Columbia Theological Seminary, Rebecca Spurrier

Decatur, Georgia

To create a liturgical resource that responds to ableist images, narratives, and symbols that are common in Christian worship, drawing from insights in liturgical studies and disability studies.

Researcher(s): Rebecca Spurrier  
Academic Discipline: Liturgical Studies and Disability Studies/Theologies
Other Researcher(s): Sarah Barton, Kyle Stevenson, Alexandra Mauney, Mike Walker, David Gayes, Sue Rozeboom, LaTonya Penny

Project Summary

Research at the intersections of liturgical studies and disability studies will support the design and creation of a liturgical resource that responds to ableist images, narratives, and symbols that are common in Christian worship. By creatively and constructively offering prayers, images, narratives, rubrics, and other elements for Christian worship that are informed by disability criticism as well as disability wisdom and experience, this liturgical resource will serve Christian communities who are looking to transform ableist symbols and engage questions of disability justice in worship. 

What questions have you asked about worship in the past year? List at least two questions that have generated theological reflection and have helped shape your project.

  1. In what ways might this resource take into account complex understandings of agency, consent, and communal/shared decision-making? 
  2. What are some ways to encourage disability-centered hermeneutical and homiletical approaches to biblical texts in a worship resource?
  3. What are faithful ways to use interview data so as to transform common prayer practices and reflect a range of experiences?
  4. What are good ways to guide a normative plurality of responses to God and others in communal worship?

In what ways has or will your project strengthen the worship life of congregations?

Christian worship perpetuates harm against people with disabilities; this harm occurs not only through lack of access to church spaces and worship but also through interpretations of texts and use of language/metaphors that perpetuate misunderstandings of disability. When worship does not participate in the flourishing of all people, it does not reflect the fullness of human life that God desires for God’s people in worship. Abled Christians need to educate themselves so as to receive the sacred gifts and wisdom of disabled leaders and lay leaders. This project addresses one site of harm within Christian worship by helping worship leaders and pastors envision disability-centered approaches to prayer, preaching, and sacraments/ordinances. 

What have been your greatest challenges (or challenging opportunities)

It was a challenge to support a collaborative research model during a global pandemic. When some original team members had to withdraw from the project, I identified additional members and supported formation of a new team. In addition, I had to create a structure for shared work that was anti-ableist and included accountability without applying pressure or additional stress. I had planned several in person working retreats. These gatherings were intended to structure and support work we did on our own. Instead, the team met on Zoom for an hour twice a month over the past year. While this format hampered some kinds of engagement, consistent meetings also empowered a community of trust and care to emerge among co-researchers. 

What advice would you like to share with other Teacher-Scholars? 

Collaborative research is not encouraged or rewarded in many parts of the academy,  and such research methods can be more challenging and take more time than solo projects. But they also invite opportunities for partnership, accountability, practices of care and community, and inclusion of perspectives often excluded from some academic circles. As an abled scholar working in disability studies/ theologies, this practice of collaborative research has been a way to address and engage some of the privilege I have. Furthermore, while compensation for research partners is still unusual in much qualitative theological research, such practices are more just and should be employed more often to recognize the labor of educating dominant communities. 

What products will emerge from your project?

The research team and I are working toward a published liturgical resource that can be made widely available for worship leaders. We have developed a table of contents and have written liturgy informed by both textual and qualitative research. We have also completed 15 interviews and hope to do 35 more. These interviews will be used to shape this resource and may lead to one or two academic articles. I also hop that we can offer a workshop at the 2022 Institute on Theology and Disability.