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In conversation: Baptist minister prepares for first ever sermon led entirely in sign language at St Paul's

by Sophie Drew

The first ever sermon led entirely in sign language has taken place at St Paul's Cathedral.

Baptist minister Susan Whalley, who is deaf herself, led the sermon.

Ahead of the event, Premier Christian News sat down with Whalley, alongside John Beauchamp, the Diocesan Disability Ministry Enabler.

What can we expect?

Susan Whalley said: "The experience for hearing people will be a very valuable experience of seeing a Deaf preacher, but there's also the comparisons between what the hearing people will experience and what the Deaf people will experience."

For the people that are Deaf, do you think this is going to be just a hugely exciting service to be able to engage with?

Susan Whalley continued: “There will be interpreters for the hearing people to be able to access what I say, and what is spoken to be signed. “The Sermon will be in BSL. And then that part will be in English. For the hearing people it will be interpreted for them. There'll be a Deaf gain, because usually what happens in a service is that the Deaf people always receive the message somewhat later than that hearing people, but on this occasion, it will be a Deaf gain in that the Deaf people receive the message first."

Why did you want to host this service in the first place?

John Beauchamp, the Diocesan Disability Ministry Enabler, said: "This week is the International Week of Deaf people, a Friday of this week is the International Day of Sign Language.

"It's wonderful just to be able to welcome Sue into St. Paul's over this weekend to deliver the first sermon that, as far as we know, has ever been delivered in BSL as its primary language.

“With so much focus on BSL, over this year with the BSL act being passed through Parliament, it just is a really wonderful opportunity to celebrate BSL as a language of the United Kingdom as it now is, and also celebrate the presence of the Deaf communities in London and across this country for whom BSL is the primary language they use all of the time.

“So certainly some polls and the diocese see this as a great opportunity to affirm the presence and the participation of Deaf people in the life and ministry of the church.”

Do you hope there will be any changes that come from this service, Do you hope it will set a precedent in any way?

Susan Whalley responded: “We’ve got more recognition of sign language, that people realise that our benefits in learning in in using sign language in churches and that can be used to encourage people and to develop and see growth within the churches

“I would like to see more sign language happening as a primary language within churches and also see more services where hearing and Deaf are involved together and working together.”

What are maybe two or three changes that you would like to see people make in their churches to really welcome people?

Susan Whalley continued: “I think people don't think about deeply what that actually means about that. Welcome. What do we mean by actually all are welcome. People haven't really thought what it might mean to actually include a Deaf person.

“What does it mean to include Deaf people in the congregation to be fully included?” And to be fully welcomed as part of the church?

 “So I think that would be a key change to actually think more about what that welcome looks like.

“For me personally, I see so many hearing people learning to sign but actually seeing people to sign properly and to a good standard would be important for me, rather than having just to rely on making notes to communicate.

“Would you invite a friend of yours who didn't speak English to your church? What would the scenario be?

“My final one is to do with equality; the importance of equality and recognising that Deaf people have the range of skills that should be part of that gift that makes up the full body of Christ. And the full body of Christ should be all them present and when it's not, something's missing."

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