The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
It was 1998. I was looking forward to meeting David Blunkett for the first time. He was the Secretary of State for Education. I had recently become the Church of England's chief education officer. He wanted to change the law on education in England and Wales. The changes would affect church schools. We had things to discuss. But I wondered how he could cope with the demanding and wide-ranging role he had as a cabinet minister. David Blunkett has been blind since birth.
I need not have worried. David was affability itself and completely on top of his brief. His first words surprised me, 'It's nice to see you.' Conventional words, but strange coming from a person who couldn't see. Later, when I knew him better, I asked him about his choice of phrase. He said, 'Well, it's what people say. I'm blind and not afraid to use that word, but I speak as people speak.'
I had and have a lot of respect for David Blunkett, the first blind cabinet minister. His condition made him passionate about making education and opportunity work for everyone. He had been told as a boy that there were not many jobs open to him. Perhaps like many blind men he should train as a piano tuner. David was not satisfied with that. And he wanted to develop an education system that was intolerant of teachers who said in effect, Oh, well! This child has this or that disadvantage. We can't expect too much of them. No. Everyone, no matter what their condition of life, has it in their power to achieve great things. Let them strive; let them be pushed; let them overcome whatever disadvantage it is they suffer. David Blunkett brought in a revolution in attitudes to deprivation and disadvantage in education. We can still see the effects almost twenty years later.
You could say the same of Sir Arthur Pearson, another blind man who made a difference. A hundred years after he founded the Blind Soldiers' and Sailors' Care Committee, which soon changed its name to St Dunstan's, Blind Veterans UK can proudly claim to have changed the lives of many thousands of blind veterans. And Pearson's approach was like David Blunkett's: a particular condition need not be a disability.
I am grateful to Andrew Norman for a copy of his recently published book Kindly Light, the story of Blind Veterans UK. Norman quotes Pearson as saying, 'The essential idea was that the blinded men should be encouraged to forget what they couldn't do and be swiftly interested in what they could do, that they should feel themselves still in close touch with the ordinary interests of life, that they should be treated and bear themselves like normal people.'
In 2012 I was privileged to attend an athletics event at the Olympic Stadium during the London Paralympics. As was characteristic of the entire Olympic and Paralympic games, the stadium was packed and vivid. An extraordinary diversity of people apparently from every background and way of life surrounded me. And there was tremendous support and enthusiasm. Some of the athletes taking part were living with conditions that could be thought a considerable handicap or leading to severe disability. By their strong courage and determination they were achieving amazing things. Anyone who saw the Invictus Games, so brilliantly presented in London by Prince Harry, would say the same. These were genuinely inspiring events, with the power to change attitudes to conditions that could have disabled people. Words often fail us. But these people were certainly not 'disabled.'
Today, we come together not just to recall the origins of Blind Veterans UK and to celebrate its achievements over the past century, but in this holy place to give thanks to God for lives changed and goals achieved. And to wish Blind Veterans UK well for the next hundred years.
When Jesus began his public life, St Luke tells us he described his goals in terms already used by the prophet Isaiah, 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.' And later John the Baptist wondered how it was all going. Jesus said, 'Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.'
There is even now amazing work being done to cure blindness and to heal the conditions that can lead to blindness. In the United Kingdom alone, 600,000 people suffer from age-related macular degeneration, which can lead to complete blindness. Just a few days ago, it was announced that scientists are experimenting with the use of embryonic stem cells to cure AMD. In sub-Saharan Africa 77 million people suffer from blindness as a result of cataracts. In Nigeria alone 5 million people are blind or visually impaired. 80% of these cases are preventable or treatable. There is much to be done. Not every condition of blindness can be treated but the circumstances of people's lives who live with blindness can be vastly improved. The work of Blind Veterans UK sets a high standard for others over what can be achieved.
On the third day after the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, his disciples came to believe that he had been raised from the dead. St John tells us they saw him alive, and told one of their number Thomas who had not been there. Thomas doubted. He said to them, 'Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.' A week later, Jesus appeared to them again and this time Thomas was with them. Jesus said to Thomas, 'Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.' Thomas answered him, 'My Lord and my God!'
We speak of sight and of insight. Insight is understanding, coming to see something as true, getting things straight in our minds. Insight in the end counts for much more than sight. May we all have insight, to see and know things for what they really are.
The response of Jesus to Thomas gives us all encouragement. Jesus said to him, 'Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.'
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe – in the power, beauty and love of God, yes, but also in the potential of his creation, of every living human being to achieve extraordinary things.