SECULAR LITURGIES

So Many Everests

A remarkable story of a woman’s fight to become a doctor leads Tom Sutcliffe to reflect more widely on the ideas of ability and disability

One of my most remarkable and uplifting fellow members during more than 20 years on the General Synod was Diana Webster, who was one of two lay reps from the Diocese of Europe between 1995 and 2005. Diana has lived since she graduated from Oxford in 1952 in Helsinki where she met her British husband who like her was teaching at Helsinki University. Their daughter Victoria suffered birth damage which caused a much more mild kind of cerebral palsy than my nephew’s.

Reactions to difference

But what is remarkable about Victoria’s story is that she wanted to be a doctor. Well, why not? you may say. Because people read what we may be from how we are, and under stress her speech like my nephew’s is affected, and her movement is also slightly unusual – though not really at all handicapped as his is. The problem is that we notice difference and we jump to conclusions, some of which are completely misguided. A bus driver would not let Victoria get off, because he thought she was not competent to get home alone – and probably home was an institution for the mentally handicapped from which perhaps she had absconded.

Teachers at medical school in Sweden assumed she would never actually be a doctor, that her training was a kind of vanity that would only get so far – not to real professional qualification and practice. We rely on not asking questions about the universal Mr and Miss Average, but we get worried by difference. So Victoria had to fight to begin studying in Sweden and had to fight all the way through to graduate and complete her clinical training, and then had to fight to qualify as a specialist in A&E.

The story of this remarkable mother and daughter is told by each of them in their own half of an autobiographical book called So Many Everests which was published late last year in Sweden in English. Both are survivors and achievers: Mike, Victoria’s father, died suddenly of a stroke when she and her brother were still small children. This story of perseverance and devotion, written with purity, delicacy and lack of pretension, I found incredibly affecting. It is a book of tact and beauty, the beauty of goodness – not of success, though it is heart-warming to know that sometimes human actions and decisions work out. The reason they have written it is just to proclaim the important truth that disability is a kind of ability.

When we meet people who seem to lack the normal everyday tally of physical or intellectual human qualities, we may be getting a privileged and potent vision of our shared humanity (like all those Gospel stories pointing out wrong Orthodox assumptions). Because Victoria was not badly affected by cerebral palsy – though her early schoolmates taunted her for being ‘spastic’ – her experience focuses something about being different with great clarity.

Homosexuality

The Websters’ book made me wonder for the first time ever whether it might help biblical Christians to consider homosexuality as a disability – after all there’s no doubt that in some instances ‘gay’ people are simply unable to respond sexually to members of the opposite sex, and sexual orientation is not about gender differences or about preferences in pleasure; it is about an ability or a disability to respond and to initiate a physical relationship. Of course there are some people, such as I myself, who in early adulthood discover that not only do they respond to members of the opposite sex, they also respond to members of their own sex. In my case this revealed something of great value to me about the complexity of life and the varieties of experience and role that it may afford. Certainly there is a spectrum of variously defined orientations, and it is up to the individual to deal with what they discover about themselves as best they can. Society lays on pressure in one direction; preference, familiarity or identification with particular friends may lead in another. Perhaps there is an element of choice for some. Marriage and children have been the greatest blessing of my life. Inevitably some Christians continue to maintain that homosexuality is not a disability from which one may suffer (or an ability if you choose to regard it in a more positive light), but a diseased or disordered condition – as Roman Catholic teaching considers it – from which you may be cured, or from practising which you may at least desist. However, dealing with sex honestly and openly, and accepting orientation as an ability and/or a disability, is the only basis on which to proceed to a greater maturity where right decisions can be made for the individual.

The ideals of Church teaching on sexualityare well-intentioned, butthey never seem to recognize that, for the majority, sexual acts are not the most important acts performed (whether moral or immoral, sinful or not) – and that engagement and experiment with sexuality is profoundly significant and exciting for the young but increasingly insignificant for the more aged (though sometimes just as exciting and rewarding). The Church has never accepted that sexual maturity requires sexual experience, and that with sex as with other areas of life there is ability and there is disability. I write as a newly delighted grandparent for the first time. ND

So Many Everests by Diana Webster and
Victoria Webster (Söderströms, webprice
14.93, see <info@soderstrom .~>
or <www.soderstrom .~>)

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