In the last season of Doctor Who, it was revealed that the TARDIS, which translates all known languages, both human and alien, couldn’t handle British Sign Language. And although I understand there were production issues to consider, and while it was great to see a deaf actor playing a major role, the Doctor’s inability to sign still bugged me. It felt like a failure of imagination, almost an ‘othering’ of BSL, especially as it was previous revealed that the Doctor speaks both baby and horse. It’s like we’ve limited what language is and can be, and that’s a very real issue when it comes to Pentecost Sunday.
Today we celebrate the moment that the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples, and in a moment that undercuts toxic disunity and ancient curses, the assembled pilgrims suddenly start hearing the disciples speaking a hundred different languages, barriers being broken down as the church is born.
“Hear.” That’s the magic word isn’t it? Because it makes some assumptions – sorry Dr. Luke – that we might not make today. There are other languages, other forms of communication that we need to consider.
My eldest son is profoundly deaf; his first language is British Sign Language (BSL). At the moment, the house is covered in flashcards to help him learn to read English, but effectively his communication is entirely visual.
And this should be a lesson to me personally, because when I preach, it’s entirely verbal. And part of that is not always having access to a Powerpoint screen, but I’m kidding myself if I don’t think that has the potential to be exclusionary.
(I live in Derby, which has the second largest deaf population in the UK. However, statistically speaking, only 1-2% of that population will be Christian, with much of that being put down to this issue of communication and language. There’s an assumption that sign language simply substitutes hand signs for English words, but that ignores the fact that the grammar is completely different, BSL has regional dialects, and there are lower literacy levels among the deaf community because of the way in which language is taught in schools. There’s a Pentecost issue here – how much preaching and teaching material is available in sign language? Is it exclusionary that ‘worship’ has been so conflated with ‘music’?
Alongside this, both of my sons are on the autism spectrum, and that’s a whole other set of communication issues. Again, it’s not always a spoken thing. My youngest son finds it difficult to process language – he gets the input, but his brain doesn’t always process that input in a way that gives it meaning, and so that affects how we need to speak to him. There’s also the use of visual timetables, which often help kids with autism to orientate themselves in time and space. Maybe our orders of service need to be translated into pictures so that those who need this sort of communication can get a grasp on our services. That’s certainly an experiment I need to carry out next time I’m worship leading.
(There’s someone out there, right now, reading this and thinking of churchsplaining* things to me: “That prevents spontaneity! You’re putting restrictions on the rest of us for a minority! What if the Spirit moves? Do you want to quash the Holy Spirit?!” To which I say: No. Don’t be ridiculous. But a) if our services are inclusive by design, people will be better equipped to handle the unexpected when it happens, b) the Spirit doesn’t just speak English and sing, so have a wider consideration of how He may be communicating with people other than yourself, and c) stop making excuses for having a limiting view of worship, the church and the Holy Spirit in the first place.)
(Once we were on a church weekend away and our eldest son – deaf and autistic, remember – came out of the children’s activities and made a beeline for the guest speaker, who had spent two days talking about the Holy Spirit. Eldest walked straight past his mum and I and stands there in front of the speaker before we knew what was happening, and the poor bloke doesn’t know what to do, and I have no idea what was going through Eldest’s mind, and none of this is really anyone’s fault, but what if that was the Spirit at work and none of us knew how to respond? Or what if the Spirit was making a point? That was five years ago and I still have no answers, but it still feels significant somehow.)
There are other non-verbal forms of communication that our churches might need to consider – braille, Makaton, lip reading – and that’s before we consider the difficulty some autistic people have with the literal interpretation of language – imagine what it’s like trying to interpret the central metaphor of eating and drinking the body and blood of Jesus when you struggle with metaphorical language. Maybe we need to develop a literal liturgy.
But in a way, this is all logistics. The first thing that needs to be considered is the theology of all this. Pentecost is the reversal of the Tower of Babel story, with the Holy Spirit overriding an ancient curse and bringing together people from many different backgrounds in order to birth the church. In this context, language is both a symbolic and a practical necessity. The church has always been good at sending people out to translate Bibles and to preach the Word in different languages, but there’s an opportunity here that we’re overlooking, one that’s not only on our doorstep, but in our families and our workplaces and even in our pews already. And overlooking it we are – it’s interesting that people accused the apostles of having had too much wine that first Pentecost, because often when you take to people about stuff like this, they look at you as though you’re drunk.
So, if there’s an opportunity here, are we going to take it? Are we going to prioritise it in our mission statements, our budgets, our worship gatherings, our hearts? Are we going to let the Holy Spirit to reverse this particular Babel?
Are our churches going to be different?
*’Mansplaining‘ is an internet-coined word describing how a man will sometime condescendingly explain to a woman how she’s wrong about an issue she has personal experience of. I’m a bad person, because I couldn’t resist coining an ecclesiastical equivalent. I appreciate that, as an non-disabled white guy, I’m probably doing a bit of churchsplaining here myself.