A talk for the Bishop’s Safeguarding Training Day 2017.
Vulnerability is defined as ‘susceptibility to emotional and physical injury; susceptibility to attack and/or subject to harm’. As a word it comes from the Latin, vulnus, a wound, vulnero, to wound. To be vulnerable is to be capable of being wounded.
Most of what we focus on today is unintentional vulnerability: those who are, for whatever reason, susceptible to being wounded because of circumstance or situation. Most of the time, if we are vulnerable it is not because we want to be. To be vulnerable is not something we normally aspire to; after all, our society prizes strength, health, beauty, wealth and success. And often the church unconsciously takes on those aspirations. As a body we seek the same things.
Please don’t mistake what I’m saying here: this isn’t a coded attack on diocesan strategy, or the Church of England’s current Renewal and Reform programme! But I was struck a couple of years ago, hearing Sam Wells, who’s now vicar of St Martin’s in the Fields in Trafalgar Square, say that he had spent the last few years of his ministry in America, where he’d been part of a church that was rich, full, respected and influential. Yet he hadn’t felt it was more the church than we are on this side of the Atlantic. Wealth, numbers, respect, power and a privileged place in society do not automatically add up to holiness. Because part of the calling of the church is to be intentionally vulnerable. In his letters to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul engages in a constant dialectic between the strong and the weak, the invulnerable and the vulnerable:
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one* might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in* the Lord.’ (1 Cor 1.27-31).
Later in the letter he goes on to stress, in the famous passage about the body in chapter 12
there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it. (1 Cor 12.20b-26)
The weaker and less honourable or respectable – the vulnerable – parts of the human body are indispensable, says Paul here, presumably thinking of reproductive and nurturing organs, and we protect them and value them.
He doesn’t say why, but there seems to be a straight line between Paul’s concept of the Christian body and the Old Testament laws that relate to the community of Israel, where widows, orphans and strangers are prized and protected and the role of kings is to open their mouth for the dumb, and to defend the rights of the poor and needy (Prov. 31.8-9 – the verses are for King Lemuel, advice that his mother gave him, and this is perhaps not coincidentally the only Old Testament passage that indisputably comes from a female perspective). There is no utilitarian reason for this – if Israel had been strong, healthy and rich she would surely have been far more effective. Yet where are the mighty and strong empires of the ancient world now? There was something in the calling of Israel to reflect her God that embraced vulnerability intentionally. Not out of force of circumstance or situation, but willingly.
Sometimes there are moments when you might put yourself in harm’s way, make yourself vulnerable for the sake of others. At the Grenfell Tower fire, the Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton was faced with the awful decision whether to suspend normal safety procedures for her firefighters in order for them to be able to save more lives. The decision was to make the invulnerable firefighters intentionally vulnerable to the fire raging through the building.
Abuse of the unintentionally vulnerable is almost always fundamentally some else’s abuse of power. As the Faith and Order Commission’s theological resource on The Gospel, Sexual Abuse and the Church notes,
All abuse is abuse of power, and all abuse relies on an imbalance and related use of power. Churches can be communities where such imbalance is very evident, not least in the way that different kinds of power can constellate around the clergy: the power of ritual leadership, the power of being entrusted with intimate secrets, the power of having the strongest voice in making the community’s critical decisions and in shaping its culture and attitudes. Nor do clergy always find it easy to acknowledge such power, to ensure they are accountable for the way they use it and to share it consciously with others as they exercise the particular authority they have been given to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments.
Only by recognising, in ministering with the vulnerable, that we as clergy have power that can make us invulnerable and protect us against being wounded may we be able to take the step of being intentionally vulnerable, not by setting that power aside or ignoring it, but using it for the good of those who do not have it. In doing so we become vulnerable ourselves because there will be criticism, misunderstanding and sometimes broken relationships, and maybe other consequences too. But essentially, ‘all leadership is an exercise of power. As such…leadership also always offers opportunities to work at aligning the dynamics of human power with the transforming purposes of God.’ 
Jesus sent the disciples out like sheep amongst wolves, woefully underequipped we might think, without gold, silver, copper, no bag or even a change of clothes (Matthew 10.9-10, 16), in a stunning demonstration of intentional vulnerability which is also trust in the one who sends them.
In doing so, they are in fact following the example also of the one who sends them, as Paul develops in Philippians 2.6. In that familiar passage, Paul writes of Jesus (literally): ‘who being in form of God did not consider to be equal with God a thing to be grasped.’ The scholars argue about what ‘being in form of God’ means here? Translations require some extra words to help the sense, and NRSV, for example, translates ‘who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited’. The ‘though’ has been added here, in an attempt to be clearer about the meaning of the word ‘being’. Michael J.Gorman notes that ‘being’ can be translated in three ways here:
- concessively (‘though/although he was in the form of God’ – i.e. recognising that despite being in the form of God he humbled himself);
- causally (‘because/since he was in the form of God’, i.e. he humbled himself because this is what God would do);
- temporally (‘while he was in the form of God’, i.e. accepting the ambiguity of the phrase).
Gorman points out that the pattern at work here is one which can be found elsewhere in Paul’s writings, which he summarises as ‘although [x] not [y] but [z]’. Here are three examples of the pattern at work:
- In 1 Thess. 2.6-8 Paul says ‘although we might have made demands’ (v.7a), ‘we did not seek praise’ (v.6), ‘but we became gentle, like a nurse’ (v.7b);
- In 1 Cor. 9.1-23 Paul’s argument runs ‘although I have the right of an apostle’ (vv.1-12), ‘I do not make use of this right’ (vv.13-18), ‘but I became a slave’ (v.19-23);
- In Romans 15.1-3 Paul encourages the Romans to see that ‘though we are strong’ (v.1a), nevertheless ‘we do not please ourselves’ (v.1b), ‘but please our neigbours’ (v.2), echoed then in Christ who ‘did not please himself’ (v.3a), ‘but took on insults’ (v.3b).
In all these examples the pattern established is one of degradation in some sense, of humbling oneself: Paul compares himself in the first two examples to a slave and a nursemaid, which in context are extraordinary reductions in status. They imply a voluntary, intentional vulnerability.
When Paul does not exercise his rights as an apostle is he renouncing something, or in fact showing his true identity? Much of Paul’s discussion of his apostleship in his letters turns on true apostleship, because he is apparently surrounded by others who claim a form of apostleship which is better than his (the ‘super-apostles’, 2 Cor. 11.5). Part of his argument is that true apostles can be recognised precisely by their humility and the fact that they don’t expect reward. Yes, says Paul, he could ask for reward – but to do so would be to betray the pattern of Christ. Gorman therefore suggests that in the ‘although [x] not [y] but [z]’ pattern, the concessive sense (‘although’) is also, simultaneously, the causal sense (‘because’) too: ‘Thus the “[x]” in the narrative pattern is preceded simultaneously, in effect, by both “although” and “because.”’ Or, as he puts it a little earlier, ‘in not throwing his weight around and in forgoing his rights, Paul is acting in character, not out of character as an apostle.’
Returning to Philippians 2.6 we can see the implications of this ‘although/because’ dichotomy for the nature of Jesus and his intentional vulnerablity. Does Jesus not grasp equality with God despite being God, or does he not grasp it because he is God? Gorman calls this latter the ‘counterintuitive narrative identity of Christ and of God’. By it he means that in Jesus’ humbling of himself to death – even death on a cross – we see not an aberration from the divine norm, but congruence with it. Unlike the Roman gods (including the emperors, who were elevated to the pantheon when they died), the God of Jesus Christ acts in character when he humbles himself, not out of character as the Roman gods would be doing. Incarnation is not, in other words, a role adopted for a time to achieve an end, but the way the God of Jesus actually is, in his very being. And yet, at the same time, he is also the majestic God of the Psalms, who reigns above the heavens. Jesus humbles himself although he is God – and yet also because he is God.
How is this worked out? After all, Paul’s aim in the great ‘Christ-hymn’ of Philippians 2 is to encourage the Philippians to ‘imitate the mind of Christ (Phil. 2.5). If they do so, then their behaviour will reflect the life of God. Intentional vulnerability, then, is perhaps something which we don’t have a choice about. Of course actually we do, but there is something close here to Paul’s sense that the love of Christ ‘compels us’ (2 Cor. 5.14). There is no other way – intentional vulnerability is something we are called to not although we are ministers of Jesus Christ, but because.
Intentional vulnerability lies at the heart of reconciliation. The Venerable Bede, recounting the stories of the conversion of the warring Anglo-Saxon tribes of the Seventh Century, tells of monks who, unarmed, ran between armies that were about to engage in battle. Intentionally vulnerable, open to being wounded themselves, they brought peace. Our battles today are more prosaic, but the challenge to make ourselves intentionally vulnerable, open to being wounded, on behalf of those who are unintentionally vulnerable, to use the power we have on behalf of those who do not have it, remains; because you see, that is God’s pattern.
21 June 2017
 David W. Gill Theology of Care for the Vulnerable – see http://www.gordonconwell.edu/ockenga/faith-work/documents/GillD.TheologyofCarefortheVulnerable.pdf
 FaOC The Gospel, Sexual Abuse and the Church p.36.
 FaOC The Gospel, Sexual Abuse and the Church p.37.
 Michael J.Gorman Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Eerdmans 2009) p.20. This is a much better –and more accessible – book than the subtitle suggests!
 Gorman p.23.
 Gorman p.24, emphasis added.
 Gorman p.24.
 Gorman p.25. Gorman quotes J.D.Crossan & J.L.Reed In Search of Paul (SPCK 2005) p.289, when they write that Phil. 2.6 ‘subverts and even lampoons how millions within the Roman Empire took it for granted that somebody with the “form of God” should act.’ See also M.Bockmuehl The Epistle to the Philippians (A&C Black 1997) pp.133-34.