Rev Haydon Spenceley is a vicar and serves as Team Rector at The Emmanuel Group of Churches in Northampton, England. Haydon was formerly a recording artist and still does record reviews for The Clash magazine. Haydon lives with Cerebral Palsy and ministers from a wheelchair. Don't call him disabled though because this guy is way more than able!
I was keen to interview Haydon because I was fascinated by how ministering in a wheelchair might be in these Coronavirus Times and also what insight Haydon would have spiritually on these days. I was also keen to get a few musical recommendations and boy does he deliver...
When did you realise that Coronavirus would impinge on your life and ministry?
I can remember in the week leading up to March 15th I did all the things I usually do - school visits, visiting our Church Cafe, the Foodbank we run, going in to Northampton Town where I’m Club Chaplain, swimming and so on. There’d been a home game for Northampton the Saturday before as well, before all games got cancelled on March 14th.
It was obvious that things were going to change, but looking back on it now I don’t think we’d really understood exactly how much change there was going to be until only a few days before it happened.
How has it effected what you do on a daily basis?
I last left my property on March 22nd. As I write this it’s May 12th. I’ve been outside (I’m lucky to have a garden) but I’ve not been to shops or anything else since Mothering Sunday, and even going to see my Mum that day was ‘frowned upon’.
I’m not in the shielding group - I have Cerebral Palsy which was named as a ‘social distancing’ condition, but I took the view that caution was a decent plan early on.
Now I’ve known a few people who have had the virus and survived it I know that, whatever the consequences might be for me if I did catch it, or for others if I inadvertently passed it on, anything I can do to avoid either happening is more than worth it.
Whatever those who think it is being over-egged or isn’t more serious than ‘normal’ flu or whatever, it isn’t being over-egged and it is very different to ‘normal’ flu. We need to think of others and not even just our own household or family, but the whole of humanity when we make our choices about whether we follow the stipulations we’ve been given.
I was really struck by something you said in one of your posts actually Steve about how loving your neighbour in the context of this time means doing all we can to avoid infecting anyone else and that this might come to be a re-placing of the idea of loving others. Are we all about ourselves or do we actually care what happens to other people? In these days where illnesses and deaths are measured in numbers which are rising in the thousands perhaps we need to remember that each person is a person with a story, a person with potential for a better story, a person who has immeasurable value to God.
If we start thinking of this as a war, where there is collateral and it’s ok as long as it doesn’t come in our direction then I don’t think we can really be loving our neighbour, in which case we can’t really claiming to follow God according to Jesus’s most straightforward and foundational statement of how to do that - love God with everything we have, love self, love neighbour.
I’ve been weighing up how I feel about the idea that Churches might be able to meet together in some form in a relatively short time. I understand how important it is for many people to be able to gather in a building. I miss my own Church building, as well as the schools, cafe’s, community spaces, football club and other places I spend my time, along with gig venues and so on, but I hope we don’t get back to having public gatherings too fast.
Ultimately, this period of waiting - let’s not call it an exile - might just teach all of us a thing or two about not being able to do what we want when we want, have what we want when we want it and so on. And I’m fortunate that the community I lead seems to be finding its feet and a home in an online gathering space too. I know that hasn’t worked for everyone. I consider myself fortunate.
You are in a wheelchair? That must bring its own hurdles in ministry in general. How has ministry become even more difficult in Coronavirus Times?
Yes, I am in a wheelchair even at this very moment. Sometimes I sit on a sofa or an armchair to mix it up, but the wheels on those don’t go round quickly enough to get me to where I want to go.
Thankfully there are a growing number of people who use wheelchairs or have other impairing and disabling conditions ministering in Churches. That said there’s still a yawning gap between what is at the moment and what ought to happen if Church communities and by extension their ministry teams (of whatever sort) did what they could and featured a representative sample of the people who lived in their communities.
Every community has impaired and disabled people in it, but by no means does every Church, and ministers or leaders, even less.
When I was growing up I never saw someone ‘like me’ ministering and so for a long time I didn’t think it was something I would be able to do. So the first and primary obstacle was actually realising that the fact I’d never seen it wasn’t in itself a reason why I couldn’t, if I was being invited to do it by God then I should go for it.
Of course, that took a long time, a lot of talking, thinking and reflecting and then I’ve been very fortunate to have my first couple of posts in Churches and communities where I’m able to be me and bring what I bring and learn a whole heap and make some good quality mistakes too all with support and encouragement.
I’ve been fortunate. Not everyone is, and it saddens me beyond belief that a lot of people might be put off putting themselves forward to play their part because they think the Church has no room or no place for them. If that’s the case, it’s often the Church that needs to change.
God calls people. It’s for us as the Church family to work out how to be able to hear God’s call and work out how to make it a reality. Disabled people are something of a prophetic instrument to the Church I think. No one with Cerebral Palsy has ever been healed of it, so probably it was deemed by God to be the best way I could live my life and be the kind of person that I’m supposed to be.
I’ve met some ‘healing’ ministers (inverted commas deliberate - I could have said charlatans) who have begged to differ, sometimes quite forcefully. It’s funny how when the physical healing hasn’t come somehow that’s been to do with me. Especially as over the years a lot of other healing has taken place in my life which was arguably a lot more important and yet often what people most want to change about me is making sure I end up being able to walk. Or do star jumps, oddly. Whether I can walk in this life, in heaven, or if a heavenly wheelchair is one that never gets a puncture, I don’t honestly care. Others care a lot more about it, it seems to me.
That’s all an aside I suppose. Ministry in these times has actually been ok. I’ve got into a pattern. Early on, my job coach asked me what I thought the five most important things in my work were.
I said, “Prayer. Prep for sermons, worship and offering material to folks in my Church and community. Communicating and Leading on Pastoral Care with a Team. Keeping in touch with staff and key volunteers. Thinking about what might be new or different and what we might be invited to do after this period of time.
As I’ve been working from home all the time now I’ve been able to prioritise those things a bit more easily and still have some time for the necessarily responsive and reactive part of all this. I’m a million miles from perfect but I do feel like I’ve done this first couple of months pretty well.
Our Church is serving an area which includes 14 housing estates, has 14 schools in it, has lots of beauty and possibility and potential but also has a lot of the tough stuff to it too, with poverty, problems with gangs and serious youth violence and a lot else besides.
Our Church is not too big but we work hard to serve the people around us and we try to show the love of God to people and provide a home for the community. We want to be a family of faith where there’s always room for one more. We’ve been slow on the online ministry side of things, but this pandemic has pushed us into doing new things. I’m glad it has.
I’ve learnt a lot from people who were doing it a long time ago, people like Cole Moreton and the folks at Disability & Jesus who have been at it for years and are justifiably frustrated that everyone is excited to have found this ‘new’ thing that they’ve known about all along. I’ve met some new people through online stuff and have found that some of the people on the fringes of our community feel more comfortable and have more of a voice in this forum. Fortunately we are not a church where the minister does everything, but the online thing has brought that out all the more. It’s great to involve more and more people with each passing week.
Also I think the fact that I visibly can’t do everything (I’m isolated at home now, but even at the best of times I have obvious limitations) is a good thing for a minister and a good thing for a Church and community to see. Everyone has limitations but a lot of people pretend they don’t or think that if they show ‘weakness’, which isn’t really weakness at all but honest humanity, they’ll be frowned on or deemed a failure. We all need to get over being people-pleasers or institution-pleasers and all that those things bring. God is pleased with our being at least as much if not more so than our doing.
Do you think that the government or even society in general has given enough consideration for those with physical or indeed mental disabilities during these days?
No. If I say much more than that I’ll get in more trouble than I may have already caused myself.
Are there any ways that we can help?
Pray. I am being quite serious. That seems to me to be the thing that we need to be doing. It almost doesn’t matter what you pray, besides praying for the governments of our countries to make wise decisions that serve the needs of all. But for me the biggest thing in prayer is that when we spend time doing it we are drawing close to God who is the source of all being and life, the one for whom we exist.
He wants to hear from us and speak to us, yes, but I think actually what is best about prayer is when neither party involved in the prayer is saying anything at all, but actually just having the courage to stop and to just ‘be’.
Sometimes things change when we pray, but it is also about acknowledging that I can’t do life on my own, I wasn’t ever meant to and I don’t want to. I want to acknowledge God and not try and figure it all out myself. So I’d say pray and wait, pray and breathe, pray and be still a while and then if something tells you that God wants you to go, to move, to speak, to act, go for it, but don’t rush.
One of the beauties of this moment in all of our lives is that if we’re really honest, however busy we are and however much work we have on, we do actually have more time than most of us are used to having. Use it well. Pray before you do whatever you think of doing next. When you do something, do it for the benefit of someone else, or another group of people.
As well as a vicar you are a musician. Has that creativity been a help in days when creativity has been needed to share pastorally and missionally?
Yes. I have albums and used to tour and had a lot of fun for a season learning how to be a Failed Christian Pop Star. That’d make a good book title actually. Don’t nick it anyone. I’ve been writing in this season actually, but in more normal times I find it most useful in schools, where the children particularly in Primary-level education aren’t used to people talking to them one minute and then popping behind a piano the next with a song which illustrates the point I’ve been making.
Sadly I was once called the most depressing musician in Christian music so a lot of my tunes are not exactly happy-clappy. I’ve been meaning to write some happier ones but it never seems to happen.
Does your own music help you deal with the strangeness?
That’s a cracking question I could take in all sorts of directions. The strangeness of….life?…..the Church of England?…the way my beard is growing?…I suppose it does yes, I have been reminiscing a little recently and remembering how much I love writing. I’m a pretty crap pianist and an average singer at best but I worked hard at writing songs and I think I’m ok at that.
I spent yesterday making a demo of a new song just because I wanted to and I owe myself about 4 months of TOIL by now and I got so immersed in it. It came out ok. I would never let others hear it, but the act of writing and creating used a different part of my brain and I loved being in that zone for a while. It was tiring but a good kind of tiring, a different kind. I hope one day to make another album. We’ll see.
Are there are any songs or albums by others that you have used as prayers of companions on the road?
I like Martyn Joseph’s new song. He has such a way of getting to the heart of things.
I’ve been using the music of Hammock to help me focus and concentrate at times recently, it’s instrumental but you can feel the heart to it. Instrumental prayers are a bit like the silence and the waiting I was talking about earlier.
An act like Portico Quartet or Gogo Penguin can really be an aid to prayer for me, even though they have no intention of being so at all.
There are times when a great lyric or a crashing riff can help, for instance I’ve liked Verra Cruz’s new single Like a Lion .
Recently, I’ve just discovered Pugwash (for shame, 23 years late or something like that) and so on.
But right now I’m listening to some gorgeous piano from a French guy called Maxence Cyrin which is helping me ease into the evening.
I review records for Under the Radar, an indie magazine in America and Clash Magazine over here, so I get to hear all sorts of new stuff. Too much really. Most recently, I wrote about this guy Alex Henry Foster who made an amazing album of really deep rock music which I only found out afterwards came from a faith-based place. That was an album about grief and loss.
Another great recent discovery was the new Denison Witmer album on Asthmatic Kitty. Really great folk stuff.
Are there any lessons that you have learned during the lock down that you would like to carry on into the post lock down days?
Slow down. Most things can wait longer than you think, so then you’re around for the things that really can’t. Which includes prayerfully taking risks at the right moments. It doesn’t all depend on me, or you. It’ll only work if we really are all in it together. Whatever politics we have or slogans we get excited or annoyed by, the only peace we need is the peace the world can’t give. There’s only one place to go for that. Keep going there.