The Church of England and learning disability after 1945: a first sketch

This is the unrevised text of a paper delivered at the conference of the Ecclesiastical History Society in Exeter in 2017.
Although the effect is now jarring, I retain contemporary language in quotations (and paraphrases of quotations), including terms of reference to people with disabilities which we would not now use.
Alternatively, there is an audio recording of the paper.

In January 1981 Robert Runcie, archbishop of Canterbury, stood up in the House of Lords to support the International Year of Disabled People, called by the United Nations. The needs of the disabled in the UK were great, he argued, and insufficiently provided for, but before the churches started ‘preaching to others’ it was necessary that ‘we will have a look at our own attitudes, facilities, use of buildings and resources’. To this end he had already issued a challenge to the Church of England, circulated among the bishops and distributed to the parishes. The disabled, he told the Lords, are ‘a special care of the churches, because Christians cannot regard them as on the edge of society or objects of pity but as those who are at the centre of the discovery of depth in trust, love and sharing. …. The care of the handicapped always draws out unsuspected qualities from those engaged in it, and when you minister to others they minister to you.’

But, Runcie stressed, there was more to be done by the state on its own account. In these early years of the Thatcher administration the economy was in a severe recession and deep cuts had been imposed in public spending as part of a dramatic restriction in the scope of the action of the state. It should, Runcie believed, ‘be a principle of government that available resources should go first to the weakest and the most vulnerable. … even in a time of stringency we must try to ensure that those who begin life with mental or physical handicaps do not suffer further because of what we fail to do.’ Those in government needed to remember ‘that while they struggle to solve our economic problems, there is also a moral imperative without which we shall never achieve the re-creation of a real community life for our people.’

Here, then, was the leader of the Church of England using his privileged position to call both his own church to action and the state to attend to its conscience. To some extent, this was a continuation of a role that successive archbishops had exercised to a greater or lesser degree according to both circumstance and inclination. In 1913 Randall Davidson had lent significant support in private to ensure the safe passing of the Mental Deficiency Act, the most important piece of law of the early century, which was apparently at risk of being shelved by a government with one eye on an impending general election.

However, this apparent continuity masks a rather more circuitous history. This paper is (I believe) a first attempt at setting out a broad chronological and analytic framework into which to place research on the official relationship between the Church of England and issues relating to learning disability since 1945.

It is the first attempt, since the independent growth of several separate bodies of scholarship have left an unexplored space in between them. This conference shows the depth and variety of recent work on religious education in general; the work of Stanley Hauerwas, Nancy Eiesland and others in the last three decades has pointed towards a specific theology of disability for the contemporary churches to use; social historians, historians of medicine and historians of disability have in their different ways recovered the experience of disabled people and the changing ways in which disability was understood by medical professionals, and the frameworks of social policy in and through which the state and voluntary sectors addressed them.

As yet unexplored, however, are the specific issues that disability raised for religious education both in schools and in churches, the experience of disabled people in local congregations, and the ways in which Christians theologised about disability before the advent of ‘disability theology’ proper.

I focus particularly on learning disability, since the issues in relation to physical disability, whilst in many ways similar, were quite distinct. If membership of the Body of Christ was in part contingent on the ability to declare assent to certain key propositions, what was to be done with those who were unable to make any such declaration? If membership was instead conceived in terms of participation in the sacraments and (more broadly) in participation in the social existence of the local church, what was the place of a person with autism, for whom difficulties with social interaction were cardinal?

I focus particularly on the Church of England, for reasons of time, although I would suggest that all the denominations faced the same issues to a greater or lesser extent and are similarly underinvestigated. The unique position of the Church of England gives the investigation an additional angle, since it was often the conduit of contact between secular professionals, government and the other churches, both in Parliament and more generally. This paper focusses in particular on those official relationships, between successive archbishops of Canterbury, the central policy development bodies of the church and those parts of the state and voluntary sector concerned with the issues.

This paper begins with the immediate post-war period, but only as a convenient break point in what are in fact multiple parallel chronologies: related but distinct threads that develop according to their own logic, in the histories of education, health, psychiatry, social policy, and ecclesiastical history proper. Three shifts did however occur in these years that together make the post-war period a useful beginning in a tripartite chronology that I shall propose. The 1944 Education Act and the 1945 regulations that put it into effect in relation to ‘handicapped pupils’ provided for compulsory state education for all children who were able to benefit. This transferred responsibility for all but those thought to be entirely ineducable from the mental deficiency hospitals to a new kind of segregated special school, in which the churches had no part to play.

The 1948 National Assistance Act further cemented the taking by the state of responsibility for the maintenance of the disabled from the voluntary sector. This annexation of responsibility by the state was a loss of influence for the churches in one sense, but a gain in others, since the Church of England had both the means to influence the formation of law and public policy, and was by many expected to do so. In addition, the 1944 Act had the effect of making a clearer distinction between mental illness (which remained the responsibility of what was shortly to become the National Health Service) and learning disability. That said, the common confusion in the public mind between the two was to remain, and not only amongst the public but also amongst the governing class (and throughout the period.)

In addition, there had been a distinct intellectual change since the 1930s, which had seen energetic Christian advocacy of voluntary sterilisation for the ‘feeble minded’, based on the assumption that learning disability was inherited. As such (the argument went) it was the Christian course of action to prevent future suffering if it could be prevented and could confidently be predicted. The immediate postwar period, and specifically the revelations from within Germany of the Nazi programme of eugenic murder of the disabled, also (I suspect) had a chilling effect on some of the Christian engagement with eugenics. Although Bishop E.W. Barnes of Birmingham continued his enthusiastic advocacy of sterilisation of those who were unfit to breed and the euthanasia of those born disabled, he cut a more isolated figure after 1945.

Quite apart from the associations with Nazism, the assumption of hereditability had become increasingly discredited amongst scientists, and so as the Christian case for sterilisation was weakened, perhaps fatally, space opened up further for an acceptance of disability on its own terms rather than as a problem to be eradicated. Such a position was later put forward by Michael Ramsey, for instance, in the context of the debate over abortion law reform in the late 60s, in opposing the eugenic termination of a foetus with a physical deformity on the basis that it were better not to be born: ‘While we must strive to remove suffering’ Ramsey argued, ‘we do not foreclose the ways in which in the midst of frustrations and handicaps some of the glories of human lives may be seen.’

Phase One: 1945 – c.1959
The first of my three phases was from the end of the War until the late 1950s, during which we find the Church in a responsive mode with few signs of proactive engagement with any of the issues. The bishops in Parliament were closely engaged with the progress of the Education Act in 1944 and the regulations that followed, but not with the specific provisions in relation to special schools, since they did not concern the church schools directly. A Royal Commission was appointed to examine the law in relation to mental illness and disability in adults, reporting in 1957, the findings of which were taken into the Mental Health Act 1959. Once again, the bishops in the Lords seem not to have intervened in the debates on either the report or the Act. There was however some activity amongst the staff of the new Board of Social Responsibility, set up in 1958. The history of the BSR remains to be written, but it appears to have taken a wider view of its role than did its predecessor bodies: to advise the bishops and others in the church, provide evidence to government, and in general to be the eyes and ears of the institution in relation to everything from nuclear arms, to unemployment to medical ethics.

Prompted by the Royal Commission, the British Council of Churches held a conference in 1957 on ‘mental health and the churches’,. This was followed by a similar one on the new Act in 1959 organised by the Central Churches Group of the otherwise secular National Council for Social Service; it was chaired by a bishop, Dudley Narborough of Colchester. Both events dealt with mental health and mental disability whilst being more careful than was common to distinguish between the two. Both were exploratory but marked with a sense of impending change. Lady Norman, vice-chair of the National Association for Mental Health (that was later to become MIND) told the 1957 conference that ‘the Churches had a responsibility to promote right thinking and an enlightened attitude in this field’, but after 25 years’ experience she was heartened by the increased interest among Christians she was seeing. BSR staff attended both events, circulated resulting papers, and collected press cuttings on the general issues, but nonetheless remained in a reactive mode until the early 1960s.

Phase Two: the Sixties (roughly)
In the early 1960s two distinct currents seem to coincide: the gradual identification of learning disability as a subject distinct from that of mental health; and movements within the Church of England to develop and communicate its own view. In 1964 there was a conference on the subject of ‘the church and the backward child’, about which I have been able to discover almost nothing, but there was some contact between its delegates and the authors of Number Unknown. A guide to the needs and problems of the mentally subnormal child and his family (1965), produced by the Children’s Council of the Church of England’s Board of Education. It was followed two years later by All Children are Special, which focussed more specifically on schools, also produced by the Childrens Council.

As was common with the church’s central bodies, Number Unknown was the product of a working party composed of experts in various fields, usually chosen on the basis of being either Anglicans or at least sympathetic to the churches. It included a diocesan advisor on RE, the headmaster of a unit for children in one of the mental deficiency hospitals, two supervisors of training centres located in the community, the chaplain of a unit for mentally deficient children located in a mental hospital for adults, as well as a statistician. Aimed primarily at clergy whose training would not have prepared them for a pastoral response to disability, it was a remarkably advanced document when considered in its context. The pastoral care of parents after the first diagnosis of their child is discussed sensitively, but without pity or condescension, as is the key importance of baptism in the process of accepting a disabled child. Local congregations, it argued, would find their capacity for intercessory prayer enlarged by welcoming a family with a disabled child, and church members could find new ways to serve, not least in pastoral counselling.

What of the disabled child? How might he (or she) be involved in worship and learning? The approach would need to be different, the report argued, not least in the matter of communion since the Book of Common Prayer laid down certain stipulations as to what a person must be able to say and do before being admitted. However, these could be fulfilled in other ways, it argued, since disabled children very often showed ‘a wonderful intuitive power of realising God’s presence and a quality of devotion which exceeds that of many ordinary young people.’ To be sure, there was a widespread idealisation of the disabled child in the churches of which this is an example, but the effort to elaborate an early theology of the matter was notable.

Could the ‘severely subnormal’ person meaningfully take part in the communion, it asked? The answer was strongly affirmative: ‘It operates on many levels and expresses a relationship between God and man … in ways deeper and broader than those of a strictly intellectual operation. Each worshipper responds according to his capacity. As the severely subnormal person offers himself to God with his own simplicity and sincerity… there is available to him that growth in holiness which comes by grace in the Christian life, and the means of grace are for him as well as for others.’ The report was debated in the Church Assembly, after the bishop of Portsmouth, himself the uncle of a disabled child, had persisted for over a year in keeping it on the agenda. After a short debate, the Assembly welcomed the report, agreeing that there was a problem to be addressed and that not enough was known about it, but not what ought to be done.

Number Unknown was no work of theology proper, and as such it is not straightforward to uncover the roots of its thinking, other than in the general resources of the Anglican approach to the sacraments. Theologians have (more recently) attended to older writers as precursory and foundational to the more recent theology of disability, notably Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but although these writers enjoyed something of a vogue in the post-war years, it was not for this purpose that they were used. The period from the late 60s until the early 1980s saw a rather pragmatic Anglican approach gradually become hedged about by more substantive theological work on disability done elsewhere. In France, Jean Vanier founded the first L’Arche community in 1964, and his writings on theology and learning disability began to be published in the early 1970s, although not immediately in the UK. In the USA, Stanley Hauerwas’ two most significant works on disability – Responsibility for Devalued Persons and Suffering Presence – did not appear until 1982 and 1986 respectively.

More important in catalysing Anglican engagement with disabled people was their increased visibility. Due in part to the Mental Health Act 1959 there was a gradual move (though still not complete by the 1980s) in public policy away from institutional living towards what became known later as ‘care in the community’. The churches were gradually confronted, therefore, with greater numbers of the disabled living in their parishes, and so a practical response became more and more necessary. But the Church still also had a role to play in the formation of the law. In 1970 a private member’s bill became the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act, which imposed additional duties on local authorities to ascertain and meet the needs in their area. Briefed by the Board of Social Responsibility, the bishop of Bath and Wells, Edward Henderson, intervened in the House of Lords to ask for independent representation of the interests of those with learning disabilities who were unable to press their own case.

Period Three: the 1970s
My third period is the 1970s, during which there was a general quickening of activity within the Church of England: piecemeal, in places exploratory, and without yet significant additional theological work – but substantial nonetheless. The more public and ceremonial work that archbishops often have to do continued: Donald Coggan took over from Ramsey as president of MENCAP, and Runcie followed suit. There was experimentation with new forms of worship, notably amongst the group of chaplains in the remaining hospitals; more concretely the diocese of London was in the early 1980s beginning to discuss deploying an ordained man specifically to minister to the disabled, the first venture of its kind of which I am aware.

There was also a growing international and ecumenical context: Partners in Life, a 1979 report from the World Council of Churches had English representation in the shape of Leslie Newbigin, by then retired from the Church of South India to the UK. The International Year for Disabled People in 1981 (with which I began) had an ecumenical committee overseeing matters to do with the religious life, chaired by a Roman Catholic. By the time Robert Runcie chose to publicly support the Year, the Church of England had moved from being a watcher, a relatively passive recipient of knowledge from the secular professions, to an institution that realised the moral imperative of responding to the challenge learning disability posed, both in its own life and in calling the state to its duty. Even if much of the heavy theological lifting remained to be done, the Church was in its characteristically pragmatic way doing what it could.

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