Autistic Boy’s Removal From Church Service Spurs Debate in Britain on Welcoming Those With Disabilities

King’s College Choir at Cambridge University. Photo courtesy of Cambridge University

King’s College Chapel at Cambridge University has one of the most famous choirs in Britain, known around the world for its Christmas Eve service, which the BBC has been broadcasting for the past 70 years. When Paul Rimmer decided to take his two sons to a choral evensong at the chapel two weeks ago (June 16), he expected his music-loving son Tristan would enjoy the service.

Instead the Rimmers’ visit brought headlines and an apology from the dean of the chapel and inspired a debate about how churches treat children and adults with autism after Rimmer was asked to remove 9-year-old Tristan, who has autism, for making too much noise.

“Music is very important to him, and it’s noticeable that he particularly likes good, quality music. He doesn’t like it when it is off-key,” said Rimmer, a post-doctoral fellow in earth sciences at the university. “We’d been before to King’s College Chapel as a family with my wife but without Tristan. But my wife was away and so was Tristan’s carer.”

Paul Rimmer. Photo via Facebook

“For him, calling out is a way of him expressing himself. But then someone came and asked us to leave. I explained that my son is autistic, but he insisted and said the dean wanted us to go, so we left,” he told Religion News Service.

“This was a form of discrimination against my son,” he added.

Rimmer was so incensed that he wrote to the dean, the Rev. Stephen Cherry, then posted his letter on Facebook. “As a Christian, I believe that worship is primarily intended to glorify God,” he wrote, “and may have misinterpreted your Evensong as an actual worship service, at which my son’s expressions must surely be pleasing to God, the experience of other worshipers being secondary.”

The dean replied with an apology, also on Facebook, in which he clarified that he had not himself asked for the Rimmers to leave but took responsibility for what had happened. “Sometimes we fail,” he wrote, “and I realize that we especially failed you and Tristan on Sunday afternoon.” The dean and Rimmer met last week to discuss how King’s College Chapel can do better.

Rimmer’s post has led to broader soul-searching about how houses of worship treat people with autism and others with special needs. He has been inundated with messages recalling similar incidents elsewhere and promising him and Tristan a proper welcome at their services. He has connected several organizations with expertise in autism with Cherry so that the chapel can get informed advice.

“I am sad that it has happened so much to other people but also amazed how many people invited us to their churches,” Rimmer said.

Rimmer said that he thought it could be appropriate for special services to be sometimes held for people with special needs but that it is also important for people like his son to be welcome at all services unless there are exceptional circumstances — such as a recording or broadcast.

According to the National Autistic Society in the U.K., more than a quarter of people with autism and their families have been asked to leave a public place because of behavior linked to their autism.

In recent years churches have been making efforts to be more inclusive. A recently published book, “Symbols of Faith: Faith formation and sacramental preparation for people with learning disabilities,” by pastoral expert Diana Klein, includes a forward by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, in London.

Quoting Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, “The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable,” Nichols wrote. “As St Paul says, they SEEM to be weaker. Our misperception of those with learning disabilities is revealed as just that, misrepresentation. In contrast, we are asked to recognize their indispensability.”

Rimmer said that Cardinal Nichols “reflects how I feel.”

“Some people have written to me to say that they have been on pilgrimage with people who expressed themselves in very different ways, and it didn’t take away from the experience. It added to it,” he said.

Last year the Church of England held a conference on disability at which the Archbishop of Canterbury said that “deep listening to those with lived experience of disability — is absolutely vital if we are to be a Church where everyone is valued and everyone belongs.”

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Source: Religion News Service