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.

Mary anoints Jesus (John 12:1-11)

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John 12 – 29th March 2020

I was due to preach at church tomorrow as part of our Lent series, a journey towards Easter through John’s gospel. Obviously COVID-19 has put paid to that, but I thought I’d post the sermon and recording I put together in case anyone can get something out of it.

The text is John 12:1-11, in which Mary anoints Jesus at Bethany, which is full of implications for how we worship and how we relate to the world, especially at a weird time like this.

Stay home, stay safe everyone. We’ll get through this.

Putting the Chairs Away (a repost for Maundy Thursday): John 13:1-5

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My eldest son loves putting chairs away. Give him a church full of chairs that need stacking and he’s happy as Larry, giggling and bossing people around as he tidies up. And while I love his enthusiasm, sometimes I just want to get home for lunch, you know? I mean, surely he can leave some chairs for someone else?

And that’s when I realise that my lanky autistic 14 year old has a greater servant heart than me. Because when he gets to the end of an act of worship, he doesn’t just want to drink his cup of tea before escaping to the comfort of the living room sofa, he wants to help put things away, to collect hymn books, to wash up.

I’m reminded of this here on Maundy Thursday, when we commemorate Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. The King stoops to do the job of a servant out of grace and compassion, even though the disciples don’t understand, even though he’s washing the feet of a traitor. The power of this moment extends beyond our squeamishness and our repulsion at washing another; it reveals the heart of God and as such it isn’t a ritual, it’s a fact of life.

Some churches latch on to this, making their Maundy Thursday events an act of service. Trinity on the Green in Connecticut holds a foot washing and examination service where they provide podiatric support for homeless people who, on average, walk 8.5 miles a day. There’s something of the original power of the story reflected through this – I doubt Peter ever had a pedicure. The heart of service reflected here isn’t a mere ritual, it’s genuinely showing the love of Christ to people in dire situations, a pair of socks becoming a blessing. Maundy Thursday becomes an act of remembrance of those who are too easily forgotten. In that sense we should also be convicted.

We also remember those carers who embody this every day, when they wash a child or a parent or a spouse who can’t wash themselves, when they clean up after visits to the toilet, when they stay up all night making sure that their loved ones are safe until the morning. And this brings with it stresses and strains, but it’s done out of love, as a way of showing a loved one that they are precious and protected and cared for. And those being washed are made in the Image of God and we also remember that, even when they’re persecuted, dehumanised, neglected. Maundy Thursday is a singularity of compassion; we turn it into an annual ritual at our peril.

Last Sunday I was out preaching, and eldest was with me, and at the end of the service while I’m shaking hands, he starts collecting books and washing cups and charming old ladies just by being helpful. And he’ll never be asked to preach, he’ll never lead worship, but he’s embodying the heart of Jesus and that’s far more powerful.

Many will go to foot washing services tonight. Maybe during those services there’s an opportunity to remember those who wash and clothe others, to take our rituals and turn them into practice. And as we remember Jesus washing feet, maybe the lasting power isn’t just about remembrance and sacrament, maybe it lies in the grace of putting chairs away at the end, of doing the washing up, the grace of showing up, of a clean pair of socks.

Putting the Chairs Away (Maundy Thursday): John 13:1-5

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My eldest son loves putting chairs away. Give him a church full of chairs that need stacking and he’s happy as Larry, giggling and bossing people around as he tidies up. And while I love his enthusiasm, sometimes I just want to get home for lunch, you know? I mean, surely he can leave some chairs for someone else?

And that’s when I realise that my lanky autistic 13 year old has a greater servant heart than me. Because when he gets to the end of an act of worship, he doesn’t just want to drink his cup of tea before escaping to the comfort of the living room sofa, he wants to help put things away, to collect hymn books, to wash up.

I’m reminded of this here on Maundy Thursday, when we commemorate Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. The King stoops to do the job of a servant out of grace and compassion, even though the disciples don’t understand, even though he’s washing the feet of a traitor. The power of this moment extends beyond our squeamishness and our repulsion at washing another; it reveals the heart of God and as such it isn’t a ritual, it’s a fact of life.

Some churches latch on to this, making their Maundy Thursday events an act of service. Trinity on the Green in Connecticut holds a foot washing and examination service where they provide podiatric support for homeless people who, on average, walk 8.5 miles a day. There’s something of the original power of the story reflected through this – I doubt Peter ever had a pedicure. The heart of service reflected here isn’t a mere ritual, it’s genuinely showing the love of Christ to people in dire situations, a pair of socks becoming a blessing. Maundy Thursday becomes an act of remembrance of those who are too easily forgotten. In that sense we should also be convicted.

We also remember those carers who embody this every day, when they wash a child or a parent or a spouse who can’t wash themselves, when they clean up after visits to the toilet, when they stay up all night making sure that their loved ones are safe until the morning. And this brings with it stresses and strains, but it’s done out of love, as a way of showing a loved one that they are precious and protected and cared for. And those being washed are made in the Image of God and we also remember that, even when they’re persecuted, dehumanised, neglected. Maundy Thursday is a singularity of compassion; we turn it into an annual ritual at our peril.

Last Sunday I was out preaching, and eldest was with me, and at the end of the service while I’m shaking hands, he starts collecting books and washing cups and charming old ladies just by being helpful. And he’ll never be asked to preach, he’ll never lead worship, but he’s embodying the heart of Jesus and that’s far more powerful.

Many will go to foot washing services tonight. Maybe during those services there’s an opportunity to remember those who wash and clothe others, to take our rituals and turn them into practice. And as we remember Jesus washing feet, maybe the lasting power isn’t just about remembrance and sacrament, maybe it lies in the grace of putting chairs away at the end, of doing the washing up, the grace of showing up, of a clean pair of socks.

A Meditation For Those Who Stand At The Front

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You stand at the front of church and you see a sea of faces in front of you. Each one of them has a different story: some are facing questions about their career or their relationships or their future. Some are watching their partners grow more distant; others are watching their parents fade away through Alzheimer’s. Some are lonely, some are depressed; some are cutting themselves, some are throwing up their breakfast, some are figuring out the easiest way to stop the pain and slip out of this life. Some like booze too much, or money, or power.

Some are disabled, some are disgruntled,  some are dismissed. Some are figuring out their sexuality and their identity; some are figuring out what to do about their cancer diagnosis; some are trying to decide if they’re safe to discuss any of this stuff with the person next to them.

Some are sitting there desperate to worship; some are desperate to get out of there; some are just desperate. Some are scared, some are oppressed, some are waiting to see if your words are going to hit them with hope or hit them with condemnation.

Some need to be forgiven,  some need to forgive,  some need a safe place to be angry,  some need a safe place where they’re not going to be beaten. Some need permission to get the hell out of Dodge.

Some think they’re sinners while others think they’re saints, and the truth is they’re probably both. Some you love, some you like, some drive you crazy, and as you look at them you realise they’re also a mirror of the things inside you.

You look at that sea of faces and you’re faced with a choice.

You can be the one who throws a punch before twisting the knife.

You can be the one who keeps adding to the load, adding and adding and adding.

You can be the one with the most impressive PowerPoint and the most impressive platitudes.

Or you can be the one who reaches out and pulls back the curtain and helps them, and you,  find hope, because you look out into that sea of faces and see Jesus in the midst of them.