Winterbourne View: torture, degradation and the Christian vision of care
This is a guest post by Martin Sewell, Anglican Reader:
This coming Sunday is Disability Sunday. It comes at the end of a week which saw public care and private provision alike shamed on our television screens (BBC Panorama). People with learning disabilities were shown been treated appallingly in a care setting which they were supposed to have enjoyed as a place of restoration love, compassion and acceptance.
To use the modern managerial jargon, there was a ‘failure of delivery and breakdown of supervisory oversight’. But, in truth, it is much worse than this: it is a failure of humanity and a degradation of victim and perpetrator alike. Such degradation does not emerge from nowhere: it has evil cultural roots and we need to confront them if there is to be a transformation in an area where the spotlight of publicity rarely falls.
I am not terribly surprised it has come to this. Our learning-disabled neighbours are the most excluded minority in the community. Across the board they have the poorest job prospects, the worst health outcomes, they are the most socially-isolated and are the easiest targets for those who have vulnerabilities of their own and wish to ostracise or scapegoat.
Not for the learning disabled do we have the glitzy fashion show, the showbiz fundraiser, the coloured wristbands or the celebrity advocates. I have frequently speculated that for all the talk of inclusivity, there are few learning disabled members of the Groucho Club.
For the secular world this may not matter much, save for the fiscal drag on the economy:. ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is a comfortable response toward those who are lucky to have escaped the abortionist’s sluice. Are they not what some of our European Jurists describe as ‘wrongful life’ - a term not too far removed in concept from untermeschen for whom, though God may know them there, no legal protection is afforded.
Yet for the Christian this cannot be: they are our brothers and sisters in Christ. They too are made in God’s image and He delights in them, in their talents and failings alike, just as He does with all of us. Jesus never turned away from anyone because of their disturbance, social status, ill health or discomforting presentation. He used that vulnerability to better demonstrate the way we should all be; rejoicing in our good fortune and using the faith of the suppliant to help all become more of what God would have us all be.
Happily, the tragic story of Winterbourne View is not a complete account of our stewardship in this regard. My own Church has been blessed and immensely enriched by the unlooked-for presence amongst us of members of nearby care homes. These homes have understood their obligations under the Disability and Equality Act 2010, which places on all such institutions the obligation to identify and meet the spiritual needs of those in their care.
In their presence with us, we rejoice in moving closer to becoming the fully ‘inclusive community’ which secularists often proclaim, yet so frequently failure to deliver in our everyday institutions.
Churches are often the sole truly inclusive organisations in any community, and that is not accidental: it is at the heart of the Gospel.
Our involvement is not a one-way street, however. My own visits to see friends in such care invariably leave me refreshed and happier as I spend time in an environment which is caring, homely, personally stimulating and fun. It happens to be run by an atheist, but one who recognises the benefits of the Christian community on their doorstep.
Not every faith community ‘gets it’.
When a resident died, a minister of a nameless denomination declined the invitation to meet with friends of the deceased to plan the funeral on the basis that ‘there’s no point; they’re all non-compos mentis’. He was promptly told that the funeral would take place in a church where the residents were known, loved and respected.
It was a remarkable event: dogma was useless, complexity set aside and few of the mourners were Bible-believing Christians. Yet amidst the gathering of the imperfect of all kinds, there was a tangible sense of a life lived in a community; a life valued, mourned in passing, and instilled with hope for the future.
In a different context, the mother of a severely disabled young man spoke to me once of the hope of her family in seeing her son in the fullness of God’s Kingdom when we shall all be transformed.
If I have a hope for the coming Sunday, it is that more churches might take up the commission of reaching out to this least evangelised part of society. It is an easy way of proclaiming and demonstrating in tangible form our mission to welcome all.
Many Churches will be unsure how they might do this. It may not be a choice: it may come as an unexpected transforming gift, as ours did. We are not on our own in the endeavour, however.
In practical terms, organisations such as Prospect Causeway UK, Through the Roof and Liveability are all full of knowledge, expertise, and encouragement. No prior experience is required or expected. We begin in this ministry from where we are, when the opportunity arises, and the call is received.
Such work radiates beyond the most obvious recipients. Carers are often tired, tied, worried and excluded. They too have been spiritually neglected. They have different but complimentary needs; it is a mission field that was institutionally neglected for too long. It is not only the failures of commerce and governance which are challenged by the Winterbourne View story.
Yet the promise is immense.
The more open and generous our churches, the closer they approximate to the vision of He who taught: “Whatsoever you do for these my little ones, you do for me.” When we hear of good inclusive practice for the rejected we are called to ‘Go and do likewise’.
We found that when we began to listen and were influenced by simple faith and good fellowship, we lost interest in that which divides – the dogmas, the theologies, the traditions – and moved closer to sharing the love of our uncomplicated brothers and sisters in Christ who have brought us the gift of Gospel Grace.