Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, doesn’t necessarily want you to pray for his daughters’ disabilities because he knows it can be a cop-out. Instead, he wants to see church members be more understanding and accommodating of those who struggle with any kind of disability. (Welby is part of the Church of England which allows priests to marry and have children.)
One daughter, Katharine, struggles with mental illness. Another, Ellie, has dyspraxia, which affects her coordination skills. Both women (who are adults) spoke frankly with the BBC about what it’s like to have “invisible” illnesses that are easily misunderstood and how well-meaning church members can sometimes leave them feeling even worse.
Taking part in a discussion about exclusion with other disabled studio guests, Ellie says: “The church I go to now, I sit at the back because I don’t really feel comfortable.
“They’re very friendly in my church, but sometimes I can feel a bit out of place there.”
Her disability, not being an obvious physical impairment, is often referred to as invisible. Because of this, she feels her needs are often misunderstood or overlooked.
“I have struggled a lot. People have looked at me and basically — I know the look now — it’s literally like, ‘You’re not disabled, why are you sitting there?’ Or, ‘Why can’t you do this?’.
“I’ve been discriminated against quite a few times because they don’t understand it.”
To be fair, this isn’t a problem that affects churches and Christians only. There are plenty of examples outside of that world involving misunderstandings about disabilities (especially when handicapped parking spaces are involved).
But for Christians, church is supposed to be a place to find hope and encouragement. For lack of a more helpful response, “I’ll pray for you” often becomes the default:
Katharine has spoken openly about her mental health struggle, suicidal thoughts, and of not being able to confide in her parents about them.
She says the Church does not always know how to respond to these struggles.
She says people offer to pray for her, but feels this masks important conversations and opportunities to help.
“If your first response is, ‘Can I pray for your healing?’, then you’re not listening,” she says.
“Because actually — A, you don’t need to say to someone you’re praying for their healing for God to be able to work, God’s bigger than that. And B, it really shuts down the conversation.
The most hurtful thing, she says, was when someone prayed for her “addiction to negative thinking”.
“I’m not addicted to negative thinking, I’m depressed and anxious medically,” she says.
In my experience, as someone who struggles with depression and anxiety, asking “What can I do?” or “How can I help?” is always more effective. Going up to a stranger and offering to pray for them doesn’t make everything better as the well-wisher might think it does. Rather, it puts the stranger on the spot, making him or her feel like some kind of charity case. A large part of being inclusive is treating people with disabilities the same as you would anybody else — and only offering help when it is requested.
Welby also mentions that including a simple “If you are able” when asking the congregation to stand during the service can make a difference.
He deserves credit for raising the issue as a religious leader himself, as do his daughters for their willingness to speak openly about it.