Review by Robin Story
In 2012 and 2013 St Martin-in-the-Fields and Inclusive Church ran conferences on Disability. The insights from these conferences provide the material for this book.
In Part 1, Clare Herbert’s excellent introduction urges us to listen attentively to the situations, experience, thinking and feelings of people with different disabilities. We are then presented with four case studies.
Susan has a particular form of epilepsy; Fiona is in a wheelchair with pain and fatigue; Rachel has cerebral palsy and is also a wheelchair user; and Ben is dyspraxic and high-functioning autistic. All plead passionately for a deeper understanding from the public and church.
In Part 2, John Hull aims to argue for a theological reflection on disability. He was totally blind and honorary Professor of Practical Theology in the Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education and Emeritus Professor of Religious Education in the University of Birmingham. He asks “Why a theology of disability?” or to put it simply “a thoughtful Christian might want to ask about the meaning of disability and some of the ways in which the very presence of disabled people seems to raise questions about faith, hope and love.”
The next chapter asks whether there is a basis for a theology of disability. Both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures stigmatise and abuse people with impairment. Moreover, “There is no denying the fact that the negative imagery of blindness and deafness has entered into our hymn books, often simply because of references to the Bible but reinforced by our everyday negative language.” So the Bible as a basis of a theology is quite useless. So perhaps we need a critical evaluation of Christian doctrine on the subject. He asserts “I believe that, for most disabled people, disability is a challenge to the imagination of faith rather than to the doctrines of the creed as such.”
The last chapter discusses people with disabilities and the prophetic church. He concludes “There is not so much a question of including disabled people in the church; it is rather a matter of the normal church learning how to welcome those who appear to be different, and in that welcome which embraces difference to rediscover the prophetic calling”.
Much theological discussion depends on what the answer to Richard Holloway’s question is: “What kind of God are you talking about?” The problems raised in Chapter 1 concerning creation, imperfection, suffering, sin and prayer are largely irrelevant for non-theists. Is the practical answer simply to face up to human reality? It’s just the way things are. People are disabled by genetics, accidents, mental and physical illness. We can deal with disability in all its forms as John Hull concludes, by seizing the example of Jesus of Nazareth in dealing with flawed human beings. “The church will become more truly a symbol of the Kingdom of God when it becomes more faithfully a community of inclusive love.” Yes, it is really up to us.
The overwhelming value of this book is the four case studies and the personal experience and insights that John Hull gives throughout part 2.