Incorporating People with Disabilities within Liturgical Ministry in the Episcopal Church: Part Two

Person who is disabled and a helper

In last week’s blog, we explored the unfortunate reality that many churches fail to include those who are disabled, whether visibly or invisibly, in liturgical ministries. While this is often unintended, it starts with too many assumptions. It assumes that those who are disabled simply are not in a position to serve liturgically, but as we have noted, this privileges those who are not disabled, categorizing a “norm” from their perspective. It assumes an erroneous baseline from which to measure those “capable” of liturgical service. And as we have noted, theologically from a Christian perspective, these assumptions undervalue a proper theology of what it means to be the Body of Christ.

In this week’s blog, I will suggest some concrete ways in which the Church can seek to incorporate those who are disabled more fully into its liturgical life, using the Episcopal Church’s liturgical framework as a guide. Obviously, this exploration cannot be exhaustive but is meant to be a starting place, one that will provide fodder for thought and adaptable principles to be used in a variety of circumstances. I will proceed by examining seven major categories of liturgical service in the Church and brainstorming possible needs to be addressed, as well as outlining potential solutions.

Clergy

For those who are physically disabled

In many Episcopal churches, the altar is elevated and can only be approached by ascending a series of steps. This may necessitate the installation of a wheelchair ramp so that a priest who is disabled can celebrate the Eucharist. This does not necessarily mean that “we should flatten every church regardless of the aesthetic or historic character of the place!”[1] It might involve ramping the altar at its corners. In some cases, accessibility may require a portable altar to be erected in the chancel crossing if a ramp cannot be installed. This may also be necessary so that the height of the altar is appropriate for the height of the celebrant seated in a wheelchair. A celebrant in a wheelchair would obviously need to celebrate the Eucharist while seated, and so parishes must work to ensure that this is considered acceptable. Proper education and catechesis about the inclusion of all persons as members of the Body of Christ is essential.

Additionally, there may be circumstances where a priest or deacon is not able to use her or his hands. Appropriate arrangements will need to be made according to each situation. However, in many cases, someone functioning as a master of ceremonies within the liturgy could hold a prayer book or other book for someone who cannot use her or his hands. The Church must be mindful of the difficulty that many people have in holding heavy liturgical books. Additionally, for a priest celebrating the Eucharist who cannot lift her or his arms, someone may need to assist the priest at the Words of Institution, since the 1979 Book of Common Prayer contains rubrics instructing the priest “to hold [the bread], or to lay a hand upon it; and at the words concerning the cup, to hold or place a hand upon the cup and any other vessel containing wine to be consecrated.”[2] One solution is for someone to lift the celebrant’s arms and place her or his hands on the elements.[3] Alternatively, Eucharistic Prayer 3 in Enriching Our Worship has no such rubric (the outstanding example among the seven authorized Eucharistic Prayers of the Episcopal Church). With the bishop’s permission, use of this supplementary resource may be a way to work with a celebrant’s physical disability.

For those who are blind

It will be necessary to ensure that the altar book and other liturgical resources are provided in Braille and that the cleric is able to read Braille. Assistance may also need to be provided by additional clergy or lay persons, particularly in the administration of Communion. Parishes should also be sensitive to the needs of those who have low vision and will need access to large-print materials.[4] More information on large-print resources may be found by clicking here. Good and sufficient lighting in worship spaces is also a significant consideration in this regard.[5]

For those who are deaf

Assisting clergy or lay persons may need to provide cues for the celebrant during the course of the liturgy. It is important to determine whether the celebrant or cleric reads lips or understands sign language. Adaptations should be made accordingly. For those who are hard of hearing, assisted hearing devices will be necessary.

For those who have speech disabilities

An interesting collaborative effort would be to pair a priest or deacon who has a speech disability with an ordained person in the same order of ministry who could speak what is signed by the cleric who cannot speak. This reminds us of the interdependence that all members of the Body have on one another. As Brett Webb-Mitchell states, members of the Body “can only function fully when they understand that they are bound to the other members who make up the one body that is Christ.”[6] It is also possible for individuals with speech disabilities to use voice-activated devices that vocalize written text.[7]

Acolytes

Similar issues arise for acolytes with physical disabilities as for clergy, and necessary adjustments can be made based on the suggestions for clergy (above). No person should be barred from service in this capacity due to a physical disability. It is entirely possible for different roles to be rearranged and redistributed to accommodate each person’s need. One obvious example would be a procession. It might be impossible for a person in a wheelchair to process during a service while carrying something like a cross or torch, yet it is entirely possible for the person to vest and be a part of a procession in a wheelchair without carrying anything or for someone to push the wheelchair while the person carries something. Alternatively, one who is disabled could refrain from processing in and be vested and present in the chancel prior to the start of the liturgy. Furthermore, various ceremonial actions can be adjusted to accommodate the person who is disabled, rather than automatically excluding that person because of the disability. Extra training can be provided for those who are physically or intellectually disabled.[8]

Lectors

This is precisely the kind of liturgical role that may wrongly seem off limits to someone who is deaf or has a speech disability. One possible option is to have someone who is familiar with sign language read aloud what a person who is deaf or has a speech disability is signing, whether it is a Scripture lesson or intercessory prayers. For those who are deaf or have a speech disability and choose to vocalize a lesson or text within the liturgy, having an adequate sound system with sensitive microphones would be essential. For those who are blind or have vision disabilities, appropriate lighting in the worship space is an essential consideration. All readings should be available in large print or Braille in order to accommodate those with vision disabilities. Depending on the vision disability, other printing arrangements may need to be worked out in order to facilitate reading.

Steps to a lectern, pulpit, or ambo can be problematic for those who have physical disabilities. A Roman Catholic guide offers some helpful suggestions:

  • Consider removing steps to the ambo (or lectern or pulpit). If this is not possible, allow room next to it for someone in a wheelchair to read.
  • If a parish has the opportunity to buy a new ambo for the parish, consider getting one that is adjustable or that has a desk accessible to someone in a wheelchair.[9]

People who may have difficulty moving to a lectern (especially if it must be ascended by a series of steps) can be easily accommodated by having the person read Scripture lessons or intercessions from her or his seat in the nave by providing a handheld microphone.[10]

Eucharistic Ministers

This ministry could prove difficult for those who are physically disabled if Communion is administered at a rail. If there is sufficient room in the sanctuary,[11] this is possible for someone who is in a wheelchair, but the person would need to be wheeled and this could prove awkward for the logistics of facing communicants at the rail. Moreover, if ramps are not provided to access an elevated sanctuary or chancel area, the distribution of Communion might need to be done from the nave floor level. This would probably prove easiest for those who use wheelchairs because they could remain stationary.

Depending on certain disabilities, it might also be necessary to procure chalices that have large bases and can be gripped more easily.[12] For someone with a tremor or other difficulties holding vessels, the person could be assigned to a paten and someone else can assist by holding the paten and allowing the minister to distribute only the consecrated host.[13] 

Ushers

Having ushers who are physically and visibly disabled at the doors of a church is a wonderful way to welcome visitors. It sends a clear message that a parish fully honors the dignity of every human being. It is essential, though, that someone who uses a wheelchair be paired in ushering duties with someone who can physically respond in a speedy way should there be an emergency where a parishioner or visitor needs physical assistance. Ushering is also entirely suitable for those who are blind, deaf, or have speech or intellectual disabilities. For those who are deaf or have a speech disability, it would be necessary to have someone who knows sign language stationed with them so that communication with visitors is possible.

Choir

Of all liturgical ministries, the choir may seem the most cordoned off from those who have disabilities, whether visible or invisible. For those who are blind, singing in a choir is entirely feasible. Music is available in Braille, and singers can be taught pieces by ear as well. (Visit this website for a number of resources on obtaining music in Braille, including transcription services on demand.) For those with other visual disabilities, music in large-print will need to be provided. Lighting in choir areas should also be sufficient for reading music clearly.

For those who are deaf, it is not impossible to consider singing in a choir. Cases have been documented of people who are extremely hard of hearing or deaf being able to sing in tune.[14] Yet another option would be to have someone who has a speech disability or is deaf, and who knows sign language, function as a sign interpreter. This means that the person would have a copy of the choral anthem, or other music, and would sign as everyone in the choir sings. This person would, ideally, sit in the choir area but within visibility of the congregation. This person is, in fact, singing as one of the choir. In such a case, the person would need a means of determining what words the choir is singing at any particular moment, which could be done by watching the conductor and/or by reading lips of choir members.[15] Could someone who is deaf also serve as a choir librarian, or what about the possibility of a handbell choir[16] or a new kind of choir of Orff instruments, voices, and handbells?[17] The Episcopal Conference of the Deaf has helpful information about singing music in worship in sign language. It is also possible for the choir director to provide recordings or extra rehearsal sessions for those who need more time to learn music due to a disability.[18] Those who have cognitive disabilities can participate in various ways in the choir. If they are not able to learn an anthem, they can still vest, process with the choir, and sing everything that the congregation sings. Every effort should be made to incorporate them in some fashion in the choir.

A more common problem for those who are physically disabled is not having access to a choir loft. This requires an examination of building and facility accessibility issues and ensuring that all who wish to sing are able to reach the choir loft. In cases where this is simply not possible, the choir may need to relocate or work out an alternative seating arrangement. For chancel choirs, where space is often tight and a wheelchair may be difficult to position, there are helpful resources available on cutting pews to make room for wheelchairs and for planning for sufficient physical space for wheelchairs.

Healing Ministers

Many parishes have healing teams that lay hands on and pray with those who desire healing. While the anointing with oil for healing has traditionally been considered a sacramental rite performed by priests, Enriching Our Worship 2 allows that “[u]nder the direction of the Rector or other member of the clergy in charge of the local congregation, lay persons with a gift of healing may administer or assist in administering the laying on of hands and anointing.”[19] A lay person or a cleric who is disabled and is providing the laying on of hands for healing could be a powerful statement. Proper accommodations will need to be made in order to allow for assistance if someone administering the laying on of hands has mobility difficulties or cannot use her or his hands and arms easily. Additionally, room for ministers in a wheelchair will need to be allowed in the space designated for healing rites.

Some Final Steps and Considerations

It is important to remember that each of us is dying with each breath we take, and each of us is moving closer, with every second, towards likely physical disabilities that are a natural part of aging. This means that functioning liturgical ministers will inevitably reach a point when age creates new challenges within the liturgy. These need not be insuperable obstacles, and every effort should be made to find ways in which to continue to incorporate the Church’s elderly members in liturgical ministries.

There are also countless invisible disabilities, such as dementia, loss of memory, and intellectual disabilities. It is not possible to cover them all in this blog, but hopefully the process of thinking through accommodations for a variety of disabilities will create a deepening awareness of the disabilities that are always around us and within our very selves. For example, full inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities within liturgical ministries will necessitate different gestures of hospitality for each person. The model of the L’Arche communities is one that could be a source of inspiration for incorporating people who are intellectually disabled into liturgies. The typical L’Arche household is a shared ministry of “core members” who are developmentally disabled and “assistants” “who share life with and support them.”[20] This model is not about a patronizing offer of assistance to those who are disabled, but rather it is a shared endeavor, where the gifts of core members are “revealed through mutually transforming relationships.”[21] In liturgical ministry, perhaps a way forward toward fuller inclusion of those who are disabled could be based on the shared ministry principles of the L’Arche communities. The liturgical gifts of those who are intellectually disabled can be honored and drawn out by a shared ministry with others.

As a means of hospitality, consider developing a welcome statement in your parish that is available on the web and other church publications, especially Sunday bulletins. This statement should state specific ways in which a particular parish is accessible for those with disabilities, especially with regard to service in liturgical ministries. When there is still work to be done (as will most often be the case), this should be openly acknowledged. Such a good faith effort goes a long way in garnering trust and respect for those seeking a truly welcoming parish community. Particular acknowledgment should be made about an awareness of both visible and invisible disabilities. This statement should be both an invitation to speak privately about one’s disabilities with clergy in order to find ways to include that person within parish liturgical life, as well as a direct invitation to all persons to participate in the liturgical life of the parish. It must be clear that the input and opinions of those who are disabled are valued and that the effort towards greater accessibility is not a one-sided, patronizing endeavor.

Finally, seek input from those who are disabled. This ensures that the effort to include all people does not remain a one-sided affair. A Roman Catholic resource sums this up eloquently: “any discussion of inclusion of people with disabilities must begin with the understanding that people with disabilities know best what is needed and should be included in all consultations. They can often come up with creative and cost-effective solutions which are borne from their own experiences.”[22] When in doubt, ask. Every person who is disabled has different needs and desires about how they wish to be accommodated. Many of the proposals in this blog may seem like quick-fix solutions offered for those who are disabled by those who are not, but that should not be the desire or aim of a truly shared liturgical ministry. This blog post is intended to foster awareness of ways in which the Episcopal Church currently falls short of full inclusion of those who are disabled in liturgical ministry, as well as to suggest possible ways of reaching a place of greater inclusion of all. First, the human being must be honored and respected. When that occurs, a move toward full inclusion in liturgical ministries has been made. This is not a problem to be solved; rather, it is about the wonder that is embraced when the gifts of all are welcomed. The presence of people with disabilities in the Church is a great blessing in enriching our perception of the many faces of Christ that we encounter in our lives.

 

The Rev. Kyle Babin, DMA, is administrative assistant for the Center for Liturgy and Music at Virginia Theological Seminary, a senior M.Div. student at the seminary, and a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

[1] Jan Robitscher, “Through Glasses Darkly: Discovering a Liturgical Place” in Human Disability and the Service of God: Reassessing Religious Practice, eds. Nancy L. Eiesland and Don E. Saliers (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 147.

[2] The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 362.

[3] I am grateful to Andrew Rutledge for this suggestion.

[4] Generally, 16 or 18 pt. font. The Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions Liturgical Arts and Music Committee, “Guiding Principles and Strategies for Inclusion in the Liturgy of Catholics with Disabilities,” Disabilities and Faith.org, http://www.disabilitiesandfaith.org/resources/guidebooks/GuidingPrinciplesInclusionLiturgy.pdf (accessed February 23, 2017), 47.

[5] http://www.disabilitiesandfaith.org/resources/guidebooks/GuidingPrinciplesInclusionLiturgy.pdf (accessed February 20, 2017), 8-9.

[6] Brett Webb-Mitchell, Beyond Accessibility: Toward Full Inclusion of People with Disabilities in Faith Communities (New York: Church Publishing, 2010), 62.

[7] This possibility is alluded to by Brett Webb-Mitchell in Beyond Accessibility, 78.

[8] http://www.disabilitiesandfaith.org/resources/guidebooks/GuidingPrinciplesInclusionLiturgy.pdf (accessed February 20, 2017), 16.

[9] Ibid., 14.

[10] The Episcopal Church, “Older Adult Ministries,” http://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/5_resources_for_congregations.pdf (accessed March 13, 2017).

[11] This term is used in its strict liturgical sense, meaning the space behind the Communion rail.

[12] http://www.disabilitiesandfaith.org/resources/guidebooks/GuidingPrinciplesInclusionLiturgy.pdf (accessed February 20, 2017), 15.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Vocalist.org.uk, “Singing with Hearing Loss,” http://www.vocalist.org.uk/singing-with-hearing-loss.html (accessed March 11, 2017); Jenny Deam, “Colorado Jazz Singer Hits the Right Notes, Even though She Can’t Hear Them,” Los Angeles Times, January 12, 2015, under “Nation,” http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-deaf-jazz-singer-20150112-story.html (accessed March 12, 2017).

[15] This idea is influenced by Jan Robitscher’s suggestion of a “signing choir” in her chapter, “Through Glasses Darkly: Discovering a Liturgical Place,” 150.

[16] Robitscher, 150.

[17] Webb-Mitchell, 19.

[18] Ibid..

[19] Enriching Our Worship 2: Ministry with the Sick or Dying/Burial of a Child (New York: Church Publishing, 2000), 25.

[20] L’Arche USA, “FAQs,” https://www.larcheusa.org/who-we-are/faqs/ (March 13, 2017).

[21] Ibid.

[22] http://www.disabilitiesandfaith.org/resources/guidebooks/GuidingPrinciplesInclusionLiturgy.pdf, 4.

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