Review: Enabling Church

enabling-churchThis is a review of the book “Enabling Church: a Bible-based resource towards the full inclusion of disabled people” by Gordon Temple with Lin Ball (London: SPCK/Torch Trust 2012). This short-ish paperback is a workbook for churches, small groups or individuals seeking to learn more about disability and inclusion within the church. It includes real-life stories, quotes, points to ponder and prayers as well as Biblical teaching and references.

I found this book excellent, and really enjoyed reading it. In fact, it’s a book I intend to recommend to churches in my local area and hopefully some of them will run the course, as I believe issues surrounding disability are really important. It is well-written and I found the points made useful, and the ideas to explore interesting.

The book focusses on all sorts of disability – I was impressed that mental health problems were mentioned, as they are often left out in books about disability. Contributors to the “disability wall” (quotes from disabled people or those who know a great deal about disability) ranged from people who are Deaf, to those with mobility impairments, to one of the directors of Mind and Soul, the mental health & faith website run by Premier, and also the carers of those with disabilities. The idea for such a book seems to have come out of a 2010 conference on theology and disability called “Enabling Church” and sponsored by the ubiquitous Premier radio.

The book starts with several forewords. In one of these Gordon Temple describes the two models of disability – the medical model and the social model. He describes the medical model as viewing disabled people as people who need fixing or care but points out that this risks disempowering disabled people and can lead to a loss of dignity and independence. I have certainly experienced an element of this, where mental health professionals seek to make decisions about my life. (However, I am also stubborn and wilful so I tend to make my own decisions.)

The social model, in contrast, states that people are dis-abled by barriers in social structures, the built environment and prejudice more than by their conditions in themselves. I certainly feel more dis-abled as a mentally ill person by the prejudices and incorrect assumptions of others than I do by the illness (most days.) The aim of this is to put disabled people back in control of our own lives. Temple points out that while the social model is written somewhat in contrast to the medical model, it is possible to combine the two and shares a quote from a disabled person who states that it is possible to welcome medical intervention to regulate his epilepsy but he also seeks to make free choices without restrictions being placed on him because of his disability.

The book is divided into sections: being made in the image of God; the omniscience of God and his plan for every person; inclusion as a matter of justice rather than charity; isolation, loneliness and interdependency; barriers to worship, stigma, healing and wholeness; thinking about releasing the gifts of disabled people; and looking at the mission of the church.

These sections pose questions to the reader such as pointing out that if we view the able as “normal” – what does that say about disabled people? Do we think that God considers them lesser than the able? Are they less in his image? At it’s worst, are they less human than we are? I found these useful and challenging questions – I too have thought of the able as “normal” and disabled people (including myself) as “abnormal” but I have never really thought about what that says about the image of God, and myself as an image-bearer. They use a quote from 1 John 3:2 :

Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

Quoting this, we are asked to consider what this says about us presently, and whether it changes our view of how “normal” physical/mental ability really is when we are all going to be changed. That is my interpretation of the question and may be faulty!

There are some excellent quotes from disabled people in the book, which really made me think – a theme I have tried to explore is God in weakness, and I found this quotation spoke a bit more eloquently than I usually do:

“God comes to us as a disabled God, as a blind God, as a deaf God, and as a God whose power was shown ultimately in his weakness.” [1]

One thing I found rather interesting was a little piece about a project called the Accept project in Leicestershire (I couldn’t find a link) which aims to replicate the atmosphere of the smoking room at the local day centre for people with mental health problems. As someone who has been in a mental hospital I remember (back before the smoking ban) how useful that smoking room was, as a place where mentally ill people could get together and help one another without necessarily involving staff. This project has small groups of people with mental health problems meeting up in cafés and pubs with a trained volunteer from a local church to discuss their lives and encourage one another, and make friends. I think it sounds like an excellent idea!

While the whole book was excellent there were a few parts of Biblical study which were completely new to me – such as the mention of the disabled being unable to enter the Temple past the Beautiful Gate, and that therefore when Jesus cleared the Temple and the blind and lame came to him there in Matthew 21:12-14 he was actually drawing them to himself and bringing them past the gate beyond which they were not permitted to enter. He was, in effect, making faith accessible to the disabled against the discrimination that they faced otherwise. This is part of other points about accessibility in the church including some ideas for an accessible Communion, and some question points at the end to judge whether our churches are accessible to the disabled.

I think this is an excellent book and would make a great resource for small groups to consider disability in the church. I found it insightfully written, I loved the quotations from disabled people and the real-life stories of disability which were also included, and I liked the prayers and (in one case) drama suggested as something to do in the group. I will be mentioning this in my own church and hopefully someone will say we can have groups based on this resource. I will leave you with an excellent quote from the book:

“It is important, I think, to distinguish between curing and healing. Curing means the removal of the condition and all its symptoms; healing implies being restored to wholeness, growing in spiritual wellbeing so that someone can be healed while still living with the symptoms of a particular illness or condition. For some people healing might take place as they begin to move on from the sense of loss and grief they feel to an acceptance of the situation they find themselves in – moving from asking the question “Why?” to asking, “What does God want me to do with my life? How is he going to work through me with all the limitations that I have?” All of us, disabled or non-disabled, need healing.” [2]

“Enabling Church: a Bible-based resource towards the full inclusion of disabled people” by Gordon Temple with Lin Ball (London: SPCK/Torch Trust 2012).

References

[1] Nick Cook, quoted in Enabling Church p 28

[2] Bob Brooke, p64

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