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Who is welcome? Dean of King’s College Chapel responds to father asked to leave Evensong

Who is welcome? Dean of King’s College Chapel responds to father asked to leave Evensong

King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, is famous for its Christmas Eve services of Nine Lessons and Carols, and a popular destination for tourists and worshippers alike. This week, the Dean of Chapel, the Reverend Dr Stephen Cherry, issued a public apology and a request for further conversation after a father and his two sons were asked to leave Evensong on Father’s Day. The father, Dr Paul Rimmer, described how an usher approached him and asked him to leave because one of his sons, who is both autistic and non-verbal, was expressing his appreciation of the service in ways that might “[interfere] with the enjoyment of some of the other visitors .”

The full correspondence was posted by Dr Rimmer on social media. He wrote, in part,

I chose to attend Evensong on Trinity Sunday, also Father’s Day, with my two sons, one of whom is autistic. Tristan is nine years old, and is a clever and joyful child, who loves church buildings, services, and choral music. He is also non-verbal, and expresses his excitement by calling out and laughing. His expressions are often loud and uncontainable. It is part of who he is, so there is no realistic way for him to be quiet. Many autistic people are like Tristan in this way. Right before the Kyrie, one of the ushers informed me that you had instructed him to remove us. Tristan’s expressions were apparently interfering with the enjoyment of some of the other visitors, which was very inconsiderate on our part, because tourists come from all over the world to hear the Evensong. The usher seemed embarrassed but insistent as he asked us to leave, though I’m not sure if it was because of my son’s vocalisations, or because of the nature of the directive you had given him.

As a Christian, I believe that worship is primarily intended to glorify God, and may have misinterpreted your Evensong as an actual worship service, at which my son’s expressions must surely be pleasing to God, the experience of other worshipers being secondary. Our removal makes more sense if Kings College’s Evensong were simply a concert held in a building that used to be a chapel. Then my son’s expressions would frustrate the purpose of the event, which is primarily performative; lessening the satisfaction of certain tourists around the world who attend, but not those kinds of people you deem to be too distracting. If this is so, I apologize.

Might I suggest that you place a sign at the front of the chapel, clearly identifying which categories of people are welcome and which are not? I can only imagine how terrible it would be if autistic people, others with disabilities, those with mental illnesses, and people with dementia, were all equally welcome to attend Evensong, how this would get in the way of the choir’s performance, how it would distract the choristers, and how upsetting seeing these sorts of people at the chapel would be for the tourists who have come such a long way.

Rimmer added,

My son might not be able to talk, but he knows perfectly well what is going on around him. … He isn’t even ten years old and he knows that he is unwelcome.

Dr Cherry’s reply to Dr Rimmer was also posted on Facebook:

I was devastated to read the letter that you posted on Facebook this morning. Every week we welcome thousands of people to services in King’s Chapel and we do our best to meet all their various needs and expectations. Sometimes we fail and I realise that we especially failed you and Tristan on Sunday afternoon. I apologise for that most sincerely.

Since hearing of your experience I have looked into what happened and now more fully appreciate that that there is more that we can do to support and help the staff who are responsible for the welcome that we give those who come to share our services with us. This is one of the reasons that I have written to you asking if you might be prepared to meet with me. I’m sure that your insights and connections could help us do better in the future. I should perhaps say for the record that I did not, in fact, give any instruction to the effect that your son should be asked to leave the Chapel on Sunday. Nonetheless as Dean I do take responsibility for the whole life of the Chapel and in that regard I express my unreserved apology and intention that we will do better in the future.

Rimmer accepted Cherry’s note that he had not personally asked for the family to be removed, and further responded,

I hope this letter will help contribute positively to the conversation, not just at Cambridge, but elsewhere too.
As for me, Revd. Dr. Stephen Cherry has offered to meet, so my part of the conversation will continue offline.

Find more of the exchange in Dr Rimmer’s original public Facebook post.

Photo: via the King’s College Chapel website


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marianne weber

Anyone disrupting a service (crying baby, coughing adult, people blurting out) should have sense enough to remove themselves so that others can continue in peace. Those with disruptive people in their care (children or adults) should seek venues where such behaviors are more accepting. This has absolutely nothing to do with love or intolerance but with respect.

Michael Locklear

I agree that people with a cold or a crying baby should be respectful, but come on, are you really saying that this autistic child has no place in the house of God because he can’t be quiet? What would Jesus do?

Simon Burris

I should have added that it is typical that the Dean of the Chapel (like EpiscopalCafe’s headline) has cast this as an “inclusiveness” problem, and has not at all answered the father’s basic question…

JoS. S. Laughon

Terrible incident but hopefully something positive can grow out of this. Evensong is an act of worship, not a concert.

Simon Burris

Of course EpiscopalCafe _would_ headline this as an “inclusiveness” issue.. but the father’s question as to whether the Evensong was worship or entertainment is key.

What is, after all, the measure by which we judge the propriety of what goes on in the church? Is it God? Or is it our subjective feelings?

This question is so key, and yet almost never expressed, as we go through our various “conversations” in TEC. So much of the lack of charity evidenced by each of us when confronted by the opposing view is, I believe, based on our unspoken assumption that we ourselves are referencing God, while our opponent is referencing merely his subjective feelings.

How many comments here on EpiscopalCafe are so quick to impute the most selfish motives to those with whom we disagree concerning human sexuality? Or matters of immigration?

Cynthia Katsarelis

While I can agree that the question is whether Evensong is worship or a concert, the other points are questionable. The problem comes here “…with whom we disagree concerning human sexuality? Or matters of immigration?” The essence of this problem is that I am an LGBTQ+ person, not a position, and not a problem. “Disagreement” inherently attacks my very being, I am who God created me to be. It is very, very much like racism. You can’t “disagree” about black people. They exist and are children of God with all that that means in terms of love, justice, and dignity. Being LGBTQ+ is not a choice, any more than race is a choice or the zip code of your birth. Being is not subject to “disagreement.” Being is only subject to acceptance or rejection because anything less than acceptance is rejection.

The immigration question sits in a different context. But it still comes down to whether these people are children of God and how the Gospels call us to treat them.

Simon Burris

Perhaps I should have said “disagree concerning policies having to do with.”

As for “being” not being subject to disagreement… I rather doubt that you would push that principle equally in all directions. What if I were to appeal to that principle with respect to the identity of unborn babies as children of God? And I simply rejected any “disagreement” at that point?

(1) We would get nowhere fast. By saying that I rejected all “disagreement” I would be signaling to my interlocutor that I was unwilling to listen, and probably I would at that point lose any good will on his part.

(2) I would be committing an error if I then insisted that particular _policies_ concerning abortion and the treatment of the unborn were “not subject to disagreement” simply because I insisted that the unborn were children of God. After all, the mere fact that the unborn are children of God doesn’t itself tell me what the best way to love them is in every situation.

BTW, I love your avatar.

Cynthia Katsarelis

I don’t know when a fetus becomes a Child of God. At one point, the RC’s thought it was 3 months after they were born (middle ages, perhaps). That determination is above my pay grade, and it’s above yours too. That’s why we can’t impose our imperfect opinions on others.

Glad you like the avatar, it’s my headshot.

Cynthia Katsarelis

I do push it all directions. That doesn’t mean I come to the same conclusions as others. I see the issue of abortion as extremely complicated and the rhetoric does not capture the realities that women face. The rhetoric is oblivious to the tragic situations of wanted pregnancies where grievous medical problems arise. The rhetoric is oblivious to the fact that unwanted pregnancies go down significantly with easy and cheap access to birth control (available at Planned Parenthood). It may be that abortion is simply a poor analogy.

As for the policies. A policy or law that doesn’t treat me with the same dignity and justice that is the birthright of all God’s children is inherently an attack on my being. The fruits of this (Jesus tells us that we know them by their fruits) includes bullying and hate crimes that can lead to depression, suicide, etc. “Disagreement” contains the same misinformed and damaging rhetoric as the abortion issue.

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