up there’s a wave of understanding, there’s ability and grace.

The Spirit moves where the Spirit wants.

Never dare to be shocked at who’s listening.

An Accessible Pentecost?

(One of a three posts I’ve written to celebrate Pentecost this year – the others arePentecost – A Time for Telling Stories‘ and ‘An Environmental Pentecost‘.)

The fire fell from heaven, the wind blew through a locked room, and the Church was born in a babble of languages that sounded more like drunks singing than the preaching of saints.

I think sometimes we miss the miracle of Pentecost. We see it as a supernatural outpouring of the Holy Spirit and a hugely successful evangelistic rally. And it’s both of those things, but underlying it all is a concept we often overlook: accessibility.

The pilgrim crowd heard the disciples speaking in the own languages, no matter where they came from. The Holy Spirit wasn’t picking and choosing, this was God reaching out to anyone who’d listen and dropping a pretty massive hint as to what the Church should look like.

And yet when we talk about Pentecost, our language can be limited. Does it include sign language? Makaton? Braille? The edges of our Pentecost may be telling us how far we’re really willing to go to communicate the Good News. And sometimes the languages we speak also have to factor in where we put the lectern, the colours we use in our Powerpoints, the font size in which we type our hymn sheets and the number of times we make sure the hearing aid loop is actually working.

Heck, architecture has its own language too. How easy is it to get a wheelchair into our churches?

Communication is wider than we think. Behaviour is communication – I have two sons with autism, and an awful lot of what they can’t put into words is expressed through how they act at any given moment. Meltdowns and social misunderstandings and sensory needs can be a kind of language, one that requires grace and understanding because too often out there it elicits tutting and judgement.

And so maybe this has to be part of our prayers this Pentecost: to ask the Spirit to give us a greater vision for the language we use, to ask for the gifts we need to make that vision a reality. Because the Spirit that spoke Hebrew and Latin and Greek and Aramaic two thousand years ago can use sign language and read Braille in 2019. We need to offer up our hands and hearts to receive the gift of an accessible Pentecost.

Some resources: