Disabled woman to be ordained as priest

A COMPUTER scientist with cerebral palsy is to become Scotland’s first disabled woman priest.

Dr Annalu Waller, 39, from Dundee, will be ordained by the Scottish Episcopal Church next year, making a breakthrough for women with disabilities.

The Dundee University academic believes her background will be an asset in persuading people to think about religion.

Waller feels her experiences will help people connect with her in a way they would not with an able-bodied priest.

The 39-year-old, originally from South Africa but now settled in Dundee, has difficulty talking, walking and writing but made it through a tough selection process for priests after feeling "called by God".

She is now halfway through her studies and is expected to be ordained in 2004. "I was going to be an able-bodied person but my birth changed all that. I have grown up without feeling the need to blame anyone. What happened, happened. The world isn’t perfect and we live what we get given," she said.

"I think that we would all love a world where there was no disease and no hunger but we live in the real world and we make the most of what God has given us."

Of her calling to ordination, she said: "It’s quite an awesome idea to think God is calling you to be a priest. I think I realised the extent of what I was being asked to take on and it was something I could have done without.

"But I found a sense of peace when I realised this was what I was being called to do."

She hopes her disability will prove to be an advantage, rather than a hindrance, in her new role.

"I think people feel they can talk to me because really I can relate to the fact that I’m not perfect. I think a lot of us are under the impression that priests are perfect people and people are reluctant to share their problems with priests because they might not really understand what it is to be different," she said.

The 50,000-member Scottish Episcopal Church, the country’s third-largest Christian denomination, only allowed women to become priests in 1994. Women still cannot become bishops, though this is expected to change in 2003.

It has just under 400 priests in total, with 93 female clerics. Her physical disability means any church in which she works would have to accept some changes to its arrangements.

While she is able to drive, she sometimes uses a walking frame and would not be able to climb up and down the stairs to the altar during a service.

She is also unable to hold the chalice, which is used to give parishioners communion. An assistant would be delegated that task.

She was championed through the selection for ministry process by the Rt Rev Neville Chamberlain, the Bishop of Brechin. He said strangers within the Church might be concerned at her ordination. "If she was dropped into an unfamiliar setting, with people who didn’t know her, then they would be surprised to see her in that position, but I feel they would quickly warm to her," he said. "She is a wonderful icon of the rich tapestry of humanity."

He denied there had been any concern during the selection process over her disability. "It’s wrong to say that when you meet her you don’t see her disability. But she very quickly transcends the stereotype of being disabled with the warmth of her personality," he said.