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.
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.
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