by the Very Revd Nicholas Henshall, Dean of Chelmsford
“…let me be employed for you or laid aside for you” – John Wesley.
John Wesley’s covenant prayer is one of the finest pieces of Christian writing in English. And one of the most devastating. I do not want to be “laid aside”, even for God. I do not want to confront the vulnerabilities that this might reveal. Like Bob the Builder, my life is built around agency, the capacity to act. “Can we do it? Yes! We can!”
So, the experience of exile – from our church buildings, our normal patterns, our capacity – is a fascinating and unsettling journey, an unusual Easter season of fasting. Even as the different elements are changing, I am keenly aware that we are journeying towards an unknown future. Kierkegaard’s great line “we have to live life forwards but only understand it backwards” (which I am sure he said in far more elegant Danish) illustrates something important about the unknowability of the destination. This should be familiar territory – we pray daily “Thy kingdom come…” with little idea what the kingdom is going to look like.
Reflecting on the last two months there are many things I have learned. I am delighted to discover, heaven forbid, that many congregations can exercise exemplary pastoral care for one another without clerical intervention. I am excited and daunted by the apparent success of our live-streamed worship and teaching. And as someone who normally receives communion daily, I have been surprised how easy it has been to let that go, and to rest simply in the robust rhythm of the daily prayer.
The things I do not want to go back to have little to do with the details of Cathedral or church life. Number one is homelessness. It is extremely moving to see one of our most extreme local heroin addicts in her right mind because she is now receiving proper accommodation, assessment and care. St Mungo’s charity challenges us to embrace this once in a lifetime opportunity to revolutionize care for rough sleepers. No going back.
But what I really want the Church to learn from Covid-19 is to let go of our sense of our significance. We desperately need to shed this and its shabby outcomes. Robert Warren, former Evangelism Officer for the Church of England, put it most simply in his comment: “the Church of England – a minority community with a majority complex”. Just as in personal ministry wreckage occurs when the ego intrudes, so it is when the corporate ego of the Church intrudes. As Dean David Ison suggested last week, the more anxious we become about our own significance and our need to control, something quite different from the joy, simplicity and mercy of the Gospel emerges.
The New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado urges us to recognise that Christian faith is “different, odd, and even objectionable…..”. A Church that has national and diocesan bureaucracies out of proportion to their mission and fails to fund the poorest communities adequately needs to think radically about its priorities. As many dioceses and Cathedrals face extraordinarily challenging financial futures, the present is a fantastic opportunity to do some practical theology in response to discover what “different, odd, and even objectionable” might look like for us.
Over the last seven weeks, praying the daily office alone for the first time in 32 years has made me acutely aware of the biblical themes of weakness and vulnerability, and of how we hide from them. Our success narratives make weakness and vulnerability difficult to notice. Why, for instance, does even the NRSV translate the word “slave” as “servant”? It happens again and again on the lips of Mary, on the lips of Jesus, on the lips of Paul. In the same way we happily sing “God of power and might” at the Eucharist when the words “power” and “might” do not actually figure in the original text. The traditional “Lord God of hosts” is both suitably vague and more accurate.
The word has struck me most is “almighty”. It trips off the tongue effortlessly again and again in prayer. But “almighty” hardly ever occurs in the Bible. The Hellenistic Jewish translators of the Hebrew Bible chose it for their Greek version of “El Shaddai”. But that is a Hebrew name for God of completely uncertain meaning. Apart from its appearance in one Old Testament quotation in Paul (2 Corinthians 6.18), the word “almighty” only occurs in a single New Testament book: Revelation.
It is the omnipresence of “almighty” in non-biblical prayers, hymns and worship songs that has given it pre-eminence as a name for God way beyond its biblical currency. This suits our self-image, our desire for significance. “Almighty” is exactly the kind of God we would love to believe in at a time like this.
And yet it is the God of weakness and vulnerability who stands at the centre of New Testament faith. Luke 24 and John 20 go out of their way to tell us that the risen Christ is still wounded.
As we approach Ascension Day, it is worth checking out stained glass windows, statues, and paintings for the feast. If Christ is ascending unwounded, then the artist has completely missed the point. Of the many modern works of art in Chelmsford Cathedral, the figure of the blackened, naked, emaciated, risen and ascended Christ tells me everything I need to know about the vulnerability of God.
This is familiar territory, and there is a large body of contemporary writing about weakness and vulnerability. But that itself can contribute to our illusions. John D Caputo’s broadside at much of our rhetoric is worth hearing. Theology, he says “is, on the one hand, the locus of the most divine discourses on the weakness of God, even as, on the other hand, it is too much in love with power, constantly selling its body to the interests of power, constantly sitting down to table with power in a discouraging contradiction of its own good news. The more it talks about weakness, the more we can be sure it has power up its sleeve.” (The Weakness of God pp 7-8).
This gap between rhetoric and reality issues us with a startling invitation to let go of our significance, our self-importance. This period of being laid aside as a Church, this time of exile, offers us an extraordinary opportunity to own up, to face ourselves as we really are, and to learn to minister in a genuine way out of our weakness and our vulnerability.
Covid-19 invites us to confront our obsession with our own significance; our rhetoric about leadership (another word completely absent from the New Testament); and our obsession with success.