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.