Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

The Gift of Being Called to Be A Church of All and for All

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

The Gift of Being Called to Be A Church of All and for All

Article excerpt

This new theological reflection on disability and the churches was prepared by the Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network and received and approved by the WCC central committee in Trondheim.


1. In 2003 the World Council of Churches (WCC) published the document A Church of All and for All prepared by EDAN (Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network), which argued for the inclusion of persons with disabilities in their respective churches and societies. With the publication of this document, WCC aligned itself with a broader global development toward a human rights approach to disability that had already been underway for some time.

2. Change is indicated in particular by the paradigm shift that appears in WHO and UN documents such as the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF), and the Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD). Known as the "social model" of disability, the changing views are reflected in the distinction between "impairment" and "disability." This distinction marks the difference between impairing physical and mental conditions on the one hand, and the social and cultural responses to these conditions on the other.

3. Historically, "disability" has often been regarded from a negative perspective. Persons with impairments were ridiculed and bullied, and even without such degrading responses they were treated as incapable of living a fully human life. Overall they were excluded from interacting with other people on equal terms, even in their churches.

4. In this respect, things are beginning to change also in the context of Christian communities. The notion that disability is a punishment for a person's sins no longer finds support in theological texts and ecclesial documents. This is not to say that such notions have lost their grip on people's minds. The belief that disability marks a lack of faith that prevents God from performing a healing miracle is still alive. The same is true of the belief that disability is a sign of being possessed by demons that calls for exorcism.

5. By contrast, the notion of persons with impairments as human beings equal in worth and dignity is now firmly entrenched in official documents such as ICF and CRPD, which in many parts of the world are used as leverage for inclusive policies and practices in both church and society. These developments change the perception of persons with impairments from being the objects of pity to being respected as citizens in their capacity as bearers of human rights.

6. Christian communities participate in this global shift toward a human rights approach. At the same time, their theological reflection on what it means to be church, on its nature and mission in the world, leads to new understandings of disability. Religious understandings of disability in terms of divine punishment or demonic activity are abandoned. Churches are learning to see that persons with impairments have much to give to their communities, and are to be recognized as part of the life and the witness of the church.

7. Seeing the beginnings of change, ED AN started a process of reviewing its first document, which led it to conclude that while many of its observations and assumptions remain valid, the signs of change open up new perspectives. In many ways, persons with impairments and their families are still marginalized, but the burden of proof has shifted.

8. This means that where the previous document aimed at theological arguments in support of inclusion, the present document expresses the view that inclusion does not need an argument. Our Creator made all human beings after God's image and likeness, not only some human beings. From the perspective of the church it is exclusion, not inclusion, that requires an argument.

9. Opening up a new perspective has implications for the use of inclusive language. The document A Church of All and for All used first-person-plural language--"we," "us," "our"--primarily to refer to EDAN's members as self-advocates. …

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