The World Council of Churches (WCC) has since early 1960’s treated the issue of disability as an important concern of the Christian Church. At the fourth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1968, an attempt to explore the church as a more inclusive community intensified. All subsequent WCC General Assemblys continued to reflect on the place of persons with disabilities in the church and society and to give direction to ensure that disability remains in the Council’s agenda.
EDAN was born during the 1998 WCC 8th Assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe when 10 persons with disabilities from different parts of the world were invited to participate as advisors. In their role as advisors, they took the opportunity to deliberate in their own forum how best to influence the churches to recognize and incorporate persons with disabilities in their witness and service program.
It was through this consultation that the advisors decided to form the Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network (EDAN) as a vehicle that would carry WCC work on disability by giving it a new form that would give it continuity and visibility in the churches. WCC then considered it as a model idea for work with Persons with disabilities and it was adopted as a WCC programme within the Justice, Peace and Creation team.
During the restructuring that followed the 9th WCC Assembly in 2006, EDAN’s work was placed within Programme 2 on Unity, Mission, Evangelism and Spirituality. This has provided an opportunity for it to benefit greatly from the WCC call to the churches for visible Unity in which all gifts and contribution at individual level are indispensable for the building of one church of Christ.
After the fourth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1968, the theme “The Unity of the Church and the Renewal of Humankind” emerged as a means of relating issues of church and society. At the Assembly and subsequently, the attempt to explore the church as a more inclusive community intensified. A concern to address the inclusion of people with disabilities in the church emerged within the Faith and Order Commission, and gathered momentum at the Lou vain meeting of the Commission in 1971. This first attempt to address the situation of persons with disabilities was a theological examination of service for the disabled in the light of the compassion of Christ.
Meeting that year in Lou vain, Belgium, The Faith and Order Commission discussed the question of disability under the theme, The Unity of the Church and the Unity of Mankind. That meeting recognized that the unity of the church cannot be achieved without the participation of persons with disabilities.
All subsequent WCC General assemblies have continued to reflect on the place of persons with disabilities in the church and society and to give direction to ensure that disability remains in the Council’s agenda. In 1975, the Fifth Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya with its theme, "Jesus Christ Frees and Unites", issued a statement entitled: “The Handicapped and the Wholeness of the Family of God”. This statement was an affirmation that “the church’s unity includes both the ‘disabled’ and the ‘able’.”
At the WCC Six Assembly in Vancouver, Canada in 1983, on the theme, "Jesus Christ – the Life of the World", twenty-one persons with disabilities participated as either delegates, advisers, observers or visitors. Their interaction with other Assembly participant had very far reaching effects. It was immediately after that assembly that Lynda Katsuno, a physically impaired woman from Canada was appointed as a full-time consultant from 1984-1991. This was a period of great growth in disability awareness within the WCC and the Ecumenical family in general. However, this position was discontinued as a result of lack of funds but the momentum created necessitated the establishment of a staff task force, which continued the work until 1994 when another full time consultant, Ye Ja Lee was appointed. Her life in the Council was very short lived as the position was again discontinued for lack of funds in 1996 as the Council was gearing itself for the preparation of the 8th General Assembly in 1998.
The next landmark in the WCC disability work was the establishment of EDAN which ushered in the current phase of the work and which has brought about more pronunciation of the shift in the emphasis from service provision to more inclusive theology. It all began in the 1998 WCC 8th Assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe when 10 persons with disabilities from different parts of the world were invited to participate as advisors. Having observed the manner in which financial constraints had kept on interrupting this work, they wanted to come up with a solution on how it could be carried forward without total reliance on a WCC Desk in Geneva. In their role as advisors, they took the opportunity to deliberate in their own forum how best to influence the churches to recognize and incorporate persons with disabilities in their witness and service program. It was through this consultation that the advisors decided to form the Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network (EDAN). The interest and commitment was to come up with a vehicle that would carry the WCC work on disability further to respective regions where each individual came from. EDAN as a network and initiative of persons with disabilities was considered by WCC a model idea for work with Persons with disabilities. It was adopted as a WCC programme within the Justice, Peace and Creation team. The placement of EDAN in the Justice, Peace and Creation team was significant as an acknowledgement that WCC recognizes disability concerns as justice issues.
One of EDAN’s advocacy and awareness tools or resources in the work with the churches is the WCC Interim Theological Statement “A Church of All and for All”. This was the product of close to three years process of consultations and discussions in the early years of the programme and was developed with the assistance and guidance of Faith and Order. This interim statement is a stage on a continuing journey. In developing it, we benefited from very helpful contributions by a group of disabled individuals – many of whom were ordained ministers or students of theology – and by parents of disabled children and by others who experience life alongside people with disabilities in various ways. It is an invitation to the churches to journey with us toward that radical place where all are welcomed at God’s banquet table.