Stephen D’Evelyn on Charity, Church law regarding ‘postholders’ & the Disabled

In Confessions, Augustine speaks of subjectivity and love:

“…charity believes all things – all things, that is, which are spoken by those who are joined as one in charity – and for this reason I, too, O Lord, make my confession aloud in the hearing of men. For although I cannot prove to them that my confessions are true, at least I shall be believed by those whose ears are opened to me by charity.” (Penguin Classics ed. 208)

My efforts at formation for ministry in the Church of England have shown me all sorts of challenges in the problem of otherness, subjectivity (‘believing in’ and trusting others enough to engage), and openness.

As a disabled would-be minister I was not alone. Yet my training was continually hindered in subtle ways by a lack of support. It is indeed true that sometimes I made mistakes and might be seen as not entirely ‘reliable’, but this was all in the context of my being a student of ministry and not the finished article — this is a particular manifestation of my finitude and openness to the open whole of divinity– and I was learning without systematic support. Perhaps the lack of support was partly due to my being marginal even by disabled standards–I was training part-time and I have caring responsibilities at home. Even my status as an immigrant not yet with leave to remain raised questions, not just because of the need to swear allegiance to the Queen, a gesture that could cause difficutlies for those with joint U.S. citizenship, but because I might not ultimately be granted the right to stay in the UK.

And perhaps it was partly due to my reluctance to play the game of being a good sausage in the ordination meat grinder, as a sympathetic priest friend once suggested. Above all, I felt a commitment to a prophetic poetic vision of sacramentality and disability– and that commitment meant wanting to try to change structures and educate people as I went.

On top of everything, that was perhaps too much.

An external investigation into my ordination formation found that there was some evidence of possible implicit bias and indirect discrimination. However to pursue this I would have to take the case to a panel which could well find against me on the grounds of funding; there just wasn’t money to keep supporting me. Sacrifices would have to be made!

So I had to decide what to do. I thought it made sense to take what seemed a safer option, formation not for ordiantion but for ‘lay ministry’. If I proved myself in that capacity, I might go back eventually for another try at ordination.

I went ahead with lay ministry. But the difficult and ultimately terminated training for ordiantion had left me in a disempowered position. I should have pushed for a thorough set of support at the beginning of the lay ministry course. In fact the instructors were very helpful. But this sort of formation also involves a lot of practical work in parish churches. I was not able to make the case for a needs assessment and consequent set of reasonable adjustments there.

My day job for the University and College Union (the trade union for higher education professionals–lecturers, IT staff, Public Relations staff, librarians, etc)– involves representing disabled Union members in employment situations. I have had some training in the application of employment legislation pertaining to equality issues. One standard process to help a disabled person meet the expectations of a role is to carry out a ‘needs assessment’– a study of how the person’s capacities may be impaired by ways in which the workplace is run and tasks are done. A needs assessment leads to a set of recommendations about how the workplace may be adjusted to enable an employee to do their job. These adjustmetns may not be too onerous for the employer and cost may be cited as grounds for such an unsustainable burden. That is often a key impediment. However, having these processes outlined in law was a big step forward in the movement to enable employees with different needs to be more fully involved as employees.

I explained to the priest of my church the idea of ‘reasonable adjustment’–a practice outlined in the Equality Act 2010 and thus expected of all employment situations, although the Church has since the Middle Ages existed in a parallel universe of ‘postholders’ rather than employees. Through reasonable adjustment employers are expected to make such changes to a disabled employee’s circumstances as will enable her or him to fuflil the expectations of their job. I described how reasonable adjustment works in principle and gave some examples of reasonable adjustment in practice. I then explained how it would apply in my situation to make my time most useful both to my formation process and the church.

In response, the priest said that he was unnerved by my ‘desire to formally ‘label’ yourself (as a ‘proper LLM’) on the basis of an equality argument’.

Unnerved by my desire!

Underlying this misunderstanding seems to me to be a misunderstanding of the creature as an open whole–open to divinity. When we do not recognise this fact of existence, thinking in terms of the kind of flexibility that enables reasonable adjustment becomes harder. Without such profound openness we fall back on the default assumptions of a person being defined by their seeming capacities in purely immanentist terms–the world as a closed system of action and reaction. This view informs models of human beings and of human activity as needing to conform to set expectations, even when variations on such expectations might bring benefits:  greater charity and love, greater creative engagement, imaginative connection, generous action. Instead, the Church should embrace equality principles and legislation and allow itself to be reshaped in this light by divine wisdom working through human action. But  this requires engaging with the insight which was the starting-point in the Middle Ages:  that whatever is good proclaims God’s message. That includes ‘secular’ equality legislation which could help the Church live up to the high calling of Christ. The Church seems too easily to jump back in horror from any perceived challenge to its autonomy–when the Church should be calling us to let go of delusions of personal autonomy and of its collective autonomy in favour of status and identity as creatures given to be by God.

Now we can have reasonable adjustment without such theological insight. Thankfully we do have many good examples of good practice in very un-theological contexts. Yet I think seeing this theological vision through can enable us to start to appreciate and act in accordance with the real open dimensions of the human in God’s image.

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