King’s College Apologizes for Ousting Autistic Boy From Evensong

Evensong

After sharing word of his family’s removal from an Evensong worship service, the father of a boy with autism has received a swift apology, offers of support, and a promise to “do better in the future.”

Family Kicked Out of Evensong in Cambridge

In a faux apology letter posted to Facebook, Paul Rimmer, the father of 9-year-old Tristan, tells the dean of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, England, he’s sorry for his son’s disruptive presence at Sunday’s Evensong service.

Rimmer, an astrophysics professor at Cambridge, tells the Rev. Dr. Stephen Cherry: “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 same day Rimmer posted his letter, Cherry issued a public apology, saying he was “devastated.” Though Cherry denies ordering the Rimmers to leave, he takes “responsibility for the whole life of the Chapel.” The two men met this week to discuss the incident and, according to Rimmer’s Facebook page, agreed to “continue the conversation” about inclusion.

“My son’s expressions surely must be pleasing to God”

In his letter, Rimmer describes Tristan as “clever and joyful,” with a love for “church buildings, services, and choral music.” Although the boy is nonverbal, he “expresses his excitement by calling out and laughing.” Rimmer admits those “expressions are often loud and uncontainable” but adds, “It is part of who he is, so there is no realistic way for him to be quiet.”

Although Tristan can’t talk, “he knows perfectly well what is going on around him,” his father writes, and “he knows that he is unwelcome.” Rimmer says his family has been asked to leave a church before but never by a clergy member.

“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,” Rimmer writes. “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.”

Rimmer suggests that Cherry “place a sign at the front of the chapel, clearly identifying which categories of people are welcome and which are not.” That way, he writes, “autistic people, others with disabilities, those with mental illnesses, and people with dementia” won’t “make the same careless mistake I have.”

Family Receives Outpouring of Support 

In his response, Cherry apologizes “most sincerely” for failing to meet the Rimmers’ “needs and expectations.” He welcomes the family’s “insights and connections” to “help us do better in the future.” The Church of England has expressed being “committed to diversity,” and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, whose daughter has a disability, hosted a conference on including worshipers with special needs.

On Facebook, Rimmer thanks people for sharing their own stories with him. He’s “especially touched by all the dozens of churches Tristan’s been invited to attend” as a result of this incident

Some people criticized Rimmer for posting his letter before contacting the Chapel. “Perhaps it would’ve been better if you’d approached the Dean before pulling out your keyboard,” one writes. Others say keeping such a matter private stymies awareness and education.

According to a recent study, children with chronic health conditions—especially conditions such as autism, which “impede communication and social interaction”—are almost twice as likely as other kids to not attend church. Their families cite physical barriers, programming obstacles, and unwelcoming attitudes as factors in staying home. An estimated one in six children has at least one developmental disability.

How welcoming is your church to children and adults with special needs? What might you do differently to embrace people of all abilities?

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Stephanie Martin
Stephanie Martin, a freelance journalist, has worked in Christian publishing for 26 years. She’s active at her church in Lakewood, Colorado, where she lives with her husband and two teenage daughters.