In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re in nativity season! A stress fuelled time of rehearsals, costumes, children trying to learn their parts, performances, tears and tantrums (and that’s just the adults!) Most schools are preparing theirs now as term enters the final weeks, while many churches have theirs still to do in the days before Christmas. Tensions are running high, no one can find the stuffed sheep, and someone has to tell little Jack that the actual shepherds didn’t wear Buzz Lightyear dressing gowns…
This time last year I read an article in 'The Independent' about what the role in the nativity play children are given might say about them. It’s a great article, spot on in many cases, and even manages to introduce a new part to the nativity performance… ‘First Lobster’! Here’s the full article if you’d like a look later: www.independent.co.uk/life-style/nativity-character-role-what-says-personality-primary-school-angel-donkey-narrator-a8086541.html
There’s plenty about what it takes to be Mary, Joseph, the Star, shepherds and wise men… but as I read it I was distracted by the thought that people arranging a nativity play do actually have the unenviable task of allocating these roles. That whatever method they use to choose, there will be accusations of favouritism, partiality, preference or discrimination levelled against them, sometimes fairly, often not.
We have two children, now in their late and mid-teens respectively, who have had markedly different nativity play ‘careers’. Our eldest, Phoebe, has played every role except Joseph over the years, and at 19 is still on standby to do a reading or to narrate if required. James (now aged 16, autistic with learning disability and epilepsy), on the other hand, was shuffled onto the stage wearing his dressing gown and a tea-towel a few times, but there the creativity ended.
There have been stories over the years of disabled children being excluded from nativity plays altogether. A few years back a school was taken to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal in the UK, which ruled that the school had broken the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act and ordered school governors to apologise in writing to the boy and his mother.
So, what part in the nativity play is there for a disabled child, and what does the answer to this question tell us about society as a whole and church as a part of it?
Well, my starting point has to be that EVERY part should be open to ANY child who might want to participate. To exclude children with additional needs or disabilities from certain ‘high profile’ roles, limiting them to very minor, sometimes made up, parts is to discriminate against them. To exclude them entirely is inexcusably shameful.
All sorts of excuses are proffered, such as that “We have to think about everyone, not just (insert child’s name)”, or “We’ve had complaints from parents that (insert child’s name) will ruin the performance”. I’ve heard similar comments used to excuse excluding disabled children, young people, and adults from church as a whole… “We have to think about the rest of the congregation…”, or “We’ve had complaints that (insert name) makes too much noise/is too disruptive/doesn’t sit still during the service”. In both cases, these attitudes shame the church and should have no place in a community that is invited to love each other as Christ loves them. At its best (and it’s a low best) this is lazy thinking, taking the easy route by excluding anyone whose participation requires a little more thought and a little careful planning. At its worst, it is active discrimination, a hard-hearted, self-serving attempt to create what some might view the ‘perfect’ nativity play to be.
I have, however, been encouraged and thrilled to see stories of disabled children being actively and creatively included in nativity plays. A friend of mine, whose disabled daughter was cast in the role of Mary, with everything arranged so that she could play this part, wonderfully capturing the beauty of God’s radiance shining from her. Or the boy who found it impossible to stay still, so was cast as the Star and given freedom to run around, recognising that (according to ‘The Sky At Night’) the star of Bethlehem was probably a comet, and that comet’s MOVE VERY FAST!! Or the boy who in the past would cling to his children’s workers leg, but this year was encouraged and helped to take part and shouted out his line with considerable enthusiasm!
Any part can be adapted or creatively arranged so that any child can be given that role, if they wish, whether they have a disability or not. If we can get this right at Christmas time, the time when the God-child entered the world to save everyone, not just the abled, then this can help us get it right for the rest of the year too. Christ’s birth wasn’t a sanitised, well behaved, professional, slick, orderly event… childbirth rarely is even in the most clinical of environments, but throw in some shepherds, animals, the filth of a stable, a myriad of angels, and the chaos must have been extraordinary (poor Mary!)
Let’s see the nativity play as a gauge of where our church has gotten to on the road to accessibility, acceptance, inclusion and belonging… For a few, there is indeed ‘Good news for ALL people!’, for others, they are 'arriving at Bethlehem' but still have a lot more to do, for many, they 'haven’t even left Nazareth' yet, there is a long journey ahead, and they haven’t even borrowed a donkey.
Where is your church on that scale?
(If reading this has caused you to think more about the way children, young people and adults with additional needs or disabilities in your church are included, and you would like to improve things, do please get in touch. We can help you on your journey: www.urbansaints.org/additionalneeds)