Deaf Church – working together to worship together
Norwich Deaf Church is a joint initiative between Methodist Minister the Revd Anne Richardson and Anglican Priest the Revd Dominic Hubbock to enable and encourage the Christian Deaf Community to meet, worship and spend time together. Tim Rogers met with them to find out how they are working together in reaching out to Deaf people.
Deaf people are a cultural and linguistic minority. According to Christian Deaf Link UK Go! Sign!, of the 250,000 people who use British Sign Language (BSL) in the UK as their first or second language, only 2 per cent are professing Christians, and globally, Deaf people are the fourth largest unreached group in the world.
Despite progress in making churches physically accessible for everybody, there was (and still is) a need for language and cultural adaptations to allow the Deaf Community to fully engage with a church service – above and beyond the provision of a hearing loop. Norwich Deaf Church is a small step forward in reaching out to a community in culturally appropriate ways using BSL as the dominant language.
Having worked as a Chaplain among the Deaf Community in the Diocese of London, Anne was keen to be part of a Deaf ministry in Norfolk too.
Bishop Graham put her in touch with Barry Oake, the then Diocesan Chaplain to Deaf People, who in turn pointed her towards Revd Dominic Hubbock who had an interest in Deaf Culture and, like Anne, wanted to provide a ministry for the Deaf Community. So, having held Deaf Church services in the Norwich Deaf Club, Deaf Church moved to Thorpe St. Andrew’s Church, and since September 2018 has provided monthly services there.
The congregation is made up of Deaf and deafened people, people with some hearing and people who are learning to use BSL themselves. The service is an opportunity for the Deaf Community to worship God using BSL instead of merely signing an existing spoken service. It involves interactive activities, where members of the congregation lead prayers, sign hymns and Bible readings, and can bring ideas for the next service. They then go to the pub after the service for a meal.
Dominic adds, “Sharing ideas, energy and knowledge is crucial in creating something sustainable. Working together in positive ways in front of the community encourages others to get involved, to try new things and feel secure.”
“We want to model an inclusive and welcoming community,” explains Anne. “Working together, showing respect, listening to one another, working together, is key to growing a group where everyone can be themselves.”
Deaf Church attender Steven said, “The church is very nice with lots of history. It’s a nice feeling here.” Fellow attendee Sonya added, “It’s important to come here and be part of the Deaf family, and of course with the hearing family too. It’s not the same as going to my own church, but because everyone here is deaf and signs, it makes a difference.”
“If we came on a Sunday with the hearing and with an interpreter,” added another attendee, Malcolm, “that would be good as well. But there aren’t enough interpreters and transport on a Sunday can often be a problem too.”
Anne’s background as Chaplain with the Deaf Community, her experience and understanding of worshipping in BSL as the dominant language, paired with Dominic’s passion for mission to unreached or forgotten groups and his background in inclusion and accessibility, makes this an effective partnership.
The Methodist Church in East Anglia recently recognised the Deaf Church as a new form of church, and, hoping to start something ecumenical, Anne set up ‘Sign the Cross – Deaf Church in East Anglia’. Norwich Deaf Church, along with other Christian Deaf Groups who meet in Downham Market and Lowestoft, sit within its umbrella.
“The service isn’t typically Anglican,” Dominic explained. “It doesn’t come from the Books of Common Prayer or Common Worship. Neither does it come from the Methodist worship book.”
“You have to look at the folks you have, listen to what they are saying and try to shape something together,” said Anne.
Anne and Dominic’s priority is to enable Deaf people to worship God together. The ecumenical work is possible because of this common goal. Like any new relationship, it takes time, effort, patience and creative thinking to know how and where to take it further. But it also highlights how people from different denominations can work together to promote the gospel and serve the people around them.
Norwich Deaf Church meets at Thorpe St, Andrew’s church on the first Friday of every month. More information can be found at www.signthecross.com/norwich
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