In the first of an occasional series, John Bentley shares his experience of sudden partial sight loss and how it's affected his perception of the church.
The RNIB tell us there are 3 million people in the UK with sight loss or dyslexia who cannot read 96% of our standard literature. That's 4.5% of the population. In October 2019, research showed that 854,000 attended CofE services each week. Using the same percentage, that's 26,000 people who walk through our doors only to find that they can’t read the standard service or hymn books.
I am one of those 26,000. My partial sight loss came suddenly on April Fools day 2017 and I don’t claim to speak for all sight impaired people. There are many different forms of sight loss that impact on people at different stages of their life. Nonetheless I can share some of my journey.
We all believe that the Church should be inclusive and welcoming. Groucho Marx said the he wouldn't want to be a member of any club that would have him, and although the Church is not a club, the essence of God is that He welcomes all, regardless of race, gender, age, intellectual capacity and infirmity. The entry criteria for this club is to be a sinner. All have sinned, therefore all are welcome.
The New Testament is full of stories of blindness, madness, paralysis, pain and death. Through this storm strides the figure of Christ, bringing healing, calm, food, salvation, resurrection, insight, teaching, encouragement, confidence and admonition. The paradox of the Church is that She is to continue this mighty work, yet has to deliver through the very sinners who have been welcomed in.
It is no surprise therefore that this is a struggle, but blessed are they that struggle, for they shall get there in the end. With God’s help.
Sudden sight loss grants an opportunity to see the church welcome through different eyes. We generally articulate our worship through words, spectacle and architecture, but give some thought to those who can’t read, hear, or walk. There is an old Dr Who cartoon of a Dalek at the bottom of flight of stairs, muttering in his staccato voice that this 'messes up our plan to conquer the universe'. There is an updated version which shows the Dalek motoring up a recently installed disabled access ramp. It’s not rocket science that is needed, it is not always shed loads of money either. Churches have come on a long way with sound systems, loop systems, projection equipment, toilets, coffee areas, ramps and heating. The basic layout is similar, certainly in older churches: east end, west end, chancel, nave and you can’t easily alter that. But look at it though my eyes. Steps, pillars, clutter, pews (with kneelers scattered on the floor, end stops to climb over) a plethora of different books, side chapels, locked doors, open doors, statues (I once walked into the Blessed Virgin and nearly knocked her off her plinth...), poor lighting.
Terminology is another issue that exemplifies the challenges, and falls into the quagmire of political correctness. I was walking through the village recently, with my white stick to help my balance and to indicate sight loss. A villager with his stick commented that “it’s no fun being a cripple, is it”. I was taken aback, as I don’t consider myself to be a cripple. I can walk, I just can’t always see the street sign I have just walked into. I refer to myself as half blind. Some don’t like the term blind. To me it is easier than saying sight impaired.
The older among you may remember the NHS 3 wheeled blue 2 stroke invalid carriages available up to the early 1970’s. A member of my church had one. Just reflect on that term 'invalid' and add a space and it becomes In Valid. What does that say about the person described as an invalid?
Words are important, but let’s not get too hung up on it. There has been recent chatter on disability sites I follow, about the simple stage direction “We will stand and sing hymn number…”. Should we be saying “stand if you are able and wish to do so, and we will sing…”. Should we be saying “We will sing, but if you can’t read the words just hum along”? 10 out of 10 for effort, but not for effect.
Words are important, effort is important, but the main thing is that the Lord welcomes us in, however clumsy we may be in our welcome to others at His door. Inclusivity is a quest that we can all take part in.
I leave you with a thought to while away a dull sermon. A personal grump of mine is the Mission Praise books we use. They don’t have a large print version, they have an 'easy read' version. Easy read? I’m not stupid, I just can’t read the words. “Now then Janet” said John, “Look through the words of a hymn and see how you can make it an easy read for me please Janet”. “Yes” said Janet, “I can make 'The vilest offender who truly believes' into 'The boy on the naughty step who knows his tables' - will that do?”.