by the Revd Canon Timothy Goode, Rector of St Margaret’s, Lee, Disability Adviser to the Diocese of Southwark, Member of Archbishop’s Council and Co-Chair of MOSAIC
Talk about coming down to earth with a bump! The day after I was ordained deacon, and the official start of my time as Associate Curate at Croydon Minster, I stepped out, crutch assisted, into my new parish, wearing a crisp new black clerical shirt with dog collar gleaming fresh and white in the early summer sun. Though I was nervous, being the first time I had gone public in my new ‘uniform’, I wished to inhabit my new role with confidence and go and greet the hustle bustle of central Croydon life.
My planned port of call was Surrey Street Market, which has existed since the 13th century. Just as I started to walk through the market offering welcoming smiles to all who passed, suddenly at the top of his voice, loud and clear over the surrounding melee, a local greengrocer shouted, ‘Oi Vicar, why don’t you heal yourself.’
Immediately I was aware of the eyes of the crowd turn and focus on me. My fight-or-flight instinct kicked in and, with an utterly unconvincing smile, I made a hasty retreat back to the Minster, my perceived lack of agency having been publicly mocked.
The incident confirmed for me that my physical impairment would never be allowed to be separate from my role as a public figure within the Church; the two were going to be forever inextricably linked.
This incident, and countless similar incidences have caused me to reflect back over my own life and how my own lived experiences of disability have challenged and reformed my understanding of privilege as a white heterosexual male. Where have my own attitudes, both formed and inherited, created barriers to access and, as a result, denied others agency?
I know that my experience of single sex education at mostly white middle class boarding schools could easily have impacted on how I engaged with race, gender and human sexuality, to name but three groups which the church has marginalised and oppressed over many centuries.
But I am also very aware that I, and countless other disabled people, have had to confront and overcome disabling attitudes that have created barriers to access, in order to recover and restore the agency that such attitudes have denied.
As I have sort to embrace and champion inclusion across the Church of England, I have become more and more aware of the power and potency of a cyclical motion encompassing ‘Attitude, Access and Agency’. This cyclical continuous motion all too easily perpetuates belittlement, exclusion and powerlessness.
Disabling attitudes form barriers to access which in turn deny or remove people’s agency. This denying of agency reinforces additional disabling attitudes which form even greater barriers to access, which further close off agency and so this vicious cycle continues to revolve and evolve, marginalising and diminishing as it does so.
On the one hand the Church of England, through the Common Worship introduction to Baptism, states that ‘in God we have a new dignity and God calls us to fullness of life.’ Yet with the other hand the Church of England withdraws that very dignity and denies the very agency required for fullness of life on those who continue to be marginalised because of economics, age, ethnicity, gender and gender identity, learning and physical disability, neurodiversity and human sexuality, to name but a few.
These disabling attitudes have deprived the Church access to the gifts, talents and insights of countless people, people whose very agency has been denied.
So how do we overcome this vicious cycle?
The Christian faith shows us how the subversive and liberating actions of the incarnation not only stops the vicious cycle in its tracks, it actually reverses it, transforming the vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle, where the challenging of prevailing disabling attitudes breaks down the barriers to access, restoring and enabling agency. In turn, this restored agency challenges additional disabling attitudes, breaking down further barriers to access, further restoring and enabling agency. Thus, the virtuous cycle continues to revolve and evolve, transforming and liberating as it does so.
We first hear the subversive and liberating actions of the incarnation in the call of Jesus’ birth, challenging the rulers of the day.
We see it as Jesus challenges the prevailing disabling attitudes, when he eats with “sinners” and the socially marginalised as well as the ritually unclean and those considered economic traitors.
We see it when Jesus upturns the Old Testament code by teaching a new way of understanding God in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you…” (Mt 5:38).
We see it when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey instead of a war horse, thus demonstrating a dramatically different way of addressing injustice, without resorting to violence.
We see it when Jesus overturns the moneylender’s table, challenging the very practices the Temple used to rip people off and exclude various marginalised groups from worship.
Ultimately, we see it when Jesus is executed as a rebel by the establishment. The God of the entire universe chooses to be killed as a criminal on a cross. The ultimate act of subversive love and vulnerability.
To embrace the virtuous cycle is to embrace the way of the cross. More importantly, it is to embrace the way to the resurrection, the definitive destination of the virtuous cycle. It is the Risen Body where we all are invited to find our fullest identity and image, the ultimate place of inclusion and where our vulnerabilities and abilities find their fullest expression.
At the end of February ‘Mosaic’ – Movement of Supporting Anglicans for an Inclusive Church – went public. Mosaic’s mission is to call out and reverse the vicious cycles that blight our church, seeking to transform them all into virtuous cycles of liberation and grace. It is through challenging the disabling attitudes, both within ourselves and within the church – those which create barriers to access and in turn deny agency – that will open streams of mission and ministry that have, for far too long, been denied access and agency within the church.