by the Rt Revd Dr David Walker, Bishop of Manchester
For five years, in my time as a parish priest, my default activity for a Tuesday afternoon was to visit what was called an Adult Training Centre. The adults being trained had a number of conditions, including Autism and Downs Syndrome, that impacted on their abilities to learn and to retain knowledge. The centre laid on a mixture of general life skills and, for those able to manage them, particular pieces of industrial training – assembling plugs and the like. I was Industrial Chaplain in the town, and the places fascinated me by the ways it both resembled and differed from the other establishments I visited on my rounds. I was struck by how little money and status mattered to the lives of the trainees relationships were clearly far more important and required the greater effort. And there was a refreshing willingness to see dependence not as a failure but a natural framework within which life should be lived to the full.
During my time there, a small number began to come to church, and the rest of our congregations discovered how to support and sustain them. And then the most exciting thing of all happened. Two of the trainees had developed a deepening relationship. I was asked to marry them. With help from social workers and the Housing Association I was on the board of, we discovered how living with appropriate support, in their own terraced house, would work. I’ve forgotten many of the hundreds of weddings I’ve taken, but this one sticks. I’ve never known hymns sung so joyfully, or a congregation so clear in its delight for the couple.
I know that I learned things from those five years, meeting regularly with people who were all too readily written off by society, that I could never have gleaned from books and lectures. I don’t idealise them, they were as capable of sins and misdemeanours as any of us. But their perspective on life, borne out of living with their particular conditions, was different, refreshingly so; it changed mine forever. Not least it played a part in my emerging call to be a Franciscan.
So, as I prepare for three days of General Synod in London, I have just one small quibble with the ordering of the business. Whilst I can see the value of scheduling a debate about valuing people with Downs Syndrome as a positive note to end on, I think it would have made an even better place to begin. To start by recognising and affirming the contribution made to God’s Kingdom, Christ’s Church and society at large, by a group who cannot be corralled into the usual tribal patterns of church life, would have set a tone for the following debates. It would have been a powerful reminder that our being one in Christ crosses bridges that span our very genetic makeup. It might have enabled us to see more clearly that other differences are equally subservient to that core identity; the lesson I was taught so generously thirty years ago.