Grace and magnanimity are in notoriously short supply these days.
On the Sunday evening of June 18th — Fathers Day — an incident occurred that could have resulted in endless rounds of accusations, lawsuits, bad press and bad feelings.
In a timespan of less than 36 hours, however, genuine grace played out in a realm where it is especially scarce — on Facebook.
On the morning of June 17th, 2019, Dr. Paul Rimmer of King’s College, Cambridge wrote a “letter of apology to King’s College for bringing my autistic son to their chapel on Father’s Day.” It reads:
Dear Reverend Dr Stephen Cherry,
I would like to apologize for bringing my autistic son to Evensong at your chapel. I am a resident of Cambridge and a member of the university, and my family and I have attended services at the chapel from time to time. I have always been inspired by the beauty of the building, the worshipful attitude of the service, and the hospitality you have extended to the wider community, as stated in your most recent welcome letter which expressed your “hope that, whenever and however you share in the life of the Chapel, you will be inspired, encouraged and refreshed.” I am proud to worship within a communion that is “asking the question, how can we enable disabled people to be at the heart of our communities, explore their vocation and realise their gifts?”
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.
My son might not be able to talk, but he knows perfectly well what is going on around him. This is not the first time my family has been asked to leave a church on account of his being “too disruptive for other worshipers.” This is, however, the first time we have been forced to leave by a member of the clergy. He isn’t even ten years old and he knows that he is unwelcome. If only places like Kings College made it clear what kind of spectators were acceptable, my son wouldn’t be subjected to rejection, and the other people there, to his unpalatable presence.
Within minutes, messages of support began pouring in to Dr. Rimmer’s Facebook page.
In Alabama, a mother of an autistic son wrote, “It is rare we have been in a situation that people are understanding, much less embracing.”
A Texas mom of an autistic daughter wrote, “I remember being asked, when Eleanor was an infant, not to bring her back into the nursery at a church we attended. ‘We can’t handle her.’ Yet, when I went to retrieve her, she was sound asleep on the shoulder of a seemingly content young man (teenager). We found a much more accommodating church whereby she was welcomed with open arms weekly and even assigned a specific ‘Lifeguard’ to assist her and only her during service.”
Within hours, Dr. Rimmer’s letter accumulated 4,700 “Like,” “Love” and “Sad” comments. Dozens of churches said that they would be “delighted” to welcome Rimmer and his son.
The most meaningful correspondence, however, came from The Rev. Dr. Stephen Cherry, Dean of Chapel at King’s College, Cambridge. He wrote:
Dear Paul Rimmer,
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 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.
Dr. Rimmer posted the Rev. Cherry’s letter, and wrote to those following the story on his Facebook page — and by extension the whole wide world:
(Dr. Cherry) apologizes and clarifies that he did not give any directive to have my son removed. I believe him, and this part of my account may have been a misunderstanding between myself and the usher in the heat of the moment.
Stephen has asked to meet with me, and I’m hopeful that, with his help, this whole thing can be resolved, and the chances of this happening again at King’s College chapel reduced.
No doubt keenly aware of the discussions he had engendered the world over, Dr. Rimmer wrote to everyone:
Thank you for your kind words, and sharing your own stories. Your support is overwhelming. I am grateful.
I am especially touched by all the dozens of churches Tristan’s been invited to attend.
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.
Thank you again.
There are many aspects of the internet and social media that are annoying, and sometimes genuinely harmful. Every now and then, however, we are reminded of what can happen when speed-of-light communication is wielded by people of good will and good spirits, with hearts strangely warmed by the love of Christ.