The God who suffers?

Armistice Day brought this year’s period of remembrance to a conclusion and at the Tower of London the installation of poppies is being dismantled and things are returning to normal. But there was one last moment of thinking about the First World War during this week.

On Friday the College of Canons at Southwark Cathedral gathered for their Annual Choral Evensong and Lecture. For those not familiar with cathedral structures – and I admit they still have a strong sense of Barchester about them – the College brings together all those who part of the Foundation – the Honorary Canons, ordained and lay, the Archdeacons and Bishops and always invited to these events are the Emeriti – Canons, Archdeacons and Bishops – and the Dean and Chapter are there as well. So it is a big gathering.

At this time each year we invite someone to deliver a lecture to the members of the College. This year I had invited Canon Andrew Studdert Kennedy to speak to us. Andrew is the grandson of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy better known by his nickname ‘Woodbine Willy’. Studdert Kennedy is arguably the most famous chaplain to the Armed Forces in the modern era. His ministry was remembered and celebrated and made such an impression on the men in the trenches that Woodbine Willy became a folk hero. Thankfully now he is part of the calendar of the Church of England so that we can regularly give thanks to God for him.

Woodbine Willy

Woodbine Willy

So Andrew came to speak to us of his grandfather and his ministry. But he began by admitting that he didn’t know him. His grandfather died when his own father was only 7 and so even he knew nothing really of this great priest. But so much is written and documented and so many people had such vivid memories that the story of this man’s life and ministry can easily be told.

If was a fascinating and moving lecture. It was also rich in theology and the language of mission, both of which Woodbine Willy was passionate about. At the end of the war Studdert Kennedy became part of the Industrial Christian Fellowship. Indeed, so important was his role in the ICF that he became one of its main protagonists. I didn’t know – and I was shocked and amazed to discover – that when Woodbine Willy died the then Dean of Westminster refused to have his funeral in the Abbey because Studdert Kennedy was a socialist!

One feature of his theology however struck a chord with me and that was about the extent to which God suffers. This fundamental question comes through very strongly and in 1921 Studdert Kennedy wrote

There is in the heart of God, and always has been, a Cross and an Empty Tomb.

But he takes this further in a poem called ‘The Sorrow of God’ written in 1918 in the voice of an ordinary soldier

It isn’t just only the crown o’ thorns
What ‘as pierced and torn God’s ‘ead;
‘E knows the feel uv a bullet, too,
And ‘E’s ‘ad Is touch o’ the lead.

And the Tommy asks

I wonder if God sheds tears,
I wonder if God can be sorrowin’ still,
And ‘as been all these years.

There is a classical heresy, a false teaching, that arose in the 3rd century, called Patripassianism. The word comes from a conflation of the Latin words for father and suffering. The concept is quite simple in that the question this poses is ‘Does God, can God suffer?’ The answer is no. In the life of the Trinity the Son suffers in his humanity; in his divinity he cannot suffer and neither can the Father. The teaching of the Church is that God is impassible — not subject to suffering, pain, or the ebb and flow of involuntary passions. In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith from 1646, part of a more Calvinist stage in the life of the Church of England but still influential in parts of the church, God is “without body, parts, or passions, immutable.”

Those who wanted to talk about a suffering God were opposed to the concept of divine apathy, of an apathetic God. To my ears, to many modern ears, I suspect, the concept of an apathetic God, of a God who cannot, as a result of divine nature, share intimately in what I feel, is not moved emotionally by the suffering of his children, is unattractive if not unacceptable.

A God's eye view of suffering?

A God’s eye view of suffering?

In his important book ‘The Crucified God’ Jürgen Moltmann, writes compellingly about the nature of the cross and the suffering of Christ and he says as part of it

When the crucified Jesus is called “the image of the invisible God,” the meaning is that THIS is God, and God is like THIS.

If that is true then the implication is that suffering is taken into the very heart of God, and if it is in the heart of God it must be felt, and if it is felt God must share my suffering. The pain may be different, but it must be pain. When a parent is at the bedside of their sick child they will often say something like ‘If only I could be the one who was ill, if I could only have the pain’ and of course in a very deep way they do. They cannot have the pain their child is going through but they can feel the pain, they can share the suffering, they are not impassive.

More contemporary prayers attribute to God many ‘qualities’ and often they are written in a particular way to avoid gender specific language. Such language as ‘Generous God’, ‘Loving God’, ‘Compassionate God’ has become very familiar to us and I think paves the way for us wanting to say ‘Suffering God’ though we are told that we cannot. But can God really stand apart from the suffering of the world and be unmoved by it? I can’t believe that, even if I am told I am a heretic.

St John tells us that the motivation for the incarnation was love

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (John 3.16)

God was moved by love to send his Son to die for me and for you. Surely then Studdert Kennedy’s soldier is correct to ask the question

I wonder if God sheds tears,
I wonder if God can be sorrowin’ still,
And ‘as been all these years.

And my answer must be yes.

God of compassion,
God of love,
I share your life,
do you feel my pain?
Hold, strengthen, support
all who suffer today,
for your Son Jesus’ sake
who suffered on the cross.

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