Farewell to Dean Nicholas

On Sunday we said farewell to the Very Revd Nicholas Henshall. Read his final sermon, The Vulnerability of God, below.

The Vulnerability of God 
Preached by the Dean at Chelmsford Cathedral on Sunday, 5th February 2023

35 years ago, in my last term at theological college, the Vice Principal led an afternoon on "signs of a successful church". We were a large group of men and women in our mid-twenties about to be ordained and unleashed on the world. Cocky and over self-confident. I was just coming to the end of nine years at university in three different countries and beginning to realise that being a curate in a Geordie ex-mining community might well be unfamiliar territory.

We set to work and covered the walls of the seminar room with our "signs of a successful church". We felt we had done a great job: growing congregations, committed financial giving, fantastic worship, work with children and young people, community engagement. The list went on. We should have seen what was coming. Our vice principal was Father Alan Billings, now well-known as Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire, and the person who wrote Faith in the City, one of the most important reports ever produced by the Church of England, deeply prophetic in drawing attention to the terrible impact of poverty and social inequality. Faith in the City is one of the reasons I'm a priest.

The Vice Principal read our offerings and then said "OK, let's just check if we've missed anything from the New Testament. Look! Here's one! In Luke 4 it says that a successful church is where the blind recover their sight and the poor hear good news. We seem to have missed that. Oh, and in Matthew 25 it says that a successful church is one where the naked are clothed, the hungry fed, the prisoners visited.... and the Sermon on the mount: blessed are the poor, the hungry, the broken, the bereaved….”

Christine and I spent most of the next 14 years living and working and bringing up our children in an extreme inner-city community in west Newcastle, living that out and discovering the hard way just what it meant. The discovery that in the kingdom of God success is always upside down. In our last two years there we had the unusual challenge of watching Newcastle City Council bulldoze our entire community into rubble and disperse the population to the four winds – an act of social vandalism that still has the power to make me viscerally angry.

Certainly, having your parish bulldozed into oblivion doesn't look much like success in any sense that the world would endorse. But in the upside-down values of the kingdom of God it was the only place to be. One of my curates chose to celebrate her First Mass in the ruins of a recently bulldozed building - something that spoke powerfully of redemption and the promise of a future. Lament and hope walking hand in hand.

Part of the call to which Christine and I are now responding in moving to East Sussex is – however different the context – the next iteration of that same journey. As the great Archbishop, William Temple, suggested, all ministry has at its heart the call to “see sorrow where it is thought to be hidden and grandeur where it is least expected”.

I want to explore those themes a little here – lament and hope, frailty and grace, and what all that means for the mission of the church.

In the first reading we heard about Jacob wrestling with God. It is the Old Testament passage I have preached on most in the last 35 years. The sign that Jacob has truly met God is that he goes on his way wounded. In the second reading Paul invites us to recognise that in being born as one of us, God has "emptied himself". This self-emptying of God is not a phase that God is going through but a permanent characteristic of God. Jesus shows us what God is like, and the Gospels tell us that the risen Christ is recognised precisely because he is still wounded. God dethrones power by the manner of his birth, by the manner of his death, and crucially in his wounded risen body too.

These deep biblical themes of the weakness of God, the vulnerability of God, are fundamental to much 20th and 21st century theology as we've grappled with the legacy of two world wars, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb, and more recently the climate crisis. The discovery that only the crucified God can help. A God without a throne, or perhaps better - as John's Gospel suggests - a God whose only throne and place of coronation is the cross.

The Benedictine hermit-nun Maria Boulding wrote: "Though God is an almighty lover, he can find himself shut out, and he longs to find an open door of vulnerability in us….We must live from our weakness, from the barren places of our need." Vulnerability literally means "the capacity to be wounded". And if you place a crucified Messiah at the heart of your faith, it shouldn't be surprising when it hurts.

So who is this God who invites us to "live from our weakness, from the barren places of our need."? And what kind of church does this God invite us to become?

Well – as we learnt in that painful lesson at college – the church is important not because of its power but because it makes God visible in humble acts of love and service; in meeting four Afghan women and teaching them English; in sitting with a homeless guy on a station platform and sharing a sandwich; in a thousand simple, hidden, costly acts of service which change lives and make visible the good news of Jesus Christ. To quote William Temple once again: “the church is the only organisation that exists solely for the benefit of those who are not its members”. One of the best comments I’ve ever heard was during the first lockdown when even the Cathedral had to be closed. One of our vulnerable regular visitors yelled across the High Street: “Nick, when is the Cathedral going to be open again because I haven’t just got mental health needs. I’ve got spiritual health needs!” Yes, that’s the kind of church I want to serve.

In the Gospel there are no hierarchies except the upside-down hierarchies of holiness, where the greatest is the least, the first last, the leader is the servant, and an unmarried teenage virgin turns out to be the mother of God.

And that's where today's Gospel reading comes in. Jesus has been asked to heal the servant of a centurion. This is someone Jesus should have absolutely nothing to do with - a pagan, an outsider, a representative of the occupying Roman power. But true to form Jesus immediately offers to come and heal the servant. The centurion then makes the stunning response: ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.' Almost all versions of the Bible translate it in this way, and the words are regularly used just before communion.

But - you've guessed it - that's not what the centurion says! At best it's a seriously misleading translation. Even a mis-translation. There is a perfectly good Greek word for "worthy": άξιος. But it's absolutely not the word the centurion uses here. He says something quite different. He uses the word ικανός. ικανός doesn't mean "worthy". It means "enough", "sufficient", "competent". As we ponder the vulnerability of God and our response, and seek to become a simpler, humbler, bolder Church, let that be the prayer on our lips: ‘Lord, I am not enough, I am not sufficient, I am not competent.... but only speak the word'. That begins to sound more what “living from our weakness, from the barren places of our need" might look like.

I want to end with the same two quotes I used in my very first sermon here at Chelmsford Cathedral nine years and three days ago:

First some words from Ron Ferguson, then the leader of the Iona Community, writing in the Scottish Herald back in 2003:

“The church of the future requires faithfulness and imagination: faithfulness to its core message, and imaginative ways of living it out. The church, for all its manifest sins, is the broken-backed bearer of a story with transformative power at its heart. Now that is what really matters.”            - Ron Ferguson in The Scottish Herald, 30/10/03

And this  - not a poem like those which begin and end this service, but really a piece of doggerel verse. None the worse for that. It’s by John Medcalf, a Roman Catholic missionary priest who served in Latin America for most of his life:

I dream of a church where love and people

are more important than stone and steeple.

I dream of a church with an open door,

where no one is privileged except the poor.

I dream of a church where milk and honey

will flow more freely than power and money.

I dream of a church where young and old

will be inspired to change their world.

Return to the news page

Share this story