When liturgy embraces difference

Rebecca Spurrier’s study of a “disabled church” and its lessons for all Christians

At a time when many Christian communities seek to make diversity a crucial aspect of ecclesial unity, belonging, and participation, Rebecca F. Spurrier makes a poignant contribution. Rooted in her multiyear ethnographic research at a congregation she calls “Sacred Family Episcopal Church,” Spurrier’s book is an extended reflection on Christian liturgy through and across difference. Her account of the liturgical life at this church (many of whose congregants live with some combination of mental illness, poverty, and disability) provides a much-needed addition to the field of disability theology. Not only does she demonstrate a sophisticated interdisciplinary engagement with disability studies and liturgical theology, she offers pastorally relevant proposals for diverse Christian communities.

At the heart of the book lies a pressing question: “What do you need in order to have a church that assumes difference at its heart?” Spurrier believes that human experiences with disability and mental illness usher us into the artistry and beauty of Christian liturgy as a space of encounter with people “whom we would not otherwise choose.” The relationships forged in this space, marked by consent and nonviolence in response to God’s love, make “possible belonging to a community through and across difference.”

As these relationships emerge, they resist both the erasure of difference and unhelpful loyalty to narrow sets of normative practices. Spurrier defines Chris­tian liturgical practice broadly, informed by those she meets at Sacred Family. She includes eating, joking, and conversing together as well as celebrating the Eucharist, baptism, and confirmation. Her expansive vision welcomes gesture, touch, and silence in the liturgy. It rejects the idea that literacy, cognitive assent to belief, and verbal proclamation are the only acceptable forms of liturgical participation.