Incorporating People with Disabilities within Liturgical Ministries in the Episcopal Church: Part One

Person in wheelchair

Setting the Stage

The Episcopal Church is known for its welcome signs. Almost every town in America has one: “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.” The ideal of welcome in the Church is, of course, a laudable one, one in which the Church, as Christ’s Body, continues to extend Jesus’s own embrace of all whom he encountered while on earth. Our baptismal covenant calls us to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving [our] neighbor[s] as [ourselves].”[1] Nevertheless, there are limits, albeit unintentional ones, in the Church’s attempt to embrace all within her fold. This is visibly (or perhaps invisibly) expressed in the seeming lack of inclusion of people who are disabled in the liturgical ministries of the Church. True, many churches have physical plants and facilities that are well-equipped to serve those who are physically disabled and allow them to be present in the worshipping assembly. But how many parishes actively recruit and include those who are disabled, whether visibly or invisibly, in liturgical roles other than that of the assembly?

An important distinction must be made in the terminology used in speaking about those who are disabled, a distinction that actually unearths the root of the problem of why the Church has often done a poor job of fully integrating people who are disabled into her midst. What we think of as a disability begins with an impairment, “a loss of normal functioning in some part of the body,” which “may not necessarily lead to a disability.”[2] The disability only becomes such when the impairment is paired with some societal expectation of what an individual “should” be able to do.[3] In other words, society, in its inability or unwillingness to accommodate and adjust to someone’s impairment, creates a handicap for someone. Taking this further, in some ways, the Church itself turns people’s impairments into disabilities, and often these translate into a general inability to function as a liturgical minister. What are the handicaps that we in the Church impose on people who unwillingly must forfeit the opportunity to serve fully in the Lord’s temple?

According to a 2010 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, about 56.7 million people (19% of the population) have a disability.[4] 10% of the population has severe disabilities.[5] Due to worship spaces and church plants that are not properly accessible to persons with physical disabilities, as well as church environments that do not take into consideration the wide range of visible and invisible disabilities, it is not surprising that “persons with disabilities attend religious services at a rate about seven percent lower than the general population.”[6] How can the Church do better in this regard? One way is to do more than simply make church buildings accessible for those who are disabled. Those who are disabled include more people than those who are physically or visibly disabled. There is a plethora of invisible disabilities. The question is, then, in what ways can our churches make it absolutely clear that all are welcome to participate fully in the Church’s liturgical life?

It’s about Theology

This effort towards greater inclusivity of all in liturgical ministries must find its roots in a theology of what it means to be the Church in the world. At the root of the Church’s general failure to include people who have disabilities within liturgical ministries is a seeming unwillingness to meet those who are disabled on their own terms. Often, the Church is simply not thoughtful enough of members who are disabled and not able to participate completely in the liturgy. Perhaps an underlying assumption is that those who can fulfill liturgical roles without any real adjustment on the part of the Church itself are welcome to do so. Others—namely, those who are disabled—are not able to participate in those liturgical roles. But the Church must do better than this; the Gospel mandate is one of outreach to those on the margins. All people, as children of God, are entitled to complete, active participation in the Church. The Roman Catholic Church has summed this up beautifully, and one need only substitute “Christian” for “Catholic”: “Through baptism, all Catholics have a right and duty to participate fully in the liturgical and Sacramental life of the Church.”[7] In order to make this happen, those who are disabled need to be met on their own terms, and it takes an entire community—the Body of Christ—to include, really and fully, those who are disabled in liturgical ministries. As Brett Webb-Mitchell suggests, inclusion means that we must “exchange the verbiage of ‘those people with disabilities’ or ‘them’ versus ‘us,’ for the language of ‘we-ness’ or ‘ours’ within and among members of faith communities.”[8]

We need only look to Scripture for guidance in this endeavor. In Mark 2:1-12, a man at Capernaum, who is paralyzed, is healed by Jesus. In an extraordinary collaborative effort, people lower the man through the roof of a house where Jesus is. This symbolizes what Church members, as the Body of Christ, must do for those who are disabled in their midst. Church members must reach out to those who are disabled and work with them in order that they may be able to serve liturgically in the fullest sense possible. Sometimes this means literally bringing those who are disabled to the place where their need finds a healing of sorts—a healing that might take the form of a fulfilled desire to be more integrated into the Church’s liturgical life. This requires asking those who are disabled what they need in order to participate in the liturgy. It also means that those who are not disabled in the Church must give of themselves and make their own sacrifices in order to incorporate those who are disabled into the life of the Church.

The Church must be humble in order to learn from those who are disabled: “Only through conscious efforts at hospitality can we accept others as they are and then begin the process of helping them to find their place in community. In this the churches have much to learn from persons of disability.”[9] In order to ensure that the effort to include all people does not remain a one-sided affair, input must be sought from those who are disabled: “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.”[10]

There is an implicit statement when the Church seeks to fit persons who are disabled into her liturgies rather than the other way around. It exhibits an “inequality of power, within which people who are non-disabled have the sole power to determine how a church structure or program will be made accessible for people with disabilities.”[11] This is particularly true with regard to receiving the Eucharist, especially where the custom is to kneel at a rail. Nancy Eiesland writes of how the Eucharist became for her, as someone who is disabled, “a solitary experience” when it should have been a corporate one:

“My presence in the service using either a wheelchair or crutches made problematical the ‘normal’ bodily practice of the Eucharist in the congregation. Yet rather than focusing on the congregation’s practices that excluded my body and asking, ‘How do we alter the bodily practice of the Eucharist in order that this individual and others with disabilities would have full access to the ordinary practices of the church?’ the decision makers would center the (unstated) problem on my disabled body, asking, ‘How should we accommodate this person with a disability in our practice of Eucharist?’”[12]

Moreover, those who are disabled, precisely because of their disabilities, can offer new ways of finding Christ in our midst. By truly integrating those who are disabled within the Church’s liturgical life, members of the Body of Christ open up the possibility that they will see Christ in a new way and also find him in unexpected places. Moreover, this inclusion of people who are disabled within liturgical ministries acts as a mirror. If we are really one Body, then in those who are disabled, we begin to see that we are all disabled in some sense. In fact, the all-too-common human resistance to full inclusion of people who are disabled into Church communities seems to arise from fear. Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche community wisely states that [w]e close our hearts to each other in self-protection and hiding. We are frightened of revealing our weakness.”[13] But if we embrace our own weaknesses, liturgical rituals and sacraments can take on new meanings and dimensions when juxtaposed with a liturgical minister who is disabled. Nancy Eiesland writes of “the disabled God” who “makes possible a renewal of hope for people with disabilities and others who care,” which “is a liberatory realism that maintains a clear recognition of the limits of our bodies and an acceptance of limits as the truth of being human.”[14]

For Episcopalians, what new meaning might the Fraction take when performed by a priest who is physically disabled? Might it tell us that physical disability, a body broken when analyzed by supposedly conventional standards, is actually a sign of the utmost hope for the Christian, a hope anchored in the broken body of Jesus on the cross? If one who is disabled and in liturgical leadership becomes “an icon through which people can view not only the disability of incarnation (God becoming human) but the promise of resurrection (humanity taking on divinity) and eternal life,” then “disability becomes a sacrament.”[15] In Mark 10:46-52, Bartimaeus, who is blind, more clearly professes faith in Christ than most anyone else in the Gospel according to Mark. Despite his disability, he is fully able to see that Jesus is the “Son of David” who is able to heal him. As Brett Webb-Mitchell notes, those who are disabled in terms of our over-literalized definitions of what “ability” is often transcend the limitations of those very definitions. For example, “[t]he person who is visually impaired, and whose other sense may thus be sharper than others who can see, may see the fragile heart of a parishioner in a crisis by listening to the person’s story intently.”[16] In what ways can those who are disabled in our midst reveal to us new faces of Jesus Christ in the liturgical assembly?

Sadly, and ironically, it is precisely in liturgy, where the experience is an embodied one, that those who are disabled often find themselves excluded. As Brett Webb-Mitchell argues, for those who are able-bodied and largely intellectual in their approach to faith, there will be little tolerance for those “who are severely or profoundly developmentally delayed or intellectually challenged.”[17] And yet is precisely in the Church’s worship that the Body of Christ literally practices and embodies the virtues of what it means to be that Body, and therefore, inclusion of those who are disabled fully in that liturgical life is essential to becoming authentically Christ’s Body in and for the world.[18] For the Episcopal Church, this must mean that the Church does “welcome you” as a fully participating member in liturgical ministries, whether you are in a wheelchair, have autism, are blind, have Down’s syndrome, are losing the ability to see clearly because of aging, or have speech disabilities. In next week’s blog, we will explore specific ways that parishes can work to find a place for those who are disabled in liturgical ministries.


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] The Book of Common Prayer, 305.

[2] Nancy L. Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 27.

[3] Ibid., 27.

[4] United States Census Bureau, (accessed March 11, 2017).

[5] Episcopal Disability Network, (accessed February 16, 2017).

[6] Ibid.

[7] 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, (accessed February 21, 2017), 6.

[8] Brett Webb-Mitchell, Beyond Accessibility: Toward Full Inclusion of People with Disabilities in Faith Communities (New York: Church Publishing, 2010), 18.

[9] 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), 149-150.

[10], 4.

[11] Webb-Mitchell, 10.

[12] Eiesland, 112.

[13] Jean Vanier, The Gospel of John: The Gospel of Relationship (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2015), 52.

[14] Ibid., 103.

[15] Eiesland, 160.

[16] Webb-Mitchell, 63.

[17] Ibid., 122.

[18] Ibid., 122.