Today we had a very fraught catholic university chaplaincy/society meeting. There was a lot of emotion and the whole atmosphere felt quite awkward. People obviously had strong feelings on a few subjects that were being discussed, and a few members were brought to tears, and some got up and left at various points.
I don't pretend to fully understand all the tensions and the connection some of these people have with the chaplaincy, as I've only been there a few months, and these are just some of my thoughts on what I took away from today.
The meeting was called to discuss the chaplaincy retreat that we had voted on in the first society meeting of the year, back in September. It was rather ominously stated that the chaplaincy could not support the retreat, initially with no further explanation given. The committee of the society looked very awkward as they talked about this, and didn't feel they could expand on it without our priest being there.
Once we'd located him, he explained his reasons for not feeling like he could support the retreat that had been planned. One reason, which I think should have been the main reason, was that the retreat centre we were planning to go to was not wheelchair accessible, and especially now we have someone who uses a wheelchair attending chaplaincy it would not be appropriate for the chaplaincy to support a non-accessible event. His other reason was specifically to do with the community who were going to be running part of the retreat, and I think this was based more on personal reasoning.
Understandably there were people with a close connection to the community in question who were offended by his comments on the nature of the community. I think they had wished to be able to compromise and discuss the issues, coming up with solutions rather than taking the decision to cancel the retreat altogether.
There were also some other issues which came up in the discussion and I think too much of the dialogue seemed quite accusatory. Some things probably weren't appropriate to be discussed with the entire society present, and there seemed to be a lot of underlying emotion, a lot of which I didn't quite follow, probably because I haven't been a part of the chaplaincy that long.
The end result of the meeting was that the retreat is to be cancelled and another retreat will be run in its place. We voted on some options for an alternative retreat, and although it was a close call between the number of people abstaining and the number who voted for one of the alternatives, we have chosen an alternative retreat. I think this is a positive outcome, but I can see that not everyone will think that, and may not be happy with it. I don't think the situation was dealt with very well on the whole, and there could have been better communication.
Personally, I think that cancelling the retreat on the accessibility issue alone, would have been valid. The chaplaincy has links with the university and as such has to follow their policy on accessibility, and from what I gathered they had sought advice from the university and had been told that if possible an alternative retreat should be run. However, regardless of university policy, and whether or not we perceive that we currently have disabled members, I believe that we can hardly consider ourselves Christian, or indeed good human beings, if we are not inclusive and accessible to all.
The chaplaincy has suddenly had to consider members with disabilities as we had a wheelchair user unexpectedly arrive, and have been scrambling to make adjustments ever since. In my opinion this isn't really good enough, we should try to be proactive and have suitable adjustments or resources already in place to accommodate those with different needs, rather than reacting when someone comes through the door.
Of course it's good that there has been a reaction, and movements have been made towards change, but I think it's indicative of a huge problem that needs to be addressed at the root, rather than trying to plug the gaps. We need to consider inclusivity as a whole, in advance, and then be prepared to continue to make adjustments.
I have my own personal concerns about the retreat, as being trans I don't really know how they will deal with me. I spoke to someone after the meeting today who assured me that it had been considered. I wasn't entirely sure whether everyone at the chaplaincy were that aware of me being trans so I was actually somewhat relieved to find out the people who I wanted to know were aware. I would like to be treated just like any other guy, but I can never be certain how exactly it will play out, especially as the accommodation will probably be arranged by gender.