As many readers of my blog know, Mental Illness is the invisible disability and it is often neglected when discussing accessibility in churches. The following is a blog I have written as part of the report on the morning of talks, which can be read in full @includedbygrace on Twitter, or google Lynn McCann, a brilliant champion for those with Learning Disabilities with a particular focus on those on the Autistic Spectrum. Lynn has been a real encouragement to me as we have met when her timetable allows to discuss the common ground between LD issues and Mental Health issues.
The following is a summary of my talk:
How Safe is my Church?
It is interesting to consider how quickly our minds move towards physical and accommodation issues when considering this question. Or am I a minority of one? I find it interesting when listening to others whose concern focuses on other disabilities. The need for ‘inclusion’ seems to equate to making sure people can all join together in one big crowd and how we manage to make it physically possible for that happen. This includes the size of our buildings, accessible doorways, seating etc.
As someone who has grown up in churches of all shades and opinions and who lives with a complex mental health condition, the focus on the physical surrounding is irrelevant to me in helping me to feel included within the Church Family.
My biggest problem with Church, is the people. Not the attitude I encounter (although stigma remains a massive issue) but the fact that Church by its nature forces me to spend time with large numbers of people. Let me explain why this would be a problem to me. I have a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder. It is sometimes now referred to as either Emotionally Unstable PD or Emotionally Sensitive PD.
Marsha Linehan, an American Clinical Psychologist who has created an effective therapy for BPD called Dialectical Behaviour Therapy and who finally admitted she herself shared the diagnosis, has summed up the experience of living with BPD as follows:
‘Borderline individuals are the psychological equivalent of third-degree-burn patients. They simply have, so to speak, no emotional skin. Even the slightest touch or movement can create immense suffering.’
Let’s just pause for a moment and imagine that the presence of other human beings, of any number can feel excruciating, then let me ask some questions about ‘how safe’ the way we do church, especially on Sundays, feels to me.
How Do We ‘Do’ Church?
If you spend any time visiting the large spectacular buildings of our historic churches and cathedrals, we can observe how the medieval church gathered. It was often the largest building in towns and villages and therefore was used for mass gatherings, there was no seating. As a modern church, we have inherited buildings from earlier generations. From a purely appreciative perspective, it is fantastic to know that there is such a ‘Cloud of Witnesses’ who have gone before us. Have they always worshipped solely in large spacious buildings, in large crowds, or has there been a different way of gathering together?
We have a legacy of physical spaces which force us to look at numbers over quality of relationship. What then, of the timetable of fellowship in each week? The Victorians put pews into the large medieval structures, or mimicked them by building huge structures in the medieval image. That means that it would feel like a waste if our main meeting together didn’t make use of this accommodation. What about two large gatherings every Sunday? Evening services effectively developed when Sunday Schools were at their height and churches needed to feed their Sunday School teachers spiritually. Is the way we plan services on a Sunday effective for today’s needs?
When I am invited to join in with my church family I am caught in a conundrum. I know that the Bible exhorts us to ‘not give up meeting together’, but why do our gatherings focus primarily on large groups of people?
We like numbers, in a society where Christianity faces many challenges sometimes our need to gather in large numbers can feel like a form of defence. It’s okay, we may say, if our large Victorian building is full, especially every Sunday. We feel safe in large groups. They’re anonymous.
If the presence of people inspires anxiety and panic in me, is it safe for everyone? What would happen if our focus moved from joining together as the whole church body (particularly in large and growing churches) and looked at how well supported our small groups are? It’s easy to escape the challenges of living in fellowship if you only attend the large, well-attended meetings particularly on Sundays. It also allows us to absolve our responsibility to be an inclusive church to the Welcome or Leadership Teams.
For many with Mental Health issues, families are not safe places. I need you to teach me and model for me what a loving family can be. Is the emphasis on children, and the importance of family in the way you do Church, hurting people who have internal wounds which need to be healed? I found it interesting at our meeting of Roofbreakers how much time was spent discussing the needs of children in church with Learning Difficulties and the practical solutions offered to help them stay in Church. Many of the solutions were on drawing people into the larger group. The prospect of only being able to access Church if I am prepared to manage my emotional responses enough to ‘cope’ with being in groups of 100+, terrifies me so much, most Sundays I either have to put in all my energy to staying once I’ve managed to get myself up, to the building and through the door, or I opt out.
How Can we Do Church?
Can we redefine church from being the gathering of EVERYONE in our circles on a Sunday to a broader definition? How often do we enjoy being able to share in the Spirit with the struggles of the church worldwide, while we neglect the regular remembrance of those who are housebound, or unable to join with us due to disability of any kind. For me, the ability of friends in ones, twos and small groups to meet together and support me spiritually is vital to me feeling a part of the church.
Do we need to look again at where the church started? 3000 were suddenly added to the church at Pentecost, where did they all end up meeting? They didn’t have large buildings, nor did they have the ‘evangelical timetable’. You know the one: Sunday is Church, Monday is Ladies’ Prayer, Wednesday is Small Groups, Thursday/Friday is Youth.
Where is the idea that Church is ‘where one or two are gathered in my name’, or ‘Whenever they met together’. If Church is only Sundays (I know and have heard many times, ‘Church is not the buildings but the people’) then is the way we define Church out of sync with what we believe about what Church should be?
Break Down the Numbers
What would happen if our focus was more on organising ourselves as mainly meeting as church in smaller groups. What if our gathering of the ‘whole’ congregation became less regular, on a monthly basis, and the main point of teaching was within smaller groups? What if we sold our buildings off, or changed them to be an essential resource for the community, thereby having a daily presence of the Church in witness to the world?
The best way to challenge any prejudice is to introduce the bigot to a real living person with whom they have to interact. If you want to know how my experience of life and faith differs from yours, ask me. In smaller groups it is easier to break down barriers. Again if Church only means the big Sunday Services, it becomes very easy to pat me on the head and distance yourself from what I’ve been banging on about at the front. Especially, if you misunderstand what Mental Illness is and how it affects people.
My understanding of the Christian gospel is that relationship is central to it. In the beginning, God established that ‘it was not good for man to be alone’.
Before we are in relationship with God there is a vacuum. Emptiness and isolation are common symptoms of a number of complex and more common mental illnesses. It follows then, that the Church has hope to offer to people with Mental Health issues. God understands that we were made for relationship.
Is the way we do Church at the minute designed to help us develop effective and satisfying relationships with one another? I often have conversations with people about how dissatisfied they are with the lack of depth in their Church friendships. That’s because we fail to apply God’s principles to our Church relationships. We emphasise our relationship with God, rightly and stress the importance of time spent learning more and more about Him through prayer and Bible Study.
The Church is Christ’s Bride, that means that every one of us form a part of one body, we are all united to one another in Christ. Somehow, I think we have decided to accept that this mysterious, spiritual union, somehow negates the necessity to learn more about one another, in fellowship.
How do we do that? By spending time with one another, for me the most effective and safest way to get to know my Church Family is in ones and twos. When I spend more time with you during the week, then there is a shared understanding when we come together for worship and fellowship as part of the wider family. If I can see that I am accepted, that there are reliable relationships and true friendships, then it makes the struggle to get to the bigger meetings worth it. How important, really is relationship and enabling the building of in-depth relationship, in the way we currently do church?
I am not offering any answers. I recognise the inherent challenge in much of what I have said. However, I hope it helps us to engage with the thorny issues around probably the most isolated disability group in our churches. Solutions and hope for relationships are welcome.