Towards full participation of people with disabilities in churches
17 June 2013
In a recent meeting in the Netherlands, theologians and ecumenists came together to give renewed consideration to an interim statement titled A Church of All and for All, first produced in 2003 by the Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network (EDAN), a project of the World Council of Churches (WCC), and the WCC’s Commission on Faith and Order.
This statement challenges the churches to identify the needs of persons with disabilities and ensure their full participation in the life and witness of the churches.
Held from 29 to 31 May at the Conferentiecentrum Mennorode in Elspeet, Netherlands, the meeting was hosted by the Philadelphia Care Foundation, which brought together twelve international participants. Most of those attending were persons with disabilities.
Produced a decade ago, the statement encourages church leadership worldwide to create an environment where clergy and laity can enhance contributions from persons with disabilities. It encourages the churches to recognize that a church which excludes persons with disabilities ends up impoverishing itself by not playing its required role.
The statement has been used by several theological institutions as part of the study materials for ecumenical formation around the world.
Dr Samuel Kabue, coordinator of the EDAN, said it has been “gratifying to see the influence which the interim statement has created in theological education in several institutions all over the world.”
Kabue stressed that the document discerns the basis of EDAN’s activities. “In our attitudes and actions toward one another, at all times, the guiding principle must be the conviction that we are incomplete, we are less than whole, without the gifts and talents of all people. We are not a full community without one another,” he said, quoting from the interim statement.
Participants called the interim statement only the “beginning of a journey towards becoming truly inclusive churches”. They agreed on taking further steps to continue this agenda and revitalize issues already highlighted in the statement.
Instead of simply updating the statement they decided to retain the document as a necessary reference. Through the new statement, they hope to strengthen the process of churches to “become the authentic witness to God’s love” by being inclusive of the people with disabilities.
Aspirations for a new statement
The agreement on developing a new statement was appreciated by Rev. Dr Arne Fritzson, a theologian from Sweden and himself a person with a disability.
“In deciding to work towards a new statement, we underscore the importance of disability to the ecumenical movement. Our vantage point of disability can play a valuable role in the drive towards visible unity of the churches,” said Fritzson.
Dr William McAllister, director of faith relations for the Christoffel Blindenmission, showed his appreciation for discussions in the meeting. He said, “Just as any community needs persons with disabilities to be complete, the Church needs persons with disabilities to be whole.”
Rev. Dr Alan Falconer, former director of the WCC Commission on Faith and Order and the lead writer of the 2003 statement, suggested, “Our theological reflections reveal an understanding of healing that is not commonplace. Exclusionary churches, like exclusionary societies, are themselves ill. We must stretch ourselves to look at healing in new ways and seek responses that heal the church and heal our communities.”
A drafting group headed by Dr Hans Reinders, professor of ethics at the Free University in Amsterdam, is being created to include inputs from men and women, lay and clergy, theologians and ecumenical practitioners.
The group aims to produce the first draft of a new statement by early 2014.
Carolyn Thompson, from the EDAN leadership team who participated in the preparation of the 2003 statement, acknowledged, “What has been accomplished in two short days and the exciting prospects of a new and inspiring statement, which builds on the solid and empowering foundation established twelve years ago, when we started to work on the interim statement in 2001.”
Rev. Dr Deenabandhu Manchala, the WCC programme executive for Just and Inclusive Communities, and Canon John Gibaut, the WCC director of Faith and Order, were present in the meeting.