Culture and Society

Added about 5 years ago by Nicholas Henshall

GUEST BLOG: Nicholas Henshall, Dean of Chelmsford, explains why his father’s letter written 30 years ago remains absolutely relevant for ministers today.

Any book about ministry and the church is also a book about culture and society—about what's happening in the world. Everything from high politics to a conversation in the super market queue is all the stuff of ministry. One of the fascinating things about being a preacher is that week by week you have this extraordinary task of speaking to a particular local community in a way that draws together their own experience, everything that is happening around us, and the unique reference point of the Bible readings at the liturgy. The preacher—indeed, any Christian minister—is always listening to the context in which they operate. And of course all of us live in multiple overlapping contexts, not just one.

That is why a very striking feature of Dear Nicholas…, a letter from my father (then Bishop of Warrington) to me at my ordination 30 years ago, is that it sounds so contemporary. When I sat down with the original 1988 text for this new revised edition I thought it was going to take a lot of editing. In fact it hardly needed any at all. Certainly there were some minor changes in language. But I was expecting that after 30 years some of what dad was trying to say would sound out dated, irrelevant. As Bishop Stephen Cottrell points out in his introduction to this edition, that is not the case at all. Dad’s text has an extraordinary contemporary resonance. When I came to add three chapters of my own at the end, I was amazed how easily they flowed from the narrative supplied by the rest of the book.

What's going on here? I'd want to suggest that we have lived through extraordinary cultural change—both in the church and in society as a whole—and that we haven’t so much gone back to where we started but do genuinely find ourselves in a new place. Dad was writing at what in one sense was the end of an era. He was a mainstream orthodox Anglican at a time when that was going rapidly out of fashion, and he found himself living full on with the impact of Thatcherism on the most vulnerable people in our culture. His letter was written at the fag end of the ’80s, one of the most cynical and divisive decades in our national life.

Faith took a battering too. It was airbrushed out of the public square and the Judaeo-Christian narrative was completely marginalised. The churches themselves seemed to have lost their way. Some doubted that they had a God worth believing in and many vicars—completely unclear about their role—were turning their backs on their wider communities and choosing instead to become chaplains to gathered congregations, sheep dogs instead of shepherds. No surprise then that a book like Dear Nicholas… sounded like old hat.

But now we are living in a new time. The church has recovered its orthodoxy, its confidence, and a renewed sense of its mission. Faith is once again allowed in the public square for the first time in decades. Cathedrals—the sector in which I work currently—have seen not just significant growth in congregations but have come to be seen as having a unique and important place in the public square. And—remarkably—people under 30 are those most interested and engaged in faith and spiritual life.

Many sociologists, most notably Linda Woodhead, have spoken about the re-ritualisation of our culture. University Vice-Chancellors are fascinated to note that nearly 100% of students now attend graduation ceremonies, whereas back in the 1980s of course we didn't go. That simply wasn’t cool, and the more our parents wanted it, the more we despised it. And so on. At a philosophical level, virtue ethics are back in vogue and Professor Brian Cox is writing in Christian publications about the search for meaning and purpose.

Suddenly Dear Nicholas… strikes a contemporary note. It’s not trying to drag us back to a past that never existed (that great line from Meat Loaf’s ‘Paradise By The Dashboard Light’: “It was long ago and it was far away / And it was so much better than it is today”). This isn’t nostalgia but re-engagement. A church seeking to reimagine its relationship with society can find here wisdom that it needs to hear.

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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