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Moderator nominee Colin Phillips gives his nomination speech at General Council. (Credit: Richard Choe)

Hey, United Church — we could have talked about my disability

A moderator nominee says the majority of commissioners at General Council weren't comfortable enough to truly engage him.

By Colin Phillips

A part of me can’t help but wonder if I made a mistake; if there was an elephant in the room that I simply needed to address, instead of ignoring. I’m of course referring to the fact that I was, I believe, the first person with a disability to stand for election to be the moderator of the United Church, and that I barely mentioned my disability in the lead up to General Council, or when I addressed the court.

Some people are probably wondering why I chose to handle my disability this way; why not use this as an opportunity to push the church to be more accessible and inclusive? Simply put, that just isn’t my calling. I’ve come to be surrounded by folks at work, in my congregation, and in the wider church who understand that we certainly need to have frank conversations about my disability at times, but we can have those conversations and move on to the work at hand, to what God is calling me, and us all, to do. The folks in my life also know that our conversations can be as deep and robust as everyone else’s, even though I have cerebral palsy and am non-verbal. 

I expected to have many conversations at General Council — conversations about the role of the church in society, and about how we continue the journey towards a decolonized United Church. I also fully expected, and indeed hoped to have, frank conversations about what it would be like to have a moderator with a disability. There was no denying that people must have been wondering. If I had been asked these questions, I could have told people about the travelling I do, the ways we could have overcome barriers for me to visit less-than-accessible churches, and that a plan was loosely in place to make sure that I had the extra supports I would have needed if I was elected.

By and large, these conversations simply did not happen. Many commissioners did stop to compliment me on my address, but the conversation typically ended awkwardly after I thanked them. Yes, there were a few remarkable conversations, and I certainly come away with new and deep relationships, but it was clear that the vast majority of commissioners were not comfortable enough to truly engage me.

What haunts me, though, is the extent to which commissioners’ discomfort, and probable assumptions, around my disability prevented them from seeing me not just as a theoretically possible candidate for moderator, but as a viable one too.
General Council discerned well when it called Richard Bott to serve as moderator. I am at peace with having not been called. What haunts me, though, is the extent to which commissioners’ discomfort, and probable assumptions, around my disability prevented them from seeing me not just as a theoretically possible candidate for moderator, but as a viable one too. There is no doubt in my mind that people in the church love me, but that love needs to bring us to a place where everyone names my disability, accommodates it, and moves on to building the kindom of God.

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