Issue No 160
Magazine for the Irfon and Wye Valley Churches March 2014
The Deaf Community & the Church
A principal underlying feature of the Deaf Community is its language which is the first or preferred language of around 70,000 people in the UK and used by about 250,000 in all, making it the fourth indigenous language in Britain, after English, Welsh and Gaelic. Recognition of the Deaf Community as a cultural entity is relatively recent, only in the 1990s that BSL (British Sign Language) was identified as a true natural language and the concept of a Deaf Culture was developed. One of the main implications for the Church leading from the existence of the Deaf Community as a linguistic-cultural group, is the emergence of a separate Deaf Church which provides Deaf people with opportunities for worship, nurture, pastoral care and mission in their own language, and by means appropriate to their culture. Deaf Churches were found in nearly all the Anglican dioceses in England and in parts of Wales and Scotland, most were services of Holy Communion led by an ordained chaplain. However, older members of the Deaf Community tell how they were marched from their residential school to the local parish church every Sunday morning, to sit quietly through a service of which they understood little. It is hardly surprising that many Deaf people have grown up viewing the church as an alien place of sound, speech and words, music and song, with little relevance to their lives, such as Isaiah’s proclamation that “The Deaf shall hear the Words of the Book,” and Romans 10:17 “…faith comes from what is heard.” Furthermore, the number of chaplains within the UK has declined sharply in recent years, many returning to full time stipendiary parish posts. In our diocese, this was the case some nine years ago with no clear
by Rev Michael Sabell
plans to recruit in the foreseeable future. At on time the Church in Wales had a full or half-time chaplain in each diocese, today I don’t think there is a stipendiary chaplain in post throughout the whole country. It seems to me, what those in authority in the Church do not appear to realise is that cutting chaplains’ posts often results in the loss of Deaf people to the church altogether. This has been shown by my recent attempts to re-start the Deaf Church at Swansea Deaf Centre the response has been very grudging and slow. Relatively few Deaf members will avail themselves of the opportunities in mainstream churches. Some authorities within the church maintain that separate Deaf Churches contravene the theological principle of inclusion in the One Church, and that Deaf people should worship in mainstream churches just like everyone else. Interpreter support for Deaf church members in a mainstream church merely provides access to a hearing service; there is little or no adjustment for the difference in language and culture. The emerging Deaf era reflects a state of flux – a time of potentially upsetting changes. The recent upsurge in interest in BSL and Deaf Culture does seem to coincide with declining Deaf Churches, a drastically reduced number of ministerial posts and increasing difficulty in finding Deaf leaders. On the other hand, various organisations and events have given impetus to the emerging Deaf era. Signs of God is an organisation aimed at exploring and training people in the use of BSL in Christian settings. Go Sign is an umbrella organisation for Deaf Christians which encourages Deaf worship through dance, signed poetry and songs. Crosslinks is a joint DeafHearing Christian group run by the Elim Church in Swansea at its Temple Hub Centre. Having served the Deaf Christian Community since the early 1960s as Missioner, Diocesan Association Principal and Chaplain in several dioceses, I find it heart-breaking to see this rapid secularisation in the present Deaf Community. I have asked Bishop John to look into this, and I think something will soon happen for the good of the Deaf members of this diocese.
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Magazine for the Irfon and Wye Valley Churches