September 2017 Pulse
One of the simplest but most profound definitions of Christian worship comes from the pen of the influential Russian Orthodox theologian, Georges Vasilievich Florovsky (1893-1979). “Christian worship,” he wrote, “is the response of men to the Divine call, to the mighty deeds of God, culminating in the redemptive act of Christ.”
While worship is “primarily and essentially an act of praise and adoration,” Florovsky explains, it is also “a thankful acknowledgement of God’s embracing Love and redemptive loving-kindness”. Most significantly, the Russian theologian emphasises that because “Christian existence is essentially corporate”, Christian worship must be a communal activity.
This implies that every member of the community of faith must be allowed to participate in the act of praise and adoration that Christians call worship, including people with disabilities.
But as Nancy Eiseland has so starkly pointed out in her book, The Disabled God, the Church’s attitude and response towards the disabled has been ambiguous at best. The Church has often “treated people with disabilities as objects of pity and paternalism”. “For many disabled persons the church has been a ‘city on a hill’ – physically inaccessible and socially inhospitable,” she wrote.
If this observation is correct, then perhaps the Church has been subtly persuaded by the myth spun by secular society that the ideal human being is powerful and capable.
As Jean Vanier puts it, “A society that honours only the powerful, the clever, and the winners necessarily belittles the weak. It is as if to say: to be human is to be powerful.”
Or perhaps the Church’s relationship with the disabled is ambiguous not because Christians belittle them, but rather because we fear them. We fear them because, as Stanley Hauerwas has perceptively pointed out, “they remind us that for all of our pretensions we are as helpless as they are when all is said and done”.
Be that as it may, if the Church is truly the Body of Christ, it must accept as its members believers with disabilities, who, despite their physical or mental impairments, continue to be bearers of God’s image.
The Church must welcome and embrace these “weaker members” and bestow upon them the “greater honour” that they deserve (1 Corinthians 12), by loving them and joyfully celebrating their contributions to its life and witness.
The full acceptance of people with disabilities in the Christian community requires nothing less than a radical change in attitude.
The Church’s welcome of disabled people, therefore, is seen not just in the installation of certain fixtures like ramps for wheelchairs, important though they are. Its welcome is made most evident in the space it creates for people with disabilities to fully participate in its worship and ministry.
Welcoming the disabled does not require the church to design specialised worship services for them, for this could just be a disguised form of segregation. Rather, as Orthodox priest Stephen Plumlee argues, people with disabilities are truly welcomed when they are incorporated “fully in the liturgical activities of the community”.
Able-bodied Christians should never underestimate the extent to which people with disabilities – especially mental disabilities – are able to participate in worship. We are simply unable to fathom how the mysterious operations of divine grace can bring disabled people into intimate communion with God.
But a church that truly welcomes and embraces people with disabilities must also be open to receiving ministry from them, for they too are given gifts with which to build up the Body of Christ.
Most importantly, the presence of people with disabilities can in some ways be prophetic in the sense that it can expose every triumphalism, and every false sense of confidence. In the words of Hauerwas, their presence reminds us of “the insecurity hidden in our false sense of self-possession”.
Taking a slightly different angle, the American National Conference of Catholic Bishops makes the same point thus in its thoughtful 1978 pastoral statement on the handicapped:
“Handicapped people should be gratefully welcomed in the ecclesial community wherein we can benefit from the spiritual gifts, and the self-realisation they share with the rest of us in the Christian community, namely, that ‘we all live in the shadow of the cross’. That shadow reminds us that we are all ‘marginal’ people and hence our need for mutual integration.”
An example close to home is how Wesley Methodist Church encourages families with children with special needs to attend and partake Communion together at their Sunday 5 p.m. Traditional Services, and also have hearing-impaired persons attend their Saturday 5 p.m. and Sunday 9.30 a.m. contemporary worship services. They have also formed an Inclusion Committee with the aim of further integrating persons with special needs in their worship services, small groups, and across the rest of the church.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.