Today’s post is by Shane R. Brinegar, a PhD candidate at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago.
The church is not a building or a complicated bureaucratic structure, but an embodied community gathered around bread, water, wine and word—signs that bear the presence of the crucified and risen Christ for the life of the local assembly in that place and for the life of the world. Much ecumenical worship renewal in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has been sparked by the writings of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), particularly as expressed in the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy: “Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations… when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20) (SC 7). We believe that in word and sacrament, Christ is surely present among us.
This gathered body that is broken and has been redeemed is called to be a broken sign of the in- breaking of God’s presence in our midst. All of those gathered in the assembly testify to this presence, but especially those who are on its margins— the disabled and those who experience otherness and alienation of any kind— because the crucified and risen One whom we encounter disrupts the structures of power and greatness in our midst having himself experienced the ultimate alienation on the cross. Just as the Savior appeared under the form of the opposite as a suffering servant, the assembly that bears the mark of his cross is called to reveal his presence in the places we least expect.
What does that real, broken presence of Christ mean for how we welcome all to worship? First, we might continue to think critically about how the construction of our liturgical celebrations invites or dis-invites those who are disabled into “full, active, conscious participation in the liturgy.” For example, what does it mean to say that the whole assembly is a sign of Christ’s presence when those with physical disabilities cannot get to the place of communion distribution because of the way our spaces are constructed? I have experienced this first hand and spent a great deal of my life “on the back pew” because that is how the presider knew who needed communion brought to them instead of them being able to come forward. Congregations that are designing or redesigning worship spaces can be particularly attentive to how their space communicates welcome, but congregations wisely pay careful attention to all the ways in which they are embodying Christ’s presence to worshippers of all abilities.
(For more suggestions of resources on welcome, see the FAQs, How can our worship services be more welcoming to people with disabilities? and How can we make our worship space accessible?).