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Transforming the communities of Essex & East London through Christ’s presence

Young Christian with autism explores vocation

7th May 2018

Sebastian Sands (19), who lives with autism, is exploring a vocation in the Church of England.

In August 2018 Sebastian (pictured) leaves St Michael’s Church in Thorpe-le-Soken, Essex to live at Holywell, a Benedictine Christian community in Abergavenny, Wales. As well as playing a full part in the life of the community over the next year or two he will be actively considering a vocation in the Church of England.

For Sebastian this is an opportunity that was too good to miss: “Leaving home and living at Holywell was not a decision I took lightly but I felt that it was meant to be. I love being part of St Michael’s but I am looking forward to going to Abergavenny. I can see myself having some kind of role in the Church of England one day. But I need time to carry on praying and thinking about what God wants me to do.”

“Sebastian has been sensing God’s call since he was 15,” added his mother, Annie Sands. “He feels at ease at St Michael’s. Everyone in the church has been very encouraging about his search for a suitable vocation, especially Father Jeremy Dowding. I am very proud of Sebastian.”

The Church of England aims to ensure that the people who are chosen to serve as ministers are called by God. And the Church is prepared to be surprised. But with one in a hundred people living with autism in the UK it is not surprising that some will find a vocation in its midst.

“I am so happy that Sebastian has taken this step. I hope his time at Holywell is hugely enjoyable,” said the Bishop of Colchester, Roger Morris.

“I will be blessing Sebastian before he leaves.

“It is worth remembering that the Church of England was never meant to be a bunch of people who were all the same. The Church attracts many different kinds of people, each of whom God has called to serve in a ministry that is suited to them,” he explained.

“God’s call to Sebastian may be to the priesthood, or a Lay ministry, or to an informal ministry, or to the monastic life. There are many different kinds of ministry but each minister is a person who is passionate about living as a disciple of Jesus Christ and about using his or her gifts to serve the needs of the world. Vocational discernment usually takes some time. This varies from person to person. Ministry is demanding and it is important not to rush in.

“As the Church of England we are called to serve the whole nation.  We want everyone to flourish right across society. That includes supporting people with learning needs to develop and fulfil their potential in God’s big family. Society will be a richer place when everyone thrives.” 

More information

​​​Sebastian Sands attended Market Field Special Educational Needs School in Elmstead Market, Essex, and is now in his final year at Doucecroft Special Educational Needs Further Education College for students with autism in Eight Ash Green, Colchester, Essex.

​The Vicar of Thorpe-le-Soken St Michael, Father Jeremy Dowding, trained as a Registered Mental Health Nurse.

​According to the National Autistic Society there are around 700,000 people living with autism in the UK. Aspects of understanding and relating to other people can be harder for them, and they are often misunderstood. 

​At Holywell, Sebastian will follow the Benedictine pattern of living, called the Rule of St Benedict. This involves regular prayer as well as working with groups in the local community.

​Work is under way in Chelmsford Diocese, the Church of England in Essex and East London, to make more churches autism friendly. Consultation in the Colchester  Area of the diocese showed that there was a real interest in learning more about how those living with autism could contribute to and feel comfortable in their church. Following some training kindly provided by Alan Bicknell of Autism Anglia, a small working  group met to draw up resources to help local church to be more autism friendly. The leaflet Welcoming those with autism offers suggestions about what can be helpful and unhelpful, and the group provides a template to explain what happens in a church service. These were launched at the Colchester Area Conference in February 2018, where Alan was interviewed and led a popular workshop.

​In 2017, in Chelmsford Diocese, 31 candidates were Ordained as Deacons (an initial period in Holy Orders before becoming Priests). 9 new Licensed Lay Ministers were welcomed. 8 Evangelism Enablers, 18 Pastoral Assistants and 28 Local Preachers were commissioned.