Where Does Dear Nicholas… Come From?

Added about 5 years ago by Nicholas Henshall

GUEST BLOG: The book Dear Nicholas… wasn't really intended as a book at all. Nicholas Henshall, the original recipient of the letter and now Dean of Chelmsford, reveals all.

The book Dear Nicholas… started life as a letter. My dad, Michael Henshall, was a parish priest in Manchester for twenty years and then—quite out of the blue—Bishop David Sheppard (former English cricket star) invited dad to join him in Liverpool as his assistant bishop. They worked together for twenty years. It was an extraordinarily fruitful relationship.

In many ways it was a meeting of complete opposites. David Sheppard was a southerner from a privileged background, an evangelical who had come dramatically to faith as a student; a priest already famous before he was ordained, and by the 1970s a bishop with an international reputation for drawing attention to God's bias to the poor. His book Built as a City was ground-breaking and prepared the way for a new engagement in church and society with the reality of a socially divided culture and the reality of urban deprivation.

Dad came from a different background. He was very definitely a northerner who had never lived or worked in the south of England. A bright, ambitious grammar school lad from a very ordinary south Manchester village, he had made it to Durham University where he spent most of his time producing plays and then committed himself to parish ministry in unremarkable places; a catholic Anglican who held together the centrality of life-changing worship and costly service.

Reading the closing chapters of the forthcoming official biography of David Sheppard took me right back to dad and mum’s twenty years in Liverpool, dad ministry supporting David through the Toxteth riots, the great opening up of the relationships between the different churches, and David's unequivocal commitment to the poor.

However different they were, David Sheppard was one of only a handful of people dad really respected without reservation. Dad—as we three children know—had very high standards and gave his respect sparingly!

By the mid-1980s dad had been Bishop of Warrington for over a decade, and had a decade still to go to retirement. A person who had a great preaching ministry but had never really felt it was his job to write a book. And that's when he did put pen to paper—to write a letter to me as I was just getting ready to be ordained.

Dear Nicholas… is certainly longer than the average letter, and Dad had it specially printed and bound to present to me when I was ordained in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1988 and began my ministry in an ex-mining town on the North East coast. I was astonished and deeply moved to be presented with such a unique ordination present. But as I read the letter, got to know its content and feel, I felt more than moved. Here was the kind of common sense, deeply rooted in a living faith, that a young priest really needs to inspire and to guide. And as it was addressed directly to me, I knew I had to pay attention.

The letter was published as a book almost by accident when my mother, Steve, was having some radio scripts published. Dear Nicholas… somehow ended up in the mix. I know something of its influence simply because down the years I’ve bumped into people who had read it and found it had an extraordinary impact on their journey. Even in the last few months a priest I didn’t know came up to me at an event in the Cathedral, said “You are Nicholas!” and went on to explain how the book had been decisive in her own journey to ordained ministry in the Church of England.

It was those encounters, and the work I do today with a wide range of people exploring their call and with students on placement, that made me think this book had a future in the apparently very different circumstances of church and society in the early decades of the twenty-first century. Originally I had intended to write a response explaining how dad may well have thought such and such but things were different now. And that’s when I discovered for myself that though the context is very different, the wisdom of the book still speaks. So my extended epilogue of three chapters doesn’t seek to trump or explain dad’s original, but instead to build on his narrative.

The perfect gift for anyone in or training for ministry, Dear Nicholas… was originally a private letter from Bishop Michael Henshall to his newly ordained son, Nicholas. Later published for a wider audience it provided encouragement and challenge to many approaching ordination. It is once again available to all who are about to be ordained, and indeed all who wish to pause and consider their life as a priest in the Church today. This new edition features an epilogue by the original recipient of the letter, Nicholas Henshall, who is now Dean of Chelmsford. Get your copy today.

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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