Monday, 11 July 2011

A Signed Holy Communion

This is one of the British Sign Language signs for "communion" (there are others, but with any language, there are dialects and variances - even in a language that has no spoken word).

Yesterday saw a 'first' for me, and that was presiding at a simple Holy Communion for the deaf Christian community of my town. They are a distinct and faithful congregation, normally served by a excellent chaplain who is currently on sabbatical. I said I would help out. 

Now, I may have Stage 2 BSL, but as the saying goes, if you don't use it, you lose it - and I haven't so I almost completely have. In fact, it struck me yesterday that for the people gathered in that church, my signing must have seemed like the Norman Collier microphone sketch to us who are blessed with hearing. Fortunately, the chaplaincy provided a communication worker to sign for me. 

I have wanted to do this for years now - and that notwithstanding, I was scared half to death about doing it. Even with my relative comfort with the needs of the deaf community and my feeble inability to meet them, I was a nervous priest as I robed. I needn't have been. 

For a bombastic man like me, who fills a 'large space', this was the most beautiful, pure and emotional Eucharist I have ever witnessed, let alone lead - and yet with a very small gathering of witnesses. Every word needed speaking deliberately and slowly, and the Manual Acts became a very special liturgical sign-language all of its own. In a hearing service, the actions form part of the great dance of the Eucharist, but in this very specific context, they were the most alive I have ever experienced. I was reminded how specialist the language of our communion services is, as I had to prepare the service by explaining what certain terms meant to the interpreter. There were a couple of times when I lost my place because I became entranced by the signing of Jesus' words at the Last Supper. Then there was the sermon - which by necessity had to be an overwhelming visual affair in terms of its language and conceptualisation. There were several valuable lessons in that alone.

I think that the most amazing thing was the grace with which this gathered community tolerated and even appreciated this lump-hammer liturgist. I know I was clumsy, but they were glad. It is probably unusual for them to see the priest's Manual Acts because normally their chaplain signs for himself. They certainly watched me and not the interpreter at those points.

Never in my life have I felt more like I was in the Upper Room. Worshipping God and praising Christ are the best of things - but pale into insignificance next to the opportunity to reach out and touch them, with my own clumsy hands. 


  1. A beautiful post about an obviously very special Eucharist, David. I once had a chalice assistant who was profoundly deaf and the care and reverence she showed as she administered was truly humbling. For her in this context the act was everything.

  2. Lovely post David.
    If anyone ever had the temerity to wonder if you were in the right job, just direct them to this site.

  3. Dear David, I am a speech and language therapist working in a secondary school. Your blog above, where you consider language and conceptualisation is very close to my heart. I am working with a Religious Education class at the moment, with one boy in particular who is struggling. In order to help him learn the key words in their current topic - Christianity- we are using sign. This is to help them understand the difficult concepts e.g. faith, religion, confirmation, trust, prayer, holy. I don't have access to these signs and so have turned to the internet (and your lovely site) looking for help. Do you know these signs / know somewhere to find them? Would be very useful and much appreciated. With warm wishes, Heather King

  4. Hi Heather - thanks for your comment. I have to say that BSL would be an acceptable way for the hearing world to grasp theologies, and they are words not bound up in the need to speak them. As regards resources, there are some books under the umbrella of Forest books, and they can point you in the right direction. Beyond that, email me (look in 'about me' and I can direct you to people in deaf chaplaincy!

    Best wishes D



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