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Exploring the D-Word

By James Ashdown.

On July 1, 2012 I was licensed as a Reader in the Church in Wales at Brecon Cathedral. It was a positive and happy experience, with friends and family and members of the churches from where I live swelling the congregation. I did, however, managed to delay the final procession. I am disabled and had to change my footwear for the long walk to the vestry on the cold, hard stones of the cathedral. My friends smiled at this typically eccentric performance. What others thought I don't know – they kept their silence about this clumsy, new Reader disrupting the smooth running of the ancient liturgy.

Seeking licensing as a Reader has not always been so positive an experience for me. Below I explore the journey to my licensing and seek to reflect on this story in the light of Paul's passionate second letter to the Corinthians. When I recently read this letter, I found it liberating, and its rawness gave me the courage to write up my story and share my reflections on the church's uncomfortable relationship with the D-word: discrimination. Karl Barth called 2 Corinthians 'that long-drawn-out, harassed groan' and it is an uncomfortable read, not at all easy to interpret, but coming from a very visceral place inside Paul and addressing the issue (as I will go on to argue) of how the church relates to people, and especially leaders, with a chronic illness.

When I applied to be licensed as a Reader (sometimes known as Licensed Lay Minister or LLM) in England, the committee weren't quite sure what to do with me. I had much more theological and pastoral experience than they were used to, but eventually they came up with a protocol which didn't require me to do any more training. However, I was required to have my vocation and skills tested in various ways. Everything seemed to be going fine. I particularly emphasized the role my disability played in my sense of vocation, feeling that part of what I would be doing would be giving voice to the experience of disabled people and their particular theological insights. Then everything stopped. After a couple of months I wondered what was happening and made contact. In a rather mysterious tone, I was told that “We'd better meet”. After the meeting, I found myself perplexed and couldn't work out what the meeting had been about. I therefore made contact again and received this reply:

We do recognise that you have gifts for preaching and teaching – gifts which are necessary for those who seek to exercise an LLM ministry.  However, there remains for us the question of deployability and therefore whether LLM ministry is right for you.  LLM ministry is a ministry which is to be available in a wider setting, so that an LLM can be deployed wherever the church deems proper.  And it remains unclear to us whether your health difficulties will allow this – that is, whether you will be deployable in the full sense of the word.

Another D-word: deployability

I couldn't believe this response. Stripped down, what they were saying to me was "We won't license you because you are disabled". I subsequently came to see that the use of the circumlocution 'health difficulties' was fundamental to their prejudice. Using the word disabled would have made them aware of the other D-word: discrimination. Instead, they got wrapped up in the issue of deployment. In fact, the issue of deployment had nothing to do with them. It was not mentioned in the criteria for licensing a Reader and is only an issue for the vicar to whom you are licensed (who must feel able to use you in his/her parish). My vicar had no questions about my deployability, but they didn't even talk to him about this. Underlying this response was a deep and unconscious prejudice against disabled people.

Subsequently I challenged this decision and, after further unnecessary circumlocutions their final conclusion was:

“while he has undoubted ministerial gifts, we do not believe the limitations of his physical condition are compatible with the public and deployable requirements of LLM ministry.”

Although they found a new euphemism – “limitations of his physical condition” – the prejudice remained unmovable. My anger at this decision was so deep and pervasive that it still feels as fresh and vigorous as a young lion. I challenged the decision at a diocesan level and it was clear that the process disturbed the Bishop and he said to me:

The reasons why you were turned down for LLM seem to me to focus on of disability and deployability. These would not be considered sufficient grounds for refusing your application.

Given that the grounds for the decision were insufficient and incorrectly applied, and given that the process was not properly followed, I am setting aside the decision and I apologize for the offense caused to you by the lack of proper procedures and the bad policymaking that was involved.

By the time I received this, we were only six days away from moving to Wales and so I ended up getting licensed in Wales rather than England.

Making sense of the experience

What am I to make of this experience? Is there anything to be learned from it? And, even more intriguingly, is there anything of theological significance? I offer the following observations:

  1. The church acted both in a prejudiced way, but subsequently with grace and humility, acknowledging mistakes and offering a genuine apology.
  2. Despite the positive final outcome, the church has found it hard to explicitly acknowledge the existence of discrimination.
  3. Similarly, it is important to use the word ‘disability’ rather than euphemisms and circumlocutions. It has a cultural significance which can help guard against discrimination.
  4. The prejudice I experienced was not malicious, but stemmed from ignorance and a failure to listen to and take seriously the actual experience of a disabled person. You can be nice and still be prejudiced.
  5. I learned that there is a difference between not getting what you want and being discriminated against. Being discriminated against has a visceral power which is qualitatively different from being disappointed.
  6. Anger is experienced even in the hallowed cloisters of the church and, perhaps, is all the more powerful because it is experienced within a context where love and justice are constantly being talked about and invoked.

Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’

Some months later, I was reading 2 Corinthians and, after reading the famous passage about 'A thorn in the flesh', it struck me that Paul was being discriminated against because of this 'thorn in the flesh' which made the Corinthians question his ministry. This unlocked the epistle for me and while we can't be sure of the precise nature of the 'thorn in the flesh' it has often been seen as a chronic illness and I found that if I read it in this way the whole of the epistle began to make sense in a deep and visceral way. Here was a man who understood what it was to have a chronic illness and experience the prejudice that goes with it.

Subsequently I began to explore the literature on 2 Corinthians and found that there is an emerging scholarly interest in reading 2 Corinthians in this way. In 1996, Antony Harvey published a monograph 'Renewal through Suffering - a study of 2 Corinthians', which is an exploration of an intuition he had had that the epistle can be best understood by looking at Paul's biography.

What this study illustrates is the importance of the biographical in theology. Too often theology lives in an abstract and disembodied world. When we bring it back into the human body, not only can it invigorate our faith and Christian life, but maybe it can also bring new insights into the foundations of Christian theology.

Harvey writes:

The sometimes traumatic experiences he underwent makes no appearance in any analysis of his thought. As a tool for reconstructing his theology, the remarkably detailed biographical materials that are available are quietly left on the shelf.

He goes on to look at the nature of illness in Paul's time. The question for Paul and his contemporaries was not 'What is wrong with me?' but 'Who has done this to me? Myself? Someone else? A demon? God?'. We tend to treat all illnesses as diseases, and if the disease cannot be identified there is a tendency to believe that the illness doesn't really exist. In the Bible, on the other hand, it is very rare to hear about symptoms; rather the focus is on the total situation of the sufferer, her relationship with God and with her fellow citizens. What mattered was not the medical history of the sufferer, but the social and religious predicament in which the sufferer now found herself. In particular, it was widely held that illness is a consequence of some form of wrongdoing which meant that the sufferer could expect to become something of a pariah.

This provides an important context for understanding Paul's words at the beginning of 2 Corinthians:

We do not want you to be ignorant, my brothers, of the tribulations we endured in Asia, how we were excessively afflicted, yes even beyond our powers of resistance, so that we despaired of remaining alive.

Paul's chronic illness was deeply shameful. In his context, it meant that he was ill fitted to be an apostle and the illness would be viewed, almost certainly, as an indication of some kind of wrongdoing in his life. It was a serious existential problem for Paul. Not only did he have to find a way of coping with the pain and worry of his chronic illness, but he also had to defend himself from his detractors who were persecuting him because of his illness.

Understanding the meaning of chronic illness

First of all, Paul had to come to a personal understanding of the meaning of his illness: 'my power is made perfect in your weakness'. Paul came to see that his illness did not create a distance between him and God, but in fact made him all the more dependent upon God and therefore glorified God because, rather than Paul's achievements being brought about by his own gifts, abilities and physical health, they were all down to God working through his inadequacies. This much is all fairly familiar. What particularly struck me is the second stage of the process for Paul, summed up by Harvey:

The fact that a 'God-orientated' way of receiving a hurt had led to such an enrichment of their relationship would have made it all the more devastating that a 'flesh-orientated' reaction to his physical condition had led to distrust and estrangement... which account[s] for the alternation of moods in this letter: here, a warmth and serenity virtually without parallel in Paul's letters... elsewhere, a tension and a sensitivity to misunderstanding.

As people with chronic illness so often experience, the biggest problem is not dealing with the illness but dealing with people's reactions to it. Here, indeed, is a very early example of the social model of disability[1]. Disability is not so much caused by medical conditions as by the attitude of society.

Here I found something which spoke into the depth of my anger at my experiences in England. 2 Corinthians 10-12 reads to me like a passionate challenge by Paul to those Corinthians who looked down on him because of his afflictions. He was prepared to boast and make a fool of himself because there was something more serious at stake than his hurt feelings:

Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? We have been speaking in the sight of God as those in Christ; and everything we do, dear friends, is for your strengthening.

Yes, it is personal. Yes, it is hurtful, but when you are discriminated against as a disabled person, there is more going on than just your personal disappointment. There is a need to confront the injustice because unless you do so, not only will people continue to suffer discrimination in the future, but also an important insight into the very nature of God is lost. We lose sight of the majesty of a God who is able to work in and through human weakness and bring about things that the wisdom of men cannot imagine.

Paul's experience of imprisonment in Philippi (Acts 16) has always been significant to me. Paul was wrongly imprisoned and, when the authorities realized it, they wanted to quietly release him and send him on his way. But Paul did not allow them to get away with this official whitewash. It was important that the magistrates personally acknowledge their mistake. The truth had to be acknowledged. In the same way, it seems to me important not to let my experience go unacknowledged. Yes, it turned out okay in the end. In some ways the system proved responsive and a wrong was righted, eventually, but this is only a beginning.

In some ways I'm glad that the discrimination was so blatant. Often I have felt as if I have been discriminated against, but I haven't quite been sure. It has been murky. But this was obvious and clear and I had the documentation to illustrate it. For me it gave an insight into how discrimination works; how people prioritize the system over the individual; how they get focused on disability rather than the ability. I wouldn't let go of case and, eventually, when the diocese realized that we weren't interested in prosecuting or punishing them, they expressed gratitude to us for pursuing the issue. It enabled them to renew and reform their institution.

Anger is important

Following the example of Paul (and also Jesus in the Temple) we can see that feeling angry and using that anger is important. Yes, it was difficult to experience my anger. I felt disrupted and distracted; I wished I could have dealt with it in a more measured way, but, as we see in 2 Corinthians, anger and hurt is not like that. It tells us that there is something wrong and it constrains us to do something about it. When we constantly try to suppress anger, when we don't listen to it, when we patronize people who are angry, then we miss things and allow injustice to flourish. In particular, we allow discrimination to flourish.

Discrimination is a difficult word for the Anglican Church at the moment. It is trying to get beyond its long history of discriminating against women, enabling them to become bishops in a way which is thoroughly inclusive. However, it is politically sensitive. It finds it hard to say that preventing women from becoming bishops is discrimination and should not be tolerated. The church still seems to want to make itself a special case and that therefore unacceptable discrimination is permissible for theological reasons. I believe I suffered from this. The church cannot thoroughly commit itself to anti-discriminatory practice because, in its soul, it still wants to retain the right to discriminate. It therefore proved quite easy for the church to discriminate against me without quite realizing what it was doing, and only by accessing my anger could the injustice be brought to light.

A passionate theology

Perhaps only when we allow ourselves to reconnect with the passionate theology that Paul developed in 2 Corinthians will we find the way to move into a place where valuing every person equally and rooting out discrimination is at the heart, and in the soul, of the church. Only then, perhaps, will biography, the lived experience of people, rather than abstract reflection on the tradition, become the centre of our theology and human experience in all its beautiful, God-soaked, but chaotic reality be celebrated with love and compassion.

[1] See Michael Oliver; Bob Sapey (27 April 2006). Social work with disabled people. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-4039-1838-3.

James Ashdown

Reader in the Church in Wales

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You are reading Exploring the D-Word by James Ashdown, part of Issue 58 of Ministry Today, published in August 2013.

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