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  • Stuart Holley

Well done, Wendy!

Updated: Jun 23, 2021

At the age of 81 Anna Chaplain Wendy Gleadle has been awarded a first class honours in her BA in Theology, Mission and Evangelism! Her thesis is entitled ‘A critical discussion on changing attitudes to dementia and how these may affect the church’s approach to those living with the condition’. For her action research, Wendy interviewed a number of people (including Anna Chaplaincy church lead Julia Burton-Jones) and conducted an extensive literature review. She describes her Anna Chaplaincy with people with dementia and how she has learned gradually from care home staff and other Anna Chaplains how to make meaningful spiritual connections.

Wendy describes seeing people with late dementia engage with worship but says, ‘It still seems comparatively rare to find others who realise that people losing their cognitive abilities can still experience God’s love and presence in a meaningful way.’ The church, like society, all too often sees dementia as a ‘negative and hopeless condition’.

Theological ideas on dementia expressed by leading thinkers like John Swinton, James Woodward and Elizabeth Mackinley are discussed by Wendy in exploring a different approach to dementia. The importance of relationships is emphasised, and Wendy suggests ‘in building relationships in a new way with those living with dementia, we should stop putting them in a separate world’. Instead of the philosopher Descartes’ well-known declaration, ‘I think, therefore I am,’ Christians should say, ‘I feel and relate, therefore I am’, and ‘God knows me, therefore I am’.

There are some challenging sections where the question of how dependent on cognitive ability spirituality is. A ‘Kairos’ moment came when Wendy realised that people with cognitive disability could still experience God through their emotions. How can churches include people with dementia and value their contribution? These are key questions explored in the thesis. Many with dementia and their supporters do not feel sure of their welcome at church. The church can be a transformative community in reaching out to people with dementia and giving them space to be a blessing to others. Wendy concludes, ‘My hope is that the church can be educated to understand those living with dementia can still appreciate and contribute to worship and grow in faith despite forgetfulness’.

A section of the thesis is devoted to exploring what people with dementia and their carers say about living with the condition, seeing the gifts people with dementia bring – ‘living in the moment, having emotional openness, seeing others for who they are, and often retaining a sense of humour’.

The Light College founder, the Revd Chris Duffett (Baptist minister, evangelist and artist), presented Wendy with a stunning painting that she had commissioned, but left the subject to him. Wendy says, ‘He wanted to portray my life path towards God, and the good seeds I have sown that are now flowering! I’m delighted and overwhelmed by it!’



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