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Orthodox theological perspectives on disability urge churches to be more inclusive

Orthodox theological perspectives on disability urge churches to be more inclusive

Participants in the Volos consultation on disability. Photo: WCC/Angeline Okola

12 October 2015

A theological dialogue initiative offering Orthodox perspectives on disability has encouraged churches to address the issue with a renewed commitment.

“The conversation on disability is not about some part of the church, it is about the life of the church as a whole,” says Nathan Hoppe, who comes from the Orthodox Church of Albania. “Disability, therefore, needs to be reflected as a problem of the health of the church. In a healthy church all members pray and work together, they do not condescend toward other members.”

The dialogue, in which Hoppe participated, was held at a consultation organized by the World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network (EDAN) in cooperation with the Volos Academy for Theological Studies.

The consultation took place from 28 to 30 September in Volos, Greece.

Metropolitan Ignatius of Demetrias, a speaker at the consultation, highlighted how the “incarnation of the word of God assumed human nature as one of the sources of the uniqueness and dignity of every human being.” In this context, he asked, how is it even “possible for a Christian to adopt consciously any inhuman attitude that discards the unique character of any other person”?

Reflecting on the biblical reference 1 Corinthians: 11, Prof. Rastko Jovic from the Orthodox Theological Faculty of Belgrade observed that the authenticity of the eucharist (the central event in the life of the Orthodox Church) is measured by inclusion of all in the eucharistic meal and not by the quality of the ritual or the quality of wine and bread. “There is no eucharistic feast, if there is no love expressed in the relationships of the members of the church’s body.”

“The church is one body with many limbs,” says Torill Edøy, EDAN’s coordinator for Europe. “When by exclusion some of the limbs are missing, it is the body of the church that is disabled,” she said.  Edøy stressed that establishing an environment sensitive to the needs of the people with disability must serve as the common vision for the nature and the mission of the churches.

Orthodox understanding of the creation of human being in the image and likeness of God based on patristic interpretations was shared at the Volos consultation.

The churches were encouraged to engage practically with disability work. Accessibility of buildings as well as theology, assisting and adapting to special needs, equipping clergy and laity to work with persons with disabilities and actively engaging people with disability in the life of the church were the themes in focus.

Dr Samuel Kabue, coordinator of EDAN, says that despite several challenges there is a possibility of introducing curricula on disability in a variety of theological institutions around the world, including Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.

“It is possible to introduce studies related to disability in Orthodox theological seminaries, faculties and academies as a separate area of study, or even as a topic infused into core courses or programmes of Orthodox institutions,” said Kabue.

He stressed the importance of theological encounters with Orthodox theologians and the need for ecumenical dialogue on disability to continue and be sustained.

Participants in the Volos consultation also offered theological reflections on two documents: A Church of All and for All produced in 2003 and The Gift of Being: Called to be a Church of All and for All produced in 2014.

More information on the Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network