Revd Anne Bookless is Priest-in-charge of St Mary’s Norwood Green. In this blog Anne reflects on her 3-year journey from ordination to licencing – a ministry journey that has coincided with her personal journey from runner and cyclist to wheelchair user and myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME).
How do you imagine life for a disabled vicar? When training for ordination, I had no idea this would become my reality. I was the fittest I’d been in decades, enjoying running and cycling. I even had a back story of a dramatic healing back in the 1990s. It felt like God was ‘giving back the years that the locusts had eaten’. Then, in January 2019, six months before ordination, I became chronically ill. It was very confusing. Others had confirmed my calling to ordination. Had we got it wrong? How would this affect my curacy and – more immediately – how was I going to get up the aisle of St Paul’s Cathedral?
I was thrown by the drastic changes in my body, but God wasn’t. Amazingly, my curacy’s ancient church already had step-free access. In the week before my ordination, two people sent money, which came to exactly the amount for a shiny wheelchair matching my metallic purple Doc Martens. I was pushed up the long aisle of St Paul’s with the biggest grin on my face!
I learned new ways of being, discovering that leading and preaching from a wheelchair or stool could positively change the dynamic. I felt more like a story-teller. Was I becoming more like Jesus? Distributing communion whilst clinging onto my push-along trolley with the chalice and wafers made me think of hospital tea-trolleys, the comfort of a cuppa and a smile. My image of Jesus took on new meaning. Taking my first funeral, I looked out on a congregation including several younger wheelchair users. Suddenly it made sense leading from a wheelchair, as barriers were broken down.
Jump forward to Winter 2022: what a rollercoaster it has been! The pandemic disrupted all our lives. I had additional challenges, advised to isolate from my household because I was clinically vulnerable. This turned into 100+ days shut away in a bedroom separated from husband and family. Determined to keep a healthy work-life balance, I relaxed and slept on my side of the bed and worked on my husband’s side! Zoom enabled me to flourish. Fatigue is a dominant feature of my illness and gone was the exhausting travel to training and meetings. I could even preach from my bed! By continuing with hybrid worship on Zoom, the housebound continue to be fully involved, using their gifts rather than simply as spectators.
I realised that much of what disables me are the barriers I encounter rather than the illness itself. And much of what enables me to flourish are things that are good practice for all. For example, my illness is managed by careful pacing. I used to feel guilty needing a 10-minute ‘micro-rest’ after 50 minutes work, but recently read people are more productive if they do this! Managing expectations is key: my email sign-off explains my chronic illness means there may be a delay in replying. The church council know that 90 minutes is my current maximum to process information before brain-fog kicks in. I can’t be the only one who appreciates finishing meetings by 9pm! We all have limitations, we are all embodied. When we’re well, it’s easy to push our limits, but is it wise? One gift of my illness is that I have to be honest about my limits.
One day in September perfectly captured being a disabled person in a dog-collar. I headed into central London (after meticulous planning to ensure wheelchair accessibility and working lifts). Wonderful help with ramps both boarding and leaving the train (unlike when I’ve been left behind and only found by cleaners!), but why do I find it so hard to accept help? God made us to be interdependent, and one gift of this illness is that I’m forced to let go of the illusion of control. On arrival, someone slipped into the lift as the doors were closing. They announced they wanted to pray for me and launched into praying for my healing. When the lift stopped, they pushed the button again, so I was trapped inside as they continued their prayer. My anxiety levels shot up. I’d been assaulted a few weeks back, a disability hate crime, and I felt vulnerable. The prayer finished with praying I would be used by God that day, and I rapidly exited the lift.
Leaving the station, I became aware of something incredible. People using wheelchairs, walkers and sticks were all converging on the queue for disabled people wanting to pay their respects to the late Queen Elizabeth II. Suddenly, I felt normal, these were my people, I felt I belonged. It was an emotional moment. I was no longer awkward or isolated, invisible or in the way. I thought of the Diocese of London’s vision for every Londoner to encounter the love of God in Christ. Over 20% of people in London are disabled. In this queue were people with visible and invisible disabilities, flocking forward. Imagine if these disabled people were flocking to London’s churches without barriers, a foretaste of the great banquet. My day continued with deep conversations with strangers, including one person deciding to be baptised. My wheelchair battery then let me down (thankfully just after crossing a major junction!) so I sat in a café charging the battery and prepared a sermon – except yet more deep conversations happened! The lift person’s uninvited prayers were answered and I was used by God in unexpected ways.
Vulnerability is a costly gift. I hate it, I wouldn’t choose it, I would rather cling to the illusion of control. Sometimes I just want to hide away. But I am called as I am, not as some super-powered version of myself. I carry the death and resurrection life of Christ in this cracked pot, and just being out in my wheelchair wearing a dog-collar, is a visible sign proclaiming how every person is loved and can shine with the light of Christ.
Jesus’ words echo down the centuries: Do you want to be healed? Yes, I want to be whole, but that may or may not involve physical healing. Do I want to be free from the pain all over my body, see my husband released from the burden of being carer, have the energy to start new initiatives in the parish? Of course I do! But more than that, I want to see God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done. I’m open to the possibility this may be best enabled by continuing to be disabled, with a focus on enabling others, as I learn to be as well as to do, balancing a life of sacrifice with self-care, and pushing back against society’s obsession with productivity.
It blows my mind that God, creator of the universe, became limited in a tiny baby. It makes no strategic sense! And it makes no sense that someone barely managing a chronic illness should be in charge of a church. But Jesus lived his life at walking pace. And so, I follow in Jesus’ steps, unashamedly moving forward at my wheelchair’s 4mph, trusting in God’s calling on my life to this particular place, in this particular body, at this particular time.
Dr Christian Stäblein, Bishop of the Evangelical Church of Berlin-Brandenburg, Silesian Upper-Lusatia, was installed as an Honorary Canon in St Paul’s Cathedral during a special Evensong service on Sunday 21st January.
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