The Enabling Church Conference, organised by the Churches for All network of Christian disability charities, took place at Bethel Convention Centre, West Bromwich, in June.
It was truly inspiring to be in the company of 400 enthusiastic people, all committed to church as God planned it, a church with no one, regardless of physical, sensory or intellectual disability, excluded from playing their full part in the body of Christ.
The challenge of the conference was to go beyond mere inclusion, such as talking about accessible places of worship or warm welcomes on Sundays, to belonging, where disabled people are such a key part of the church and its leadership that their absence would be keenly felt.
As Haydon Spenceley, Anglican ordinand and wheelchair-user, said, ‘The church is God’s, not ours. It is not for us to include or exclude, but for us to participate in what God is doing’.
He reminded us: ‘Do not fob people off with attempts to heal unless God specifically calls you to that. It is about salvation, not about whether I can do star jumps or not’.
The sessions began with inspiring worship, led by blind worship leader, James Bowden. Disabled US activist, Joni Eareckson Tada, addressed the conference through video, reminding us that, ‘Our Saviour chose to reveal his credentials as Messiah through ministry to disabled people’.
She added: ‘A disability magnifies God’s grace. We in our wheelchairs get to prove how great and how trustworthy God is’.
Other speakers included Roy McCloughry, author and theologian; Randy Lewis, whose book No greatness without goodness tells of how parenting a son with autism led to his company, Walgreens, employing 35 per cent disabled staff members; and Rev. Professor John Swinton, author and speaker.
Prof. Swinton spoke movingly on how people, who because of cognitive impairments have never used words, and people who through dementia have lost both words and memory, can still have a real experience of and relationship with God. This will be an increasingly important area for churches to understand and address with an ageing population.
Rev. Jonathan Edwards concluded with a call for the church to be a prophetic voice in the face of injustice. He reminded us: ‘It is not appropriate as we seek to cut back because of the deficit that the weakest people should bear the brunt’.
He challenged friends and relatives to speak out on behalf of people with disabilities, to keep this agenda before the church, and to be the conscience of the church on this matter. Everyone left, thoroughly motivated to take the message and work of the conference back to their own churches.