Ministering Through Weakness, Spreading Joy
Date Added: Wednesday 23rd January 2008
by Rebecca Paveley
Michael Wenham was diagnosed five years ago with the terminal degenerative condition, Motor Neurone Disease. It is a condition made famous by Stephen Hawking, and by the euthanasia campaigner Diane Petty among many others. Michael is still preaching weekly in Stanford in the Vale, West Oxfordshire and Rebecca Paveley went to meet him and his wife, Jane.
‘ILLNESS has relieved me of the weight of expectation which vicars often suffer from.’
Michael Wenham is absolutely serious when he says this, and there is a sense that he does indeed find some liberation in this terrible illness, some freedom for soul if not body, which is often nowadays strapped in a wheelchair. But he obviously expects quite as much from himself in terms of his ministry as ever and still preaches at least once or week or leads services. His voice, which is affected by his condition, is much stronger when he preaches, his wife Jane says.
When he was first diagnosed, the then Bishop of Reading, Bishop Dominic, told him that ministering out of weakness may prove more powerful than he realised. The testimonies of many of his congregation prove that these words were prophetic: they unite in telling me that Michael’s continuing ministry is an inspiration to them all.
Seeing his weaknesses allows people to open up more than they normally would, admits Michael.
‘Often we think of ourselves as omni-competent, but when God allows you to be utterly weak, people see that actually you do not have to be omni-confident to serve him.
‘People are much more open about themselves since my illness. One of my real prayers for the church is that people, whatever their history, should come and be loved and accepted for who they are.’
He has no idea how long he may survive with this illness, having already outlived his specialist’s early diagnosis of two to four years.
Recently, he tipped his wheelchair over in the high street in Stanford, an accident that left him in great pain, unable to walk and forced to sleep downstairs.
A friend with whom he had holidayed in Italy three years before phoned shortly afterwards. On that holiday she had been given a picture, a message from God about him but she would not share it at the time, Michael says.
‘She phoned up and Jane told her what had happened and she then shared with us the picture she had been given that night; it was me sleeping downstairs and God saying, clearly, ‘Do not be afraid’.’
Jane said: ‘I found that really helpful, if we had heard about that picture three years ago we would have thought the worst, but actually we needn’t have: Michael is just starting walking again a bit. I have found God faithful, that he will never leave or forsake us.’
I ask Michael whether he believes he may be healed, and whether he is praying for healing. Some in the village are waiting for a miracle to happen and are praying for one, says Jane. But Michael says he isn’t praying for a miracle in that way.
‘Having seen people healed, I am convinced that God is able to do the impossible. What has been really helpful is that God is constantly showing in small ways that he is caring for me. I know that I am in safe hands.’
I ask if there is a tension between believing that God can heal him, and accepting the usual, terminal nature of his illness.
He says not: ‘But I’m not looking forward to the way most people with motor neurone disease die, which is by suffocation as the lung muscles stop working.’
His answer sounds very down to earth – unafraid – but he insists he isn’t always so calm.
‘When I told the church my diagnosis, I completely broke down and howled like a child. There was silence at first, then one of the women started praying out loud, a prophetic praying.’
I ask if he feels angry – at God, at his condition. But his answer is full of love: ‘God is good – nothing I have experienced has shown me otherwise. Being ill has made me think that God is much bigger than I realised, that his love is much more profound and mysterious and that it will all make sense in the end.
‘I believe God allows events to have their consequences. If you walk across the road without looking, and get knocked over, it is not God hitting you for being a sinner, it is God who picks you up afterwards.
‘Everyone has to face their own mortality and I feel it is a privilege to face up to mine. I wouldn’t want things any other way: I wouldn’t want to be insulated from what other people go through.’
Being ill has also given him space to enjoy life.
‘One of the lovely things about being ill is having time to enjoy the life you have – I love watching the chickens in the garden, or looking at the sunset. When I’m stuck here and I can’t do anything else, you really do begin to see things in all their beauty.
‘God is amazing,’ he says.
He is writing a book about his condition, a book full of self-deprecating humour and warmth. Indeed, my visit to the vicarage was full not so much of the serious conversation that we did also manage to have, but of laughter. Humour is one very evident way Michael and Jane are dealing with life and illness – and it is catching.
Jane admits, frankly: ‘I’m amazed actually at how it has been ok. God has kept bringing bits of encouragement.’
They have four grown-up children and telling them the diagnosis was very difficult. Michael muses that it must be harder for family than it is for him, in some ways. ‘Jane is my arms and legs, she is the real hero,’ he says.
I ask Jane if it is hard for her to watch Michael degenerate and whether she feels helpless. She is refreshingly honest: ‘I’m a very active person, I couldn’t have coped with it as Michael has.’
If his parishioners – churchgoers and non-churchgoers alike – find Michael inspiring, the couple evidently draw strength from them, too.
Michael says: ‘I don’t think of people in the church as parishioners – they are all friends. And a lot of people in the church are hurting too. I have an amazing, loving congregation.
‘I’m aware of the village as a whole watching me. Non-churchgoers come up to me and say, ‘don’t give up vicar, we don’t want to lose you’.’
He smiles, and we watch the chickens scratch around the garden, as it starts to get dark. I feel tremendously lucky to have spent a couple of hours with Michael Wenham – and I wonder who has unburdened themselves more, him or me.
But when I get an email from him later that evening, it is him who is thanking me.
He has thought of one last thing he’d like to say: ‘I think the only thing I’d add is the amazingness of being loved when you’re useless, by God. It would be a poor world without it.’