Working beyond Barriers

Added about 6 months ago by Nicholas Henshall

Nicholas Henshall explores the role of cathedrals like his in helping the Church to work beyond barriers in today’s world.

I’m Dean of Chelmsford. No one really has any idea what a Dean is or does—and there are only 42 of us in the country so it’s quite a niche market. But Deans have a unique—and of course I’d suggest!—valuable role in the Church of England because we are leading communities of faith that genuinely work as a “brand” in the public square. I know that some people are repelled by the word “brand”, but I think it is important. When John Lewis moved in 200 metres from the Cathedral, of course they asked our choirs to sing at the opening. And now two years later a member of the Cathedral congregation is welcome as the lay chaplain to the store. When Premier Inn opened a new hotel up the road, they used a massive picture of the Cathedral in the foyer. That is replicated again and again both here and in many, many cathedral cities.

That means the kind of things Deans and Cathedrals get involved in range from the conventional and expected (High Sheriff’s garden parties, even) to very unexpected engagements. In my time I’ve blessed footbridges over dual carriageways, and only last year we won our first ever Cathedral versus Hindu Temple cricket match. (We don’t tend to fare quite so well against the Mosque team!)

On a more serious level—and sticking to that faith theme—I was amazed and moved to find myself invited to preach a homily at the local Mosque following the New Zealand terrorist attacks on mosques in Christ Church. And even more moved that a few weeks later—this time following the terrorist attacks on Christian churches in Sri Lanka—that a group from the mosque came to join us at the Cathedral for our main Sunday Eucharist.

Of course we have to earn our right to these relationships—just as we have to earn our right to all the relationships we have in the public square. But that’s as it should be. Christendom is over and its residue poisons the mission of the church. Robert Warren, great prophet of the church today and former national adviser for evangelism, once said “the Church of England—a minority community with a majority complex”. Exactly. If we cling to our mini-imperialisms and past glories, we get exactly what we deserve.

I don’t want to claim too much for cathedrals, but I do think that they have the capacity to remind the Church of England of what it really is—open to all, with no thresholds, and yet inviting people on an extraordinary journey of faith. And above all, a worshipping community that is present in, and serving, the networks of the wider community for the common good. The Second Vatican Council has that great phrase that the church can work “with all people of good will”. The invitation not to live in the boxes of the like-minded, but to go out and seek unexpected partnerships in the service of the common good.

The two things I am most proud of here over the last six years are both projects I had nothing to do with (except saying “yes” at the right moment, a line that should be in the role description for every Christian minister!) The first is English for Women. A German intern here at the Cathedral met four Afghan women who had just arrived in the area and realised that their inability to speak English cut them off from wider interaction in a devastating way. Six years on, the project engages three times a week with over 70 women from a huge range of backgrounds who don’t have English as a first or second language, with an army of volunteers and one and a half paid staff. And it is utterly transformational.

The second sounds very simple: it’s just a trolley in the nave of the Cathedral with flasks of coffee, tea and refreshments. But behind that trolley is an important story. With the exponential rise in rough sleepers, we knew we had to do something. And what we knew best—in our building without physical thresholds (and I pray without other more insidious kinds of thresholds)—was welcome, hospitality. The small trolley offers that, along with the presence of day chaplains and vergers. What I found fascinating was the amount of anxiety the planning caused. Should we really be doing this? Do we really want to encourage these kinds of people to come into the Cathedral? What happens if…? And that turned out to be important—taking people on a journey to demonstrate that this was an absolute Gospel priority until it became something owned by everyone.

That’s the ground Dear Nicholas… inhabits—a sense of the absolutely umbilical connection between the worshipping life of the Christian community and a commitment to transformative action in the wider community. A world frankly that stood at the heart of my dad’s ministry.


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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