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Anglican Church of Canada may create “envoy” for people with disabilities

Posted on: February 8, 2018 1:46 PM
Photo Credit: Renma / Pixabay
Related Categories: Abp Hiltz, Canada, disability

[Anglican Journal, by Tali Folkins] Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, says he is considering creating a new position to advance accessibility in the church, after being presented with a report describing a number of challenges faced by Canadian Anglicans with disabilities. “What I’m thinking about doing . . . is having a chat with someone I have in mind who might take on a kind of role as an envoy for people with disabilities,” Hiltz said, adding that it would most likely be a volunteer position.

Hiltz said the idea came to him after a meeting in November with Canon Dennis Dolloff, a retired Anglican priest, and the Revd Karen Pitt, a priest ordained by the Community Catholic Church of Canada. The two met with Hiltz to present him a report on two online surveys Dolloff and Pitt launched last April, one intended for people with disabilities in the Anglican Church of Canada; the other for those without.

Dolloff’s and Pitt’s report includes two recommendations: that the Anglican Church of Canada create a new part-time staff position “to advocate and educate the churches across Canada” and that it establish a “Council for Persons with Disabilities” as well as a work committee, for promoting the full inclusion of people with disabilities in the church.

Hiltz said he found the report’s findings valuable and important, but he was not in a position to create a new paid position in the church, given the currently “strained” budget of General Synod. The volunteer eventually selected as envoy, he said, may or may not choose to have a council.

Hiltz said he would also bring the report to the attention of the national office’s general secretary and human resources manager, and of the House of Bishops when it meets this spring, asking them to read the report and consider whether any of the policies in dioceses or at the church’s national level need to be updated.

“It’s always a good thing when we have a report that calls us to review our current policy and to sharpen it, focus it, enhance it,” he said.

One of the things he appreciated most about the report, Hiltz said, was that it advanced a broader notion beyond visible disability, to include, for example, hearing and mental health challenges. This should serve as a reminder to churches that fully accommodating people with disabilities is more than just a matter of installing wheelchair ramps and accessible toilets, he said.

Hiltz confirmed he also paid a “modest amount” to Dolloff and Pitt for the work they had done researching and writing the report.

The report discusses some of the results of the surveys as of the end of October 2017, when 54 people had completed the first survey and 48 people the second. The survey for Anglicans with disabilities asks respondents about, among other things, how often they take part in church activities and what barriers they encounter; it also asks them to rate how satisfied they were with their ability to take part in these activities. The survey for church members without disabilities focuses on topics such as respondents’ awareness of disability law and the Anglican Church of Canada’s disability policy and their local church’s promotion and implementation of disability policy. Both surveys also invite comments at numerous points.

The report emphasises the comments respondents provided about their own experience over numerical data because, Dolloff and Pitt say, they wanted the report to bring to readers the actual experiences of Anglicans with disabilities in Canada. The data that is included in the report, Dolloff says, is “almost ancillary to what we found, which is this sort of angst or suffering of people – who they are and what they are – in the church.”

Some respondents reported being made to feel unwelcome in their own church because of their disability. One reported that, when a senior member of the parish board saw the pain in her face caused by the effort of trying to get to where communion was being served, “he came to me and said . . . that God would understand if I did not come to church anymore.” The respondent added, “I have not stepped into any Anglican church again.” Others reported being bullied on account of their disabilities. “People felt free to openly discriminate against me to the point someone became verbally abusive and actively interfered with my life in the church,” one respondent wrote. “If it weren’t for the kindness of other incumbents and so many other people, I would have left the [church].”

Dolloff – who became, to his knowledge, the first person in the Anglican Communion to have been priested in a wheelchair when he was ordained in 1985 – says the church should focus on improving accessibility in some key areas. For a start, church buildings need to become fully accessible – there’s no point in a church having a ramp, for example, if it doesn’t have an accessible toilet, and the altar in many churches is inaccessible to wheelchair-bound people. But church leaders, he says, also need to realise that people shouldn’t be considered unqualified to serve as priests because of their disability. They should also be more open inviting people with disabilities to take an active role in church services, he says – lighting candles, reading Scripture passages, carrying communion bread or other elements of the service.

“I think there are parishes that do better than others, but for the most part, if you’re in a church and you have a physical handicap, you’re denied the altar,” he says. But being asked to take part in services would make an enormous difference, he says, in how people with disabilities see the church’s acceptance of them.

Pitt says she was “extremely pleased at the sensitive and supportive response” the primate gave their report. She’s concerned, she says, at the low level of awareness Anglicans seem to have of the church’s policy on disability, and that many still see making accommodations for people with disabilities as an act of charity, not a requirement.

She also believes, given that many Canadians suffer from a disability of one kind or another and that they often face discrimination, that disability should be one of the Anglican Church’s stated social justice causes.