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Mooroolbark Corps leading the way with inclusive model of worship

Corps Officer Captain Ashley Proctor and former associate corps officer Major Catherine Spiller laid the foundations for the inclusive model of worship at Mooroolbark Corps.

Major Catherine Spiller is the coursework coordinator at Eva Burrows College and a researcher specialising in worship and disability. While she was an associate corps officer at Mooroolbark Corps (Vic.) several years ago, Catherine started to build inclusive models of worship, searching for bigger ways to do church.

“We started to see an increase in people with disability attending the corps,” Catherine explains. “I was asking, what’s going on here? I was also observing the more severe the disability, the harder it was for a person to engage. Mooroolbark Corps (in Melbourne’s east) is a beautiful place with an atmosphere of welcome, but there was still a sense that there was more we could do to offer greater inclusion of people.”

Catherine’s Doctorate of Ministry has focused on how to better include people with intellectual disability in corporate worship. Inclusion is often thought to be about the design of facilities, such as bathrooms and entrance ramps. While accessibility is a key issue, the larger question is how people with intellectual disabilities are centred in what communities do.

“We think of physical space as ticking the inclusion boxes, but it’s actually saying, how do we ask people to participate on a Sunday?” Catherine says. “If you can’t read or speak, suddenly the bulk of what we do becomes very difficult. Can we actually provide multiple ways for people to have access and foster greater participation? I am also a parent of an adult child with an intellectual disability so, for me, I was asking, ‘How can I include him in worship more?’”

The initiative was part of a larger project of missional experimentation at Mooroolbark Corps, consulting with the corps and community. The corps spent a year reaching out to businesses and stakeholders and talking with people on the street to understand what the local needs and opportunities might be.

“It was clear that the corps had a passion to look outside the 10am Sunday service,” explains Captain Ashley Proctor, Mooroolbark Corps Officer since 2017. “We started on a journey. We spoke to key personnel in the local area. We spent a long time in prayer about what God was calling us to do and where God was working. From that, we moved into the field of disability and inclusion.”

The resulting decision was not to replace Sunday morning meetings at Mooroolbark Corps but to reimagine how those gatherings invited people to participate and to trial more inclusive models of worship across 12 weeks.

“Both Catherine and I have kids with disability, and a number of other families have clear needs,” says Ashley. “We wanted to try and work with that and build a community around them. When we look at what we do on a Sunday, it’s very easy to have the same format. We can take it for granted that everyone can sit and do what we do.”

The resources developed for Sundays restructured the points of participation in worship so as not to be so reliant on literacy and verbal communication skills and the core actions of reading and singing, sitting and listening.

“One of the things we played around with was the call to worship,” Catherine says. “We would pick the Psalm from the lectionary reading and think about how we could invite people to participate. It was about creating multiple options for people. The congregation could read, speak, sign or even choose not to participate. I did not want to start a disability ministry but wanted to discover what it means to be the Body of Christ worshipping together.”

The work at Mooroolbark Corps resulted in resources that were rolled out across the 12 weeks. These resources could be distributed more widely in future for those wanting to grow more inclusive faith communities.

“My son is limited in his speech,” Catherine says. “One Sunday, he was invited to lead the final song. He got up, grabbed the microphone and gestured to everyone to join in with the song and actions. He had a blast doing that, there was a distinct shift in him after that experience. He started to welcome people, engaging people at the door, learning names. It was as if he felt ‘this is my place, this is where I belong’. It wasn’t evident before that moment.

The impact shows that an inclusive model of worship isn’t just experimenting with bigger ways to do church but an experience that’s transformative, revealing a bigger understanding of the Body of Christ.

“When we invite people to participate, it’s quite wonderful,” Catherine says. “We receive gifts from people that God has equipped people to give. It’s transformative for people to participate fully.”


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