In churches today, those on the autism spectrum are often at best overlooked by neurotypical church members or at worst infantilized. Viewed as "other," autistic people who feel excluded from the church community abound, and statistics show that they are less likely to attend church than others. Other autistic people do participate in worship but testify to being dismissed when asking for "reasonable accommodations," and they are routinely given fewer formal roles in the liturgy.
In Autism and Worship, Armand Léon van Ommen offers an in-depth analysis of the absence and ignoring of, but also the presence of, autistic people in worship. Van Ommen recounts the experiences of autistic people and considers how those experiences might reframe liturgical theology and the worship practices of the church. He identifies the "cult of normalcy" as the root of the marginalization of autistic people. Normalcy is boundary keeping, the protective set of dynamics that determines who belongs to the community and who is excluded. The answer to absence and ignoring is found in presence and availability, rooted in kenosis. Through the act of making himself available to humankind by becoming human, Christ participated in humanity. Believers are invited to participate in the life and prayer of Christ in turn and accordingly make themselves available to one another.
The new identity in Christ redefines what is deemed normal and redefines who is "in" or "out." Van Ommen argues that this redefinition results from a kenotic liturgical theology of availability. He illustrates this fresh vision by analyzing the Chapel of Christ Our Hope, a church in Singapore that is centered on autism and provides a paradigm for a renewal of Christian worship. Autism and Worship contributes to liturgical theology and the emerging field of autism theology as well as the practices of worshiping communities.
Introduction Starting the Conversation on Autism and Worship
1. Setting the Scene: Language, Autism Theology, and Autistic Experiences of Worship
2. How Autism Came to Be: The Problem of "Autism Is..."
3. The Tyranny of the Normal: Exposing the Cause of Absence and Ignoring
4. Presence and Participation: Toward a Theology of Availability
5. A Temple Community: A Liturgical-Theological Redrawing of "Normal"
6. Availability in Practice: Autistic Worship in Singapore
Conclusion: A Church That "Gets You"
Armand Léon van Ommen is Senior Lecturer in Practical Theology and Co-Director of the Centre for Autism and Theology at the University of Aberdeen. He is co-editor of Disciples and Friends: Investigations in Disability, Dementia, and Mental Health.
How do worshiping communities acknowledge the presence of people with autism? What are their assumptions about normalcy? Could a kenotic understanding of liturgy itself result in acts of worship fully available to those whose neurodivergence is not always generously and wisely embraced? These are the courageous and timely questions that Léon van Ommen’s gracious and profound study explores. It is a book that congregations should study and an essential for seminary libraries.
~Bridget Nichols, Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, Church of Ireland Theological Institute
This book is an important contribution to the emerging field of autism theology. Through nuanced engagement with autistic voices, theology, and particularly liturgical studies, van Ommen writes a compassionate, hopeful, and novel work that rails against the 'cult of normalcy' and draws the church closer to a faithful relationship with autistic people within their congregations.
~Claire Williams, Associate Lecturer, Regents Theological College
Do you have to be able to 'act normal' to belong in Christian worship? Worship should be centered on Christ, but Léon van Ommen shows that it is often centered instead on worshipers' ideas of what is 'normal.' The good news of this book comes from the experience of our autistic siblings, who call us to a radical availability to one another in Jesus Christ. The clarity of this book's treatment of autism makes it accessible even for readers who know little of the spectrum. This book shows how it is possible to make Christian worship more truly the work of the whole assembly, not only by the fuller incorporation of those with autism, but also by promoting a truer vulnerability and mutual kenosis among all Christians.
~Kimberly Hope Belcher, Associate Professor in Liturgical Studies, University of Notre Dame