Revd Dr Ayla Lepine discusses Disability History Month, their recent ADHD diagnosis, and the importance of welcoming and embracing neurodiversity and disabilities within the St James’s community and society as a whole.
Disability History Month is 16 November – 16 December this year, and to mark it, there will be a series of Thought for the Week contributions throughout November. There will also be a Choral Evensong celebrating and honouring composers with disabilities on Sunday 12 November at 3pm, and the prayers at Tuesday evening’s Sanctuary Eucharists will also reflect the importance of disability and community in relation to Christianity and theology as we gather around the altar together.
There will be a book group too, and we’ll be reading Amy Kenny’s My Body is Not a Prayer Request: Disability Justice in the Church. This book has been chosen by members of the congregation. More information about Amy Kenny and the book can be found here: Writing – Amy Kenny.
Copies will be available in my study if you would like to borrow one. The book group will meet on Monday 27 November from 7.30-8.30pm.
When I was asked to write this Thought for the Week, my first response was an enthusiastic ‘yes!’ And then I started to think about what to say, and how I might be able to explain my recent ADHD diagnosis (in September, so it really is recent) and what that means for me as a priest, as a human, and as the Associate Rector at St James’s. In order to write this, I googled two things: ‘How to explain ADHD to people who don’t have ADHD’ and ‘How to stop alerts in Outlook email’. One of the factors present in most people with ADHD is that we can be easily distracted, especially when working on a task that requires concentration alone. A great deal of what I do as a parish priest and an academic is all about focus, attention, and being deeply present in the moment. I love these things, but sometimes they’re not easy (and it turns out that switching off those Outlook alerts is, thankfully, really easy). The reason why I decided to explore ADHD and find out if I had it is because many of my family members have it, and research demonstrates that it is genetic. I was fascinated by this, and the more I noticed about my characteristics, working patterns, and relationships, the more I wanted to find out. If I did have ADHD (I have 8 of the 9 main traits, so it was a very clear result) then I would have access to resources, community, and new ways of learning and being in the world. This has been no less than a revelation.
ADHD – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – is many things, but it is not a ‘deficit’ of attention. People with ADHD can and do pay deep and sustained attention to all kinds of things – but it’s difficult to switch from one form of attention to another sometimes, and to work on multiple tasks with an equal amount of concentration. Confession time: when I’m preparing a sermon, I take most of the week to reflect on the readings, pick up on ideas, gather resources….and then I procrastinate. A lot. I am starting, after many years of preaching, to embrace the reality that I’m not just a ‘night before’ person. I’m a ‘morning of’ person. 6am on a Sunday morning is when I do my best thinking, prayerfully weaving the ideas and sources that have been percolating together for the past week. This kind of deep attention in ADHD is called ‘hyperfocus’. My Sunday sermon technique doesn’t suit everyone, but it’s my way of connecting with the Spirit in seeking a way to communicate about God’s love within and for St James’s and the Body of Christ.
ADHD is also not always ‘hyperactive’. There is a stereotype, from many years ago, of young boys in classrooms unable to keep still and being disruptive. This is one aspect of ADHD, but it’s not everyone’s experience. I can be still in my seat easily, but my mind is always on the go with what can sometimes be a truly cacophonous range of things. At any given moment I have several ideas, memories, questions, and songs racing through my brain, and the effort it takes to work through this is staggering. I thought this was what everyone experienced – apparently not! The advantage is that there is always a constellation of material to draw upon in conversations and communicating, and my brain works really quickly when it comes to ideas, imagination, and interacting with people. That’s why researching and communicating about art as well as pastoral conversations and the liturgical and spiritual life at St James’s are both really important to me, and hugely gratifying.
Like many people including ADHD expert Tracy Otsuka,I prefer the word ‘condition’ to ‘disorder’. There is nothing disordered about ADHD – it’s a question of difference – neurodiversity – rather than something which is inherently problematic. Dopamine (the chemical in the brain that stimulates interest and activity) works differently in ADHD brains. This brings advantages as well as disadvantages. Society’s assumptions that brains and bodies are alike and all have the same needs and expectations (this is called ableism) are what is ‘disabling’. This approach is often called the ‘social model’ of disability. Neurdivergence, like every disability, is a reality that many people experience. Many people are not neurotypical, and this provides a wider range of diversity within communities – this can only be a positive thing. As a community at St James’s, we get to choose how we respond to one another’s lived experience, whatever their experience is, and God teaches us to embrace that experience in ways which are life-giving and empathetic.
The welcomers and coffee team gathered at St James’s on Sunday 29 October to reflect on the crucial ministry of offering people hospitality. The welcomer on the door is often the first representative of St James’s that a new person will see. This encounter matters. The St James’s welcomers accompany people across the threshold into the church. A genuine welcome can look like so many things – a smile, an invitation to come inside, answering questions that people might have about what St James’s is about, and what the service might be like. St James’s is a central London church with open doors and open hearts – anyone and everyone can come and be part of the service and join in. And while welcoming and offering tea and coffee is a specific volunteering role at St James’s, everyone – whether they have been at a couple of services or a thousand services at St James’s, is invited to welcome everyone – we are all in this together.
It is a risk for someone to cross the threshold and come to church – it takes courage – and a gentle, kind welcome can acknowledge that courage and recognise that the light of Christ is in them. There is no ‘them and us’ – welcome can be inspired by the African word ‘Ubuntu’ – in English, it means ‘I am because we are’. Disabled people are both welcomers and welcomed at St James’s. The survey the church conducted with the congregation in June 2023 demonstrated that there are a wide variety of disabilities in the congregation. The report to the PCC is below, and it’s very helpful to read about what people said regarding their own lived experience and St James’s as a community. As everyone is invited to welcome everyone else, one of the best ways we can do this is to have a mindset based on belonging. Through this mindset, we can create empathetic connections with people in meaningful ways without making assumptions about who they are or what they might need.
If anyone has any questions about ADHD or about disability and accessibility at St James’s, please feel free to email me: email@example.com
Books, articles, podcasts are listed below as further resources. Many of them have been recommended by members of the St James’s congregation with disabilities.
Jason Wilson, ‘A New Life’ – A new life: being diagnosed with ADHD in my 40s has given me something quite magical | Jason Wilson | The Guardian
John Swinton, ‘Who is the God We Worship? Theologies of Disability, Challenges and New Possibilities’ – Who is the God We Worship? Theologies of Disability; Challenges and New Possibilities (abdn.ac.uk)
Nancy Eisland, The Disabled God: Towards a Liberatory Theology of Disability
The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability: Amazon.co.uk: Nancy L. Eiesland: 9780687108015: Books
Kathy Black, A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability
A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability eBook : Black, Kathy: Amazon.co.uk: Books
Amy Kenny – Disability and its Intersections with Everything • FreedomRoad.us
At The Gates: Disability, Justice and the Churches: Amazon.co.uk: Naomi Lawson Jacobs, Emily Richardson: 9781913657185: Books
Fiona MacMillan, Still Calling from the Edge: Disability and Church – (Still) Calling from the Edge 2021: Keynote Address from Fiona MacMillan – YouTube
Rachel Greaves-Brown, Disability and Ministry – Disability & Ministry Stories – Rachel Greaves-Brown – Diocese of London (anglican.org)
Fannie Lou Hamer, Black Disability Freedom Dreams – Black Disability Freedom Dreams – YouTube
Jessica McCabe, Failing at Normal: An ADHD Success Story – Failing at Normal: An ADHD Success Story | Jessica McCabe | TEDxBratislava – YouTube