What do we believe? Questions of a Troubled Churchgoer

Resurrection_(24) Photo credit Surgun source Wikamedia Commons no copyright
Resurrection – this icon shows Christ rescuing Adam and Eve from Death. Photo credit: Surgun; source: Wikimedia Commons

Where is God now?

To be sought in leading the way in trying to preserve earthly life and our infrastructure?

Does this make sense?  What does it suggest we believe?

In the primacy and priority of earthly life, over and above all other considerations, including the Divine Life which does not notice death.  In the notion that lay-participation in the Eucharist, lay Communion, is merely a selfish indulgence and not part of the outflowing of God’s love “for the Life of the World”.

We are not witnessing to God in a crisis, but standing helpless and craven before a threat which is horrible, but which Christ has overcome, not by sparing us death and disaster, but by raising us up through them into his risen life.

This is not all or nothing – a matter of taking reckless risks or a matter of giving up altogether.  I would be inclined to advocate, for instance, within my own Church group, that people should be live-streaming services from their Churches, and then engaging everyone who can to take Communion to people in their homes to do so.  Through an open window with both minister and recipient wearing mask and gloves, if necessary.

I come from a part of the Church that makes a lot of celebrating the Eucharist daily and receiving daily.  But so far, we have been left without any sort of access to the Sacraments for almost six weeks,  during a crisis – when we need it more, and when the world needs it more.  It is an inherent part of what I was taught about the Eucharist that it is Divine inbreaking, the Real Presence.  To set it aside is to set Christ aside.  If the laity say to the clergy in normal times that they don’t need to come to Church, and that they don’t need to receive the Sacraments because God can provide in other ways, then the clergy tend to disagree quite hard.  And rightly so according to our theology and world view.  But now the church seems to be saying exactly that to us – and I’m not sure people are even aware that it wasn’t what they were apparently saying ten weeks ago.

It’s true that I would advocate straightforward disobedience to a state command to stop people participating in Christian worship, for all I would also advocate taking any precautions that don’t involve actually stopping participation.  However, under these circumstances, I do feel able to understand and respect a preference for yielding to the injunction temporarily while making an enormous fuss about being allowed to reassume as soon as possible.  (And I am talking of denying Christian ministry, not of a particular Christian deciding in all conscience that they are right not to seek to receive under particular circumstances.  That is completely different).

But who is speaking for us?  Who is clamouring to be allowed to worship?  To be allowed to return to our prayer and service to a world that is in agony?  That is rediscovering the horror and inevitability of death, and needs so much to hear the news that death won’t have the last word.

I feel that what is happening is rather like being told that 2+2=5.  If we believe in the Divine Life, then given a straight choice, it takes precedence over earthly life.  What is going on?  How is it we seem to preach one set of beliefs, and act upon another?  Why are we supposed to be serving the world by accepting its values and fears?  We speak the creed, and we act as if there was no Resurrection, as if human death was final and as if the ultimate service we can offer is to attempt to preserve it, rather than to witness that it is not, or at least does not have to be, final.

What has happened?  What is happening?  Have we been persuaded to believe, only to be persuaded not to believe if we have to take a risk in order to act in the way that belief would dictate?

Kyrie eleison – Lord, have mercy upon us all.  I do not see any way forward, personally or as a church, and I am totally bewildered.  But the faith of Christ is enough to supply our lack thereof.

Cherry Foster

Hinder us not from living

Taking precautions is one thing, refusing people the Sacraments on the grounds of risk another.

Though I would not challenge the conscience of anyone else on this point, I would say academically, that as a Church, I am deeply bothered by the sense that we are not acting as if we believe what we say in reacting to this epidemic by choosing to stop taking the Sacraments to people almost altogether.

This is because, whatever respect we have for earthly life – and not to respect earthly life as a gift of God is gnostic (i.e. necessarily incorrect) – we are supposed to regard the Divine Life as more fundamental.

This means that I would argue that we should be acting the other way up: that is, instead of saying “the risk to earthly life is the most fundamental thing, unless we can completely negate the risk, we should not take the Sacraments to people,” we should be saying “the risk to Divine Life is the most fundamental thing: we should take every precaution we can to preserve earthly life, but it is right to take whatever left-over risk is unavoidable in taking the Sacraments to people.”  If our Lord who died for us is not worth that risk, what on earth are we doing on a daily basis in ordinary situations?  If we do not believe that the Life that can’t be destroyed is received through these things, what is it that we do believe?

I would suggest that there is quite a strong analogy here with the Christian tradition of martyrdom.  It is who loses their life who saves it, who gives it up for Christ’s sake who finds it.  Many Christians over the centuries have met at much greater peril of their lives than we would be in (not that I am advocating gathering specifically, at least not in large groups – I personally would not see that aspect of things as essential).  As for the fact that whatever we do is a risk to others’ lives, that is true under any circumstances, not just these.  If worship means so little, we could be spending the time we normally spend worshipping helping the famine stricken, for instance.  We could save lives just as much that way, as by almost completely desisting from practicing in this type of crisis (yes, there are differences in the two situations, but are the similarities more important?).

I grew up in a secular culture that condemned martyrs for their inconsideration to their families in holding to their integrity.  St. Perpetua is supposed almost to have lost her child in prison due to the difficulties of feeding it, and her elderly father was publicly beaten and humiliated in court, while pleading with her to deny Christ and thereby spare her child*.  Yet I have no doubt that she was right to hold to her faith at their cost as well as her own, and it is reasonable if we trust God to assume that her doing so will ultimately serve both her child and her father more than her denying her faith would have done.  If I did not believe that, I could not have come so far in the vocation as a religious which I have sought to follow.

Moreover, I am bothered by the sense conveyed in the emphasis on risk to the wider community that Christian worship is merely a matter of personal salvation, personal indulgence.  Granted the element of selfishness is always something that I am vaguely aware of, and which I am perpetually trying to purify from my worship (or, if I was wiser, would be trying to let God purify), but that is beside the point, because it is a flaw, and not how things should be working.  We receive not just for our own sakes, but for those of others; we should ultimately become overflowing vessels of grace.  Just as catching coronavirus is not a risk only to oneself but to others, a person’s falling from the Divine Life will result in others being pulled down, by the lack of their witness and companionship.

I really do not want to suggest that any individual Christian would be wrong to accept not receiving the Sacraments during an epidemic, if they feel it isn’t necessary to sustain them, and I don’t want to suggest bad motivation in anyone’s case.  I know people are doing what they think right in a very difficult situation.

However, there is an unconscious inconsistency as far as I can see, in this action of making a priority of risk to earthly life, over and above the Divine Life.  The person to whom the priest takes the Sacraments, who then dies as a result of the risk of infection they took in so receiving, has still from a Christian point of view gained and not lost.  The risk of infection, moreover, comes under the rules of Double Effect**, if the Sacraments are regarded as having a real value as vessels of the Divine Life: the minister of the Sacraments in such cases is not morally responsible for any deaths that result due to doing something that is more than equally important for people.

It isn’t right to seek martyrdom, only to accept it, and I would emphasis that I do believe completely that it would be wrong to take careless risks with an infectious illness (“do not put the Lord your God to the test”).  But in the end, we seem to have been placed in a position where we have a fundamental choice to make between risk to earthly life and risk to the Divine Life, and we have chosen the former, mostly without even seeming to recognise a case for the latter***.

I think it is unlikely that I’m the only one to be immensely troubled by the logical and spiritual implications of this.

Cherry Foster

 

*http://ldysinger.stjohnsem.edu/ThSp_599z_SpDir/04_mart_vision/00a_start.htm

I do not know the weight of the historicity of this account, but for these purposes, it does not really matter: the archetypal understanding of martyrdom in the Tradition is more to the point, than what happened on any specific occasion (though I acknowledge that if it had never happened, there would be a lack of real witness to the value set).

**Double effect is when one and the self-same action results in a good consequence and in a bad consequence, which is foreseen but not intended.  For instance, when someone builds a railway, they build it in the full knowledge that there will be accidental deaths on it.  This does not make them morally responsible for these deaths.  Someone’s pushing an attacker away in the knowledge that they will probably fall over a cliff and be killed is a similar case.  For double effect to apply the two things should be roughly proportional (or, the good effect more important than the bad), they must be achieved in the same action (it is not possible to justify doing a bad thing to achieve a good one in this way), and the bad consequence should not be intended (i.e. the purpose intended should be achieved if the bad consequence does not come to pass).

***To come to different conclusions about what the priority of the Divine Life considered relative to the value we should put on human life would mean we do is not the same thing as taking earthly life as more fundamental – i.e. as the thing to which an appeal can’t rightly be rejected – which is what I am hearing in all the discussions I have had with other Christians on the subject.

A letter to a hospital

Non-judgmentalism includes not judging when the issue is moral standards we believe in.

[I wish to raise a concern] about policy stated in a notice in the waiting room which I felt raises legitimate concerns about whether the paramount priority of patient care is being maintained.

The notice said that the hospital would not allow patients to refuse treatment from a particular member of staff on racist grounds, and that any refusal of treatment on such grounds could be considered refusal of treatment altogether.

I was horrified to find that any patient of yours refuses to be treated by a particular person for such reasons. Racism is very wrong, and its ongoing presence in our communities is rightly a deep concern.

However, I was more horrified that a hospital would consider responding to the problem in this particular way. Granted, patient care requires politeness and mutual respect, and I think it is quite reasonable to insist that no one responsible for their actions uses certain types of language within the hospital. But this is different from removing the patient’s autonomy to ask for a different doctor irrespective of whether their reason is good or bad.

For one thing, it creates a practical problem, at the minimum being a cover for incompetence, and at the worst, an abusers’ charter. Suppose a woman (or a man) believes that a doctor (or other member of staff) is using medical access to her body as a cover for groping her sexually, and that doctor is of a different race.

Such a policy puts her in a situation where if she requests to be transferred, but cannot prove a complaint, she is liable to be accused of racism if she requests to be treated by someone else. This may prevent her receiving treatment or trap her in a situation where the price of treatment is submitting to abuse. In cases where a person is not happy with the doctor’s competence, playing the race card to block their access to another doctor is likely to be even easier, as such concerns are often instinctive rather than analytical. The only way of preventing this is not to regard the patient’s possible reasons for making the request as a relevant factor.

I would also ask whether refusing someone treatment because they are being racist is really any different, in theory, from refusing a pregnant woman treatment because she refuses to marry the father of the child. The precise similarities and differences of the two cases are interesting, but the question is worth asking. It is usually argued that it is right for medical practice to aim to be non-judgemental about moral issues.

I appreciate the awfulness of racism, and the fact that the policy is a natural reaction to it. However, I think in the case of a hospital, it is necessary to stop at insisting that people must not be verbally or physically abusive, and not to reduce the autonomy of patients to make choices about who treats them.

 

Any thoughts, further arguments for this position, counter-arguments to it, or experiences of (probable or indisputable) racism in such circumstances, or of being accused of racism, or being unwilling to make a request for a different reason for fear of being accused?  It is hardly a simple question.

Cherry Foster

A Question of Value

Conventional feminism and real freedom

Suppose someone takes their daughter, or a young friend, to a social gathering*. This young woman is conscientious and high-achieving, and she’s at the stage of thinking about what she wants to do with her life, or, better still, about how she can best serve given her God-given temperament, interests, and talents.

At this gathering, she meets and talks with two women in their late sixties, one of whom has recently retired after being a consultant doctor for many years, and the other of whom has spent her life as the stay-at-home mother of her three children and as a housewife and homemaker.

On the way home, discussing these conversations with her grown-ups, would you expect both these women to be held up as role models for her? Would their different life choices be regarded as equally good ways for her to consider using her gifts and talents by her teachers, her parents, her school careers advisers?

Freedom, I think, would mean having the choice between paid work or traditional woman’s roles equally valued, advocated, supported, and respected.  Not a situation where girls are pushed into medicine and engineering in order to prove someone else’s political point!

We seem to have an odd tendency as a culture to say nice things about stay-at-home motherhood when directly challenged, but to talk and behave the rest of the time as if it was a waste of people’s time and talents, which no intelligent girl or woman could possibly “want” to engage in.

The acceptance that stay-at-home motherhood is not the right way for every family to do things, and the insistence that it isn’t a laudable ambition for a young woman** who’s drawn in that direction to “want” to occupy herself chiefly with the daily care of her family, are very different things.

Cherry Foster

 

*Or suppose, being at the stage I’m describing, you go to a social gathering, etc. I couldn’t write it to include that grammatically without it being hopelessly confusing.

**Or for a young man.  The gender specific language here is chiefly because I am trying to make a point specifically about women and feminism, not because I think stay-at-home fatherhood is wrong, or that it should be off the map.  I am not an egalitarian but a complementarian: I don’t want men who are suited to usually feminine roles, or women who are suited to usually masculine roles, to be prevented by prejudice or convention from doing them, but I don’t think it helps to try to obliterate the tendency of some roles and tasks to devolve more to men or women.  Rather I think, where relevant, a masculine or feminine environment should be aware of its tendencies and understand what it needs to do to welcome and include members of the minority gender.

2=2, Square Triangles, and the Real Presence

A brain-squeaking romp through some questions of chaos and omnipotence

Chaos_carolinense dr.Tsukii Yuuji Wikipedia commons copyright to attribution
Chaos carolinense, the giant amoeba. Photo credit: Dr. Tsukii Yuuji; source: Wikimedia Commons

2=2

It is apparently possible to prove this fact in a rigorous mathematical way, though I remain bemused by what rendered this necessary.

Chaos is presumably the state in which 2 does not equal 2.

(I leave it to whom it amuses to determine whether, if that is taken too literally, it contradicts the principle of ex nihilo).

Which inevitably brings up the question of whether or not God can make triangles square.

I assume that the definition of a square triangle is an entity on the Euclidian plane that has some of the fixed mathematical properties of a triangle, and some of those of a square. For example, four sides and internal angles that add up to 180 instead of 360.

If chaos is the state in which 2 does not equal 2, perhaps it follows that God cannot make triangles square on the grounds that it would be chaos, and it is contrary to God’s nature to create chaos?

However, it would be equally possible to argue that square triangles under the proposed definition would normally be a different form of “order”.

Chaotic square triangles are not really possible because there has to be something about them which allows them to be recognised as both triangular and square. They are insufficiently unintelligible to be chaos.

Which brings one to the question of whether or not God can create a boulder he can’t lift.

For a start, if God is pure act, a question that enquires of his potentialities is problematic.  We do predicate the language of potentiality of God a lot, as being creatures of time, we can’t really say anything without doing so.  But it is presumably somewhat metaphorical: it is hardly surprising if the metaphor breaks down in some places.

Also, if one understands God’s omnipotence in terms of there being no constraint that can be laid on him outside His own nature, the question is rather thrown back to whether or not the boulder question is a chaotic paradox or a paradox created by our lack of understanding, with the odds on the latter.  Does the question create a paradox regarding the possibility of omnipotence, or does the question require, in talking of God “lifting” a boulder, that this omnipotence is already denied?  To “lift” implies a being with constraints which can’t be automatically assumed to apply to God.

Or one could just argue that He has in fact done it, as in the Incarnation, He does accept some of the limitations of our nature. If the Creator God is rendered powerless in the manger and on the cross, then He has created boulders he can’t lift. (However, the “if” is key. I have no idea how one would go about speculating on the subject – it’s rather out of my province.  And note the fact that whatever is done with the tenses in that statement is problematic!).

On a different but related subject, I do believe in the Real Presence. People have a habit of asking me if I take it literally.

It depends what is meant by “literally”. If you mean “according to the normal workings of the physical world” then no, I don’t take it literally. I don’t think I am engaging in a cannibalistic revel! But if you mean “do I think the Communion actually is, really and truly, the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ?” then the answer is yes, I do take it literally. This is made more confusing because what I, as a Christian, think is going on ontologically in the normal rules of this world is very different from what a conventional atheist would think is going on.  It is God that fundamentally defines what it is “to be”, not the laws of the material creation, which are a contingent result of His “decision” to create.

Normally I distinguish the two types of “literally” by saying “mystically” of the Real Presence. But as what I mean by this is approximately, “according to the ontology of the inbreaking of the world to come,” it is perhaps not much help as a clarification under most circumstances!  The mystical, far from being merely symbolic, is as actual as – or more actual than – the literal.

(Part of the reason it is difficult to communicate Christianity in an accessible way is the extent to which the underlying assumptions are different from those of our culture. We are usually trying to communicate concepts for which our wider culture has neither language nor map).

It could also be pointed out that even the ordinary operation of the material creation has turned out not to fit into our ideas of “common sense”. Evolution and quarks (both of which I think to be true) are hardly less fantastic than the Real Presence in everyday terms.

The mystery of all three, and indeed of everything else, is, perhaps, not how God “could”, but why God “wanted” to.

Yes. It is indeed a fearful and wonderful thing that 2=2.

 

Cherry Foster

Is all-age worship possible?

“Children prefer all-age worship,” someone says. The sense of loss and weariness and “this church just doesn’t have a place for people like me”, remains with me for days. True, to be painfully honest, everything about the church is “ouching” me at the moment. But the focus on children to the exclusion of anyone else is one of the worst and most ongoing difficulties I have. Of the things that parish priests could do to assist religious vocations, I would say that a reasonable value and respect for silence and focus, not relegated entirely to private prayer or low Masses, and respect for those who suffer from noise in worship, is among the most important things. Otherwise the spirituality of a contemplative life is being crushed out before it can even begin*.

I also believe it is very important to welcome children  – and their parents/carers, whose needs aren’t met if the children’s needs aren’t, but who also have a whole complex set of needs of their own. This tends to result in my wanting to contrive and support as much creative and fruitful separation of children’s activities and worship as possible. On the other hand, driven crazy by the refusal of others to hear the reality of my needs and problems, I am very eager not to do the same to others. If being part of services which involve the whole church community is important to children, then it should matter to the rest of us as well.

My reasons for hating what I’m used to thinking of as all-age worship are of several different types. The main one is quite simply: noise. And lack of stillness. I am a contemplative, an introvert, a person with two different health conditions which increase my sensitivity to background noise, and someone who has never lived with young children since I was a young child myself. I do my best, but I don’t respond very well to short services of spoken words alone (thankful though I am that these are often quiet actually during the service). The occasional high sung Eucharist which is accidentally quiet I seize on like someone starving – but without being able to expect it to be quiet I find it difficult to respond as fully as I might – in the same way as I have a lot of trouble going to sleep if I’m expecting to be woken up. While I doubt many people are unfortunate enough to have all five of my difficulties with noise combined, there are plenty of introverts, plenty of people without children, plenty of people with disabilities which make noise more difficult out there. And possibly plenty of contemplatives – but who knows?

There is also the fact that most of the things I respond to naturally are thoroughly adult. Long services, lots of silence, lots of symbolism, music that’s technically good, lots of things that appeal to the intellect, lots of sensory input of different kinds, no distractions – and minimal surprises or unexpected or out of place happenings**. It seems to be inherent to my personality to need a combination of complexity (to hold my attention) and order (to keep things calm). And this is not likely to suit children under a certain age.

I also associate all-age with a particular type of stifling of spiritual growth. There was a cultural tendency in the church I grew up in to try to make stuff all-age by reducing it. Everything had to be aimed at a child of 8, and anything that wasn’t suitable for young children was supposed to be scrapped, trapping everyone at a certain stage of growth and forbidding them to go further or deeper in their journey. Anglo-Catholics don’t tend to do that, as far as I can see. What we do tend to have is an attitude that being in the building where Mass is being said is “worship” regardless of what we are actually doing or thinking during that time, which I would respectfully suggest is not actually consistent with our principles!

It seems to me that all age worship usually either means a group of adults doing things along with the children which seem to be done entirely for the children’s sake, rather than in order to worship, or it means the young children playing, screaming, fighting, and banging their toys around in some isolated corner, while those adults who are fortunate enough to be able to worship despite this get on with doing so, and those of us who are not sit there in protracted agony. In no way is either all-age worship. Being in the same room should not be considered as enough.

If the problem is that children, in being separated off to do something else, feel as if they were not part of the church community, perhaps there are ways in which this can be ameliorated other than all-age worship. Our church has a custom I love, of bringing the Sunday-school children in with the procession of clergy, and having the celebrant bless them before they leave to do something different during the liturgy of the word. As an adult helper, I felt that our part in what the church was doing was being affirmed and blessed and included, and I hope the children more or less felt the same. Moreover, I have been told by people who have tried it that it is possible to get very young children joining in meaningfully with adult worship with minimal alteration – much younger than is spontaneously possible – if the effort is put into teaching and assisting and the expectation is that this is something they should mostly be joining in with too – when the time they are being asked to be quiet and engage is age appropriate. So it may be that it is possible to look for other ways of making the children feel included while sticking primarily to a “separate group” policy, or by enabling them to engage much younger with “adult church”, thus making that closer to all-age without rendering it useless to a proportion of the adults. Whether this is so or not can, of course, only be answered by them.

I should also say that I am aware of the possibility that this is not so much about all-age worship as the fact that a vocation of the sort I have is like a fish out of water in a parish. While there is certainly an element of that in my reactions and feelings, the degree to which it is unacceptable to say that you have difficulties worshipping without silence and focus leaves me unsure of how much of my experience is unusual.  I don’t know how much my impression of isolation is caused by the fact that it is just not ok at the moment to admit to having difficulties caused by anything children are doing or by anything done for the children.

Anyway, to my original question “Is all age worship possible?” I think the answer is that it is something very well worth trying to do, both for the sake of those who want it and on the grounds that ultimately we are a single community.  But it needs to be attempted with the real consciousness that if we mean “all-age”, we have to mean that we are trying to make it work equally well for everyone. If it is working for the toddler, but not for the single young adults, the parents, the middle aged, or the elderly and frail, it is not working, just as much as it is not working if it is not working for the toddler. I think also it is necessary to accept its limitations and to do other things as well, rather than attempting to make all our worship fit that pattern and no other. It is an adventure. It is worthwhile.

Cherry Foster

 

*The current precedence of noise over silence is a much wider issue than children alone, but children do seem to me to be one of the major genuine issues, i.e. where there is a real pastoral need on the side of noise as well.

**I do usually manage to avoid fainting! While I’m well aware of a different side of this – the need to accommodate disability, including my own, without allowing it to disrupt worship, that issue is not one I want to talk about in public about at the moment.

The Improbable Policy of Ebenezer Scrounge

On the difficulties of reducing all claims to property to “greater need”.

Bob Crouch shivered nervously as he waited for his boss. Ebenezer crashed in and slammed the door, tearing a hole in his ancient suit.

“Bother,” he said. Then he looked at Bob. “What is it? I’ve only got half an hour – then I need to go and join the trustees of the fisherman’s fund.”

Bob swallowed. “I’ve been with you now for twelve years,” he said.

“And very good work you do too,” said Ebenezer, who valued Bob, and never hesitated to praise him.

“And I feel that it is fair I ask you to increase my wages, which have not been increased in that time. I have a large family, as you know, and my son Tom is disabled.”

“Oh, come on, Bob,” Ebenezer said. “If I raise your wages, I’ll have to decrease the donation to the East African Famine Fund. At least your family are in no danger of starving. Their children have a greater need than yours.”

Bob had known he would probably get an answer of this type. He felt momentarily ashamed of himself, wondering what right he had to money that was preventing others starving. Then he wondered if Ebenezer thought he should give the money he, Bob, spent on food for his children to charity, until his children were in a greater state of malnutrition than any other children in the world. Probably not. Ebenezer did eat enough, if not a crumb more – and he never expected anything of others he didn’t do himself. Remembering his son’s unhappiness, his daughter’s probable illness, and his wife’s worried face, he pressed on.

“Yes, but that isn’t the point…” he began.

At that moment there was a knock on the door. “Oh bother,” said Ebenezer. “It’s the soldiers’ orphans’ missionary charity rep. I must see what he wants.”

Bob sighed, and went to his work. He’d known he was probably wasting his time. Even huddled in his coat, he felt cold. The allowance of coal was minimal. Ebenezer didn’t seem to suffer much from it, rushing about as he did, but Bob did. He was glad when it was time to go home. Not that home was much warmer.

His wife Martha met him at the door. All his children were in the tiny living room clustered around Tom, talking eagerly to him of their day at school. Martha could teach him herself, but never had there been a child less well suited to being taught at home rather than going to school. His half-wistful, half-angry eyes followed their neighbours’ daughter, born without legs, being whirled home from school in her wheelchair by a laughing crowd of brothers and friends. Bob had applied to the same charity for one for Tom, but Ebenezer being the chair of trustees, he had been told that as Tom could walk a few steps, they must save their grants for those who could not walk at all, who thereby had a greater need. Had Bob been earning a fair wage for his work, he could easily have purchased a wheelchair for his son himself, but as things stood, they could pay for little but food and shelter and essential clothing, and as Tom could not walk the mile to school and back, he could not go.

The children were cheerful enough most of the time with their rag dolls and hand-me-down clothes, but he knew his youngest daughter had wept all the last night at not being able to go to her friend’s birthday party for want of a gift and a dress. She was thin and pale, and coughed frequently. Bob and Martha both feared she was becoming seriously ill. Ebenezer would undoubtedly pay thousands for her to be treated, but probably not until it was too late.

“Did you get anywhere?” Martha asked him anxiously?

Bob shook his head, his worried eyes passing over his children.

“Oh, it isn’t fair,” she said passionately, “I wish you could find work other than for that old miser.”

“Oh come,” said Bob, who had a fair amount of affection and respect for his employer, “you know he means what he says. He probably lives on a poorer diet than us. And all to give the money to people who are in need.”

“If he wants to live like that himself,” said Martha, “then I respect, yes, admire it immensely. But he has no business imposing it on our children by refusing to pay you what you earn. That money isn’t his to give to other people.”

“Well, there’s nothing we can do except plod on,” said Bob. “There’s no-one else to work for here, and…”

There was a knock on the door, and one of the neighbours’ children poked their head around.

“Letter for you, Mr. Crouch. Got left with us by mistake this morning.”

Bob looked at the letter and slowly broke the seal. Martha looked up to see his face transformed.

“This is from an old schoolfriend of mine. He’s inherited an estate – not sure I quite get who from – and wants a manager, and he says the job’s mine if I want it. Twice the salary I’m earning now, and a cottage provided.”

“Oh wonderful,” cried all the children together.

“Yes,” said Bob, half to himself, as he tried to realise that their current problems, at least, were over. “I’ll never hear the words ‘greater need’ again.”

Crysanthemums photo credit Ramon F Velasquez no copyright source wikamedia commons
Photo Credit: Ramon F. Velasque; Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Cherry Foster

 

 

 

 

 

 

Asking Unaskable Questions

You volunteer as a Cathedral guide, and are standing about without very much to do. A fellow guide comes over. “Two – women – want a tour. I have to wait for the coach party at 2. Can you take them round?”

You haven’t anything else booked and there’s someone to mind the leaflet stand. “Yes”. You walk over.

The two – women – consist of a younger woman, who could in point of fact be anywhere between twelve and forty, wearing a plain green hoodie and denim skirt, sitting in an electric wheelchair with her head on a rest, faltering out highly distorted speech. With her is an older woman, with greying hair and a stylish umbrella.

This could be anything from a student who has just graduated from Cambridge, out for the day with her paid carer, to a mother with her daughter who has a permanent mental age of six. At first glance, there is no way of telling. Yet the appropriate response and appropriate tour is completely different.

I’ve been on all three sides of this: I’ve been the visibly disabled person (most common), the volunteer who has to work out how to respond, and the (perceived) carer who is liable to be treated as a machine and ignored, rather than included as a friend or relative (which was the actual truth). There are real difficulties to all three positions.

The step of dropping the blanket assumption that someone with a physical disability is necessarily mentally impaired is beginning in the UK (I think we should be careful of assuming we are the first culture or society to make that step, lest we be justly accused of arrogance).

Unfortunately, I speak advisedly when I say “beginning” – “does he take sugar” is very far from being played out. It can be seen in many things, from the typical legal warnings about the use of products (which assume disabled people lack agency and automatically aren’t responsible for their own safety) to the social tendency to ignore a disabled person’s insistence that they are able to do some ordinary activity, but to instantly believe anyone with them.

However, it isn’t enough to say what people shouldn’t assume, without offering some different norm that they can use instead.  There is a real problem of communication and etiquette. How can we tell? How can we communicate what the appropriate response is in such situations? How do we start a conversation without doing something wrong or being hopelessly awkward or embarrassed? How do we as volunteers/service personnel ask what is wanted, or give the other person the opportunity to tell us? How do we as disabled people politely indicate the other person is getting it wrong and needs to switch modes or change what they are doing?

 

Cherry Foster