There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in

The Very Rev Dr John Chalmers, former Moderator and Principal Clerk of the Church of Scotland, gave the  2017 Donald Gorrie Lecture at St Andrew’s and St George’s West on 31 October 2017.

His title was There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in and his theme was disability.  The lecture was interpreted in British Sign Language.

If you missed the event, or would like to watch/listen again, you can watch a video of the lecture, including BSL signing, below on youtube.

You can also read the full text of the lecture below.

There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in

The 2017 Donald Gorrie Lecture given by Very Rev Dr John Chalmers 

A few weeks ago Liz Dawn died, for those who don’t know, she played Vera Duckworth in Coronation Street, I don’t watch Coronation Street, but I heard on Radio Four’s Obituary Programme, Last Word, the following conversational exchange between Vera and her husband Jack.

Vera longingly says, “Jack, I wish we were normal”
Jack says, “What’s normal”Vera responds, “If you came home and I said, ‘hello Love’ – had a good day? And you said, ‘yes thanks, how’s yours been? Do you want a cup of tea?’ – THAT’S NORMAL”
Jack says, “Vera there’s no one more normal than me!”

Hearing that exchange did two things for me, firstly it reminded me of my sister June (of who more later), June had Down’s Syndrome and Coronation Street was her favourite, not to be missed programme but secondly it gave me exactly the access I wanted to disturb the waters around the judgments that we make about what is normal and consequently about what we judge to be abnormal.

I have also taken the words of Leonard Cohen, There is a crack, a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in, as a title for this lecture. For if Coronation Street was June’s favourite diet – one of mine is the poetry of Leonard Cohen and the verse from which this title comes – in its complete form says:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

So, at the outset, I am giving notice, that I am going to challenge notions of what we might describe as normal and ideas of what we might consider to be perfect. There’s a crack in everything, we are all broken in some way, your normal won’t be mine and most ideas of perfection are just projections of the world the way we would like it to be.
Indeed, at the outset I am contending that both – concepts of normal and concepts of perfection are and have been harmful on a number of fronts – not least in relation to three particular areas which I hope to speak to tonight:

The First: Is in relation to attitudes which now pervade our society.
Some of these attitudes, I think, have found their way there by stealth and they have now been absorbed to the point of acceptance, but, in my view, without a fair critical analysis. I will argue tonight that I am not against choice or choices but I am against ill-informed choices and I want us to explore what well-informed decision making would look like.

The Second: Is in relation to religious and theological thinking.
Deeply embedded in Christian history are ideas that disability is connected to some great sin of the past (of the fathers or of the original brand) and, while saying it like that may be uncommon these days, there is, I believe, an influence here, embedded in theological thinking that at its worst has sanctioned discrimination and even at its best has encouraged a patronising attitude to those with learning disabilities. I will argue tonight that our emphasis on a soteriology based on the need for an intellectual response to what happened on the cross (in other words a theory of salvation which requires intellectual rigour) has limited our understanding of the unconditional nature of God’s love and thereby limited our effectiveness as both a campaigning body and as an example to the rest of society. Political policies and politicians can say all the right things but it is hard to legislate for attitudes which are deeply embedded – tonight I will try to speak to my understanding of the unreserved nature of the love of God, which I think is the essential catalyst for a change in attitudes and thinking towards those who are described in one way or another as disabled.

The Third area that I want to address is closely related – that is to speak to the inclusion agenda.

Here you should know, that not only have we failed to go far enough in our pursuit of inclusion (which is bad enough) the great challenge for church and society alike – is that of moving on from the inclusion agenda (which has been a good starting point), to a place where there is no them and us, to the place where the differently-able fully belong – with no dubiety or doubt. There is a world of a difference between being included and fully belonging. I will argue that the church must be a beacon on this horizon.
So to the first of these – the embedded attitudes, the hard wiring of so many people in relation to those who are somehow different or worse still who may, if they were allowed to be born, would turn out to be different.

This is Rosie (picture)
And this is Rosie with her dad Jamie McCallum, in time for World Down’s Syndrome day (21st March) 2016 Jamie McCallum wrote in the Herald one of the most brilliant and moving articles that I have ever read. It was entitled Who wants to live in a world without Rosies?

In the article Jamie describes Rosie as having so enriched the life of their family, their neighbours and their real friends that he cannot envisage their own life without her nor can he envisage a society without Rosies – and yet he observes that the trajectory upon which we are embarked as a society is one in which the dominant view prefers life without disorder or disability.

He writes, “This year (2016) may go down as the pivotal moment in history that led to people like our daughter Rosie becoming extinct. Mankind [his word] may reflect for centuries to come about a particular species of human being, with a subtly different genetic profile, high in emotional intelligence, with a lower than average IQ, that was systematically eradicated like a disease.”

He was referring to the decision in 2016 of the UK’s National Screening Committee agreeing that the new non-invasive genetic screening test (NIPT) for Down’s Syndrome should become available through the NHS. And already in some countries where the test is readily available – such as Iceland – there have been zero Down’s Syndrome births since its introduction. ZERO.

McCallum writes, “With an already 94 per cent termination rate for foetuses prenatally diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome in the UK, it is with heavy hearts that my wife, Victoria, and I realise that this generation may be the last. That our daughter, Rosie, may face her challenges alone. The last generation of a beautifully flawed group of human beings who are only just beginning to be understood, after centuries of mistreatment and being written off.” He goes on to make the deeply disturbing observation that under the guise of medical and scientific advancement we are achieving in this country what the Nazis failed to achieve in their shameful and dastardly eugenics programme.

It is through the “beautiful flaws” that the light shines through and I suggest that it may be that in these flaws that we get as close to the light of God as we can in any place. Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche Community would certainly say so. Dr Pamela Cushing, who has studied and worked in the life of the L’Arche Community says of Jean Vanier:

[His] fundamental contributions to our understanding of ‘being human’ are informed by his deep yet inquisitive faith and his philosophical training, but are inspired in the main, by his transformative experiences of sharing life with people with developmental disability.

I want to ask the question tonight – what do the choices that we are making as a society today tell us about the human condition.

• And here I should make it clear that I am not taking up a pro-life stance. I think that life is too complex to be able to take up exact positions on issues which have to be determined in context.

• I also know that this is a sensitive and grey area, where some distinction has to be made between the viable and non-viable life and where a real discussion is to be had about a “woman’s choice”.

But I am worried that we have decided the fate of certain categories of human life by stealth, we have arrived at a default position and are now operating under a tacit acceptance that it is OK to purge society of certain challenging conditions.

I am uncomfortable about the trajectory we seem to on and I am concerned about where the boundaries maybe set – (Down’s today – Dyslexia tomorrow?) whose idea of perfection are we chasing, what are we gaining and perhaps more importantly what are we losing when we start to make choices of this nature? Where does it end in our quest for the normal or for someone’s idea of the perfect? And if we eliminate all the cracks – where does the light get in?

It forces the question what does it mean to be human? and why does the idea that some people are not fully human continue to pervade our society – which, in its conceit, believes that it is so advanced and sophisticated.

When the Scottish missionary, Mary Slessor, went to Calabar in 1876 there was an embedded belief that the birth of twins was a particularly evil curse. Natives feared that the father of one of the infants was an evil spirit, and that the mother had been guilty of a great sin. Unable to determine which twin was fathered by the evil spirit, the natives abandoned both babies to the bush – breaking this practice became a major part of Mary Slessor’s life work. But it took 50 years and even to this day there is still, in some tribal traditions, a great fear of twins. Is what we are doing to the unborn child (identified as viable) born out of a fear of what it might mean for our designer life and future plans. Have we accepted a practice without examination? Is what we are doing now, so embedded in our reality that, try as we might in the future, we will never stop or contain it.

If it could be shown that rather than being disadvantaged by the presence of a disabled child in the family, in fact, the rewards in meeting the challenges, in discovering the extraordinary virtues of the people who help, in being delighted by love and maybe even seeing the love of God shine through the cracks – would society hold the same views as it does now?

Jean Vanier’s own words –
“The cry for help and the trust that spring from the heart of a fragile person give him or her a secret power that can open many a closed heart. The weakest can activate forces of loving generosity that are hidden in the hearts of the strong.”

If that is true – and believe that it is – then where does the power to change stubborn hearts really reside. When I think of some of the raging egos that stalk the corridors of power – oh how I would love for them (on top of their – oh so important roles) to be volunteering one day week in a learning support centre of one kind or another. I actually believe that that might change the tone of their tweets and of their rhetoric – little else seems to work!

Moving on to our theological history and thought; I want now to challenge us to think very carefully about the origins of prejudice, exclusion and discrimination against the differently-abled. Whether the disability is physical, mental, psychological or emotional – where do our pre-judgements come from, what is there in our DNA that places more value on intellectual intelligence than emotional intelligence, what is the origin of the hard wiring which pre-disposes us to fear or to avoid those who are different?

Perhaps there is a more far reaching question – why do we attach a BUT to the identity of some people and not to others – when the baby with a disability is born we say, “it’s a girl, BUT”? Why are people not just accepted as they are? Rather than defined by their condition, their wheelchair, their white stick or their hearing aid.

Here I wish that in the roots of our faith we were innocent – but you’ve guessed it we are not. Have you ever read Leviticus 21 – it is a litany of discrimination which gives licence to prejudice and bars what are described as the “defective and disfigured” (two of the less derogatory terms used) from making an offering to God or joining the ranks of the priesthood. This stuff, of course, is not the stuff of Jesus, who spends most of his ministry amongst the people that this chapter describes. But I am of the view that that stuff of ancient, unevolved ideas is still around. It’s the failure to see people as valuable in their own right, it’s the assumption that there is some kind of perfect profile and that the approach to God can only be made by those who fit this profile. It’s the decision to overlook people because they don’t fit someone’s idea of the perfectly formed. And, in fact, it is, in my view, to exclude the very people through whom the light of God shines brightly. It’s through the cracks that the light gets in.

It may be an incongruous comparison, but in the modelling industry these days there is profile – a size and a shape of women and men who appear on the posters, covers and promotions – across society we have filtered out, not only, people with disability and deformity, we have filtered out the pretty average and ordinary! And believe you me it is taking an extraordinary effort (even in these days of equality legislation) to overcome the physical, social, economic, cultural and attitudinal barriers that saturate our culture.

This is a failure to see the image of God in every person and to see the light of God in the cracks. And the assumptions that have been around in the religious culture for thousands of years are like the abandoning of twins to the bush, once embedded, hard to dislodge and they hang around in the system like a bad smell.

For a long time now I have been begging for an intelligent dialogue between the disciplines of science and religion – unfortunately for many Christians this dialogue focuses on finding new ways to use the discoveries of science to prove the existence of an all powerful, all knowing creator – fewer Christians are willing to walk the ground which might lead to an acceptance that some of our ancient dogmas, in the light of emerging knowledge, are no longer viable.

Eventually the church had to concede that the earth was not flat, eventually we conceded that the earth was not the centre of the universe and now we know that Adam and Eve were not real people – but still we talk about the fall and original sin as if they are to blame for everything and still we connect salvation with being a rational and informed choice – and this, in my view, has limited the field of our understanding of God.

These doctrines have also impeded or ability to embrace those who are differently able. I think that it is no accident that Jesus seems to have spent most of his time with those who had been excluded and categorised as outcast. Jesus ministry amongst the vulnerable and marginalised was, as much as anything else, a condemnation of the ancient dogmas which excluded people from the mainstream. He called them out and he offered them acceptance and love without condition – that for me was the source of their healing. It was in the cracks that the light of Christ was allowed to shine through.

Now let me be personal for a moment and let me tell you about my sister June. She had something extra that [most of us here] you and I can never have she had that additional cell division associated with chromosome 21, she had that extra genetic material which describes a person as having Down’s Syndrome and which, in too many places still, is regarded as rendering a person disabled.

June was 5 years older than me, today she would have been 70 years of age, she died in 2004 at the age of 56 but apart from the last few months of her life – when she had to go into respite care – she stayed with our family all of her life.

Throughout her whole life I do not think that June ever told a lie. I do not think she was capable of telling a lie. I do not want to idealise her or her life – there were many difficult days, but I would characterise her as having the kind of innocence and goodness which are rarely seen in humanity. She was trusting – too trusting? She was loving – too loving? She was forgiving – too forgiving? Can you be too much of these things?

Jesus said:
Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.

I now realise that when I was growing up I encountered at first hand the character and nature of unconditional love and as a result I found it difficult to believe in a God that placed conditions on love.

But it was a conditional brand of Christianity that pervaded the church life with which I was familiar – for God to forgive and save required a rational, informed choice. I was perplexed. Clearly some people may not have the capacity for making such a choice or they may, in fact, be predisposed to making the wrong choice.

So I learned that, in the Christian Church, we had invented ways of excusing the mentally deficient – leaving them to the mercy of a good and loving God, but without the faintest clue of where the boundary or threshold of intellectual ability might lie, we continued to preach a gospel for those who could sign up to a theological system.

I was so pleased to read and I think understand two stories in the New Testament that challenged the idea that God’s grace and goodness was dependant on human ability and human choice. The first was the story of Jesus encounter with the Syrian Phoenician woman – who, as it appears in the story, Jesus is prepared to exclude because she is an outsider. But Jesus is brought up short by her comment that “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” This is a turning point in the gospel narrative when we discover that faith knows no boundaries.

The other was what some would call “the plain meaning of scripture” in Jesus’ most famous and perhaps his most important story – that of the prodigal son, for here there were no conditions placed, by the Father, on the reunion. Before the son could even blurt out his confession and his plea for mercy he was already in the embrace of the Father.

I saw at first hand in June – the nature of unconditional love and far from being a stranger in the land of the normal – she was a beacon of light in a world of a certain kind of darkness – a light which shone through the cracks.

June was high on emotional intelligence – living in a world which places such great store on intellectual intelligence. For 2000 years (and more) we have allowed the rigour of intellectual intelligence to direct our thinking in every discipline – including theology; when, in actual fact, it is emotional intelligence which allows us an insight into the nature of pure love and by extension allows us an insight into the nature of God who is nothing other than love.

God’s love – for the person with an injured body or an injured mind, for the person with an extra chromosome or a hidden weakness, for the person who is seemingly well adjusted or who is obviously disturbed – is utterly consistent. The good news of salvation is that we are all loved by God and it is acceptance and accepting that we are accepted which is the power to heal.

For me the key to wholeness and healing lies in the way we are accepted and accepted as we are – I can confidently say that that is how I understand the love we are offered by God in Christ. Not some love with conditions attached.

That brings me to my final area of concern and that is about how we get beyond the inclusion agenda. My sister June was born before the charity Enable got that name. Indeed my father was a founding member of what was then Scottish Society for the Mentally Handicapped – the very name and the change of name tells you something about the distance we have travelled in our understanding and yet despite that distance we have had to explore tonight the underlying shift of attitude which not only threatens the progress we have made, but poses a more sinister threat to how we understand and value people in society.

For twenty years of my life I was a member of the Board of the National School for the Deaf, for eight of these years I was chairman of the Donaldson Trust and I would count myself as something of a champion for the Deaf in Scotland. But what a journey it has been. Once upon a time the deaf, like so many other disability groups were almost automatically locked away in institutions. If it was not enough to have a challenging and frustrating debility, we added to it by separating children from their parents, siblings and communities. We made choices for them because we assumed they were not capable of making their own choices. We decided for them whether they would use BSL or signed English, whether they would lip read or have cochlear implants. We called them deaf and dumb and turned out generations of riveters’ mates and painters and decorators; so, a world in which the deaf and the blind and other disability groups are now included (for the most part) in mainstream education is a world of extraordinary progress.

This progress, however, that has been made in recent living memory. And we were brought kicking and screaming to it. It was in the late 1990’s that the Scottish Executive commissioned a Committee under Sheila Riddell (now Professor Sheila Riddell) and I remember the kick back there was to her recommendations for greater inclusion in mainstream education of children with complex needs. This kind of policy threatened the future of Special Schools like Donaldson’s. I remember arguing for caution in the implementation of the report’s recommendations. But in general terms her Committee was right – the inclusion of pupils with special needs in mainstream education is not an economically driven policy, but it is one which is good for the individual pupil and, in the long run, a policy which is driving change in school communities and in wider society.

But inclusion is not enough, now we need to move towards belonging.

I am grateful to John Swinton for explaining this distinction very clearly, he writes,
At one level [inclusion is] fine. However, [it] is simply not enough. To include people in society is just to have them there. All we have to do is make the church accessible, have the right political structures, make sure people have a cup of tea at the end of the service or whatever. There is a big difference between inclusion and belonging.

To belong, you have to be missed. There’s something really, really important about that. People need to long for you, to want you to be there. When you’re not there, they should go looking for you. When things are wrong, people should be outraged – absolutely outraged that people are doing things against people with disabilities.

My sister June would have been among one of the first people with Down’s Syndrome to be admitted to full communicant membership of the Church of Scotland. That’s because we had a minister who believed that belonging was not about ticking certain boxes or demonstrating a certain understanding of the catechism – for him it was about being recognised as a real presence, as entitled to receive the means of grace as anyone else with a partial understanding of what the sacrament was all about.

But the most important question for the future is this one, what should a culture of belonging look like today?

We have six grandchildren – we love them all and each of them has a life stretching out before them which is no doubt, full of challenges and opportunities. For the future I want each of them to be fulfilled and, if possible, successful in their chosen paths, but we already know that one of the six has more challenges to face than the other five. That is because little Evie is one of those children that slipped through the closing net of society’s race to eliminate what for too long we have allowed to be described as “not normal”. She has that extra chromosome, but our family believe that we have been given the privilege of seeing (again) pure love in the flesh and we are being challenged day by day not just to include Evie but to treat her in the same way as all the others in the family – that is the meaning belonging.

Belonging means that we need to stop badging people with what we think they can’t do but discovering what they can do.

The crime is the failure of social attitudes to keep up with the dramatic progress being made by people with disabilities and the Church has to be at the forefront – modelling the kind of inclusive community which declares: no boundaries on love and no exclusions on the call that God has on every life that bears God’s image.

Have you watched anything of the Paralympics or the Invictus Games? Our son, an injured veteran of the Afghan conflict is not defined by his disability, but by his new found abilities, some of them forged in the furnace of recovery. This is true for so many – some of whose injuries are visible and some whose injuries are invisible – playing their way back into community, rediscovering their purpose and hope. Proving that, in fact, disability can be your strength.

Have you been able to watch the TED talk given by Dr Karen Gaffney. Dr Gaffney happens to have Down’s Syndrome. She became the first living person with Down syndrome to receive an honorary doctorate degree when she received a Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the University of Portland on May 5, 2013, for her work in raising awareness regarding the abilities of people who have Down syndrome. She is a public speaker, disability rights activist and, when not doing that, she is an accomplished swimmer who has swum the English Channel. As she so eloquently puts it, the reason for the fear of her is based on information that “reflects the past and ignores the present”.

Jamie McCallum in the article I referred to earlier says, “While I watched in amazement as [Dr Gaffney] stood on the famous TED platform, as engaging as any speaker I’ve seen, it occurred to me that a few decades ago she would likely have been in an institution, having never been afforded the opportunity to learn.” I would add, “At best she might have been taught to weave baskets.”

It says something about society that when so many pretty thin ideas and presentations on TED get millions and millions of hits – Dr Gaffney has only been viewed 115,000 times. It’s time to tweet her round the world!

Shame on us for our built in resistance to engage with the disabled. We have made many mistakes in the past, but we do not have to continue to be driven by the old stereotypes. When Evie was born we had to stop ourselves from saying, it’s a girl, but she has……… when people heard, they had to stop themselves (and some didn’t) from saying, oh, that’s a shame.

Progress will be when these reactions are no more.
Progress will be when we see the person behind the disability or the condition.
Progress will be when integration is such that the diversity of peoples is seen as normal.
Progress will be when women and men with Autism, Down’s and Asperger’s sit on our working groups being listened too rather than talked about.

And if I am recommending that our national leaders should spend some time every week volunteering at a disability learning centre, then I have the same advice for all of those training for the ministries of the church. We are saturated with people who have degrees in every aspect of ministry, but who are sadly lacking in the emotional skills and ability to do the job well. In this arena it is for the Church to be in the vanguard.

We are making much of Climate Change because it is an issue of Christian justice.
We are outraged that so many people depend on Foodbanks – and so we should be.
We are exercised by the loneliness of so many people (especially the elderly) in our society and it is right that we are.

BUT here is an area of life where, I believe, we cannot get any closer to God – that is the building of community where we fully integrate those who simply could not live outside of community. Theirs is a dependence on the grace and goodness of others which reflects the dependence that we all have on the grace and goodness of God – where on earth can the love of God be more fully reflected or more fully experienced. This is what has happened within L’Arche.

But herein lies the greatest challenge – if we are committed to building that kind of community, then be warned it is counter cultural – there is a pervading, creeping perspective which is gaining a foothold – it’s the one that thinks it would be OK to live in a world without Rosies; and it’s not OK because that world looks nothing like the kingdom of God.

Don’t be afraid of the blemishes and cracks – for it is through the cracks that the light shines in and that light may be as close to the light of God as you ever get in this world.

Very Rev Dr John Chalmers, Edinburgh, October 2017

Transcript of the 2017 Donald Gorrie Lecture given at St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church, Edinburgh .

Donald Gorrie (1933-2012) was a schoolmaster, orator, Member of Parliament and Member of the Scottish Parliament. He campaigned passionately for fairness, opportunity and justice.

Donald was also an elder here at St Andrew’s and St George’s West. Our schools debating competition and annual lectures are  named in his memory and generously supported by his family.






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