The Rt Revd Michael Henshall

by
07 April 2017

Derek Wright

A remarkable colleague: the Rt Revd Michael Henshall, with his wife, Steve, the president of the Mothers’ Union, at the Union’s Diocesan Festival Service at Liverpool Cathedral, on 10 June 1986

A remarkable colleague: the Rt Revd Michael Henshall, with his wife, Steve, the president of the Mothers’ Union, at the Union’s Diocesan F...

The Very Revd Mark Boyling writes:

THE Rt Revd Michael Henshall, who died on 7 February, aged 88, obtained his degree at St Chad’s College, Durham, and served his title in York diocese. After two curacies there, he moved to Chester, where he ministered in Micklehurst and Altrincham, and was for four years an Hon. Canon of Chester Ca­­thedral.

This grounding in varied parish ministry in the north of England brought a particular strength to his long episcopal minis­try as Suffragan Bishop of Warring­ton from 1976 to 1996. From the clergy and parishes, it brought, too, a confidence that he understood the issues that they were facing, inside out.

David Sheppard, his close col­league for those 20 years, wrote of the way he set about appointing a new suffragan bishop, within a year of his own appointment, to Liver­pool. In the way it worked then, he found himself in a room at Lam­beth, with a batch of files, and some wise words from the Archbishop’s chaplain, who advised him to look for someone to whom he could entrust a whole body of work in the diocese with complete confidence, so that David could grasp other things as required. Michael’s loyalty, creativity, ability, and hard work combined to make him a remark­able colleague.

The regular pattern of meetings and pastoral work we can all ima­gine. Over and above that, he led all that was done to mark the centenary of the diocese in 1980; a pas­toral scheme to give new life to the dean­eries; the Church Urban Fund ap­­peal; the reshaping of the Church’s part in higher education with the merger of St Katherine’s and Notre Dame; and there was the Northern Ordination Course.

Report after report came from Michael’s pen. Above all, perhaps, he wrote the report Call to Partnership, which gave a frame­work for ecumenical life on Mersey­side and which made sure that the Mersey Miracle went far beyond personal chemistry.

But his reach went far beyond the ecclesiastical. There were the Bishop’s Industry Groups, St El­­phin’s School, and work with the Prison Service; and there were the Toxteth riots and, in the absence of David Sheppard, it was Michael who walked the streets with Derek Wor­lock, and who met the Prime Minis­ter when she arrived in Liverpool.

For those of us left rather breath­less in his wake, he had advice: “Activism is the reaction of deeply insecure priests to the signs of the times.” And “Beware the perils of procrastination and of the sickness that destroys in the noon-tide — accidie.”

No wonder some were left trem­bling, and that he won his nick­name, “Basher”. In his last years, he admitted that he might sometimes have been gentler, but, in my experi­ence, when a priest or a parish was in difficulty, he never failed to offer the support of both a pastoral heart and a clear-thinking mind.

In all this, there was about Michael a discipline that was simply part of his way of life. Curates knew that he would never let them down, but neither would he let them off. Crack-of-dawn morning prayer and mass at seven are etched in many memories. He sustained a three-session day all his ministry. When he once exchanged duties with a bishop from Niagara, a partner diocese, Bishop Clarence was left reeling.

Michael was once asked whether he felt threatened by an empty diary. He denied it, but later admitted that he probably was. But all this was not the activism he decried. Holidays and days off went into the diary first; and when others struggled with time management and fitting in the unexpected, Michael did not.

After 25 years of ordained min­istry, Michael did some research into his sermons. He found that the biblical text he had used most was from 2 Timothy 1, with its exhortation “to stir into flame the gift from God which is yours through the laying on of our hands”. What Michael encouraged others to know he knew for himself.

Michael had 1001 memorable sayings that, time and again, he used to shed light on the good news he proclaimed. One of them was his challenge to his hearers to be PR people — a quality, he said, he had seen in his hero Michael Ramsey. For him, PR meant Passion and Resurrection: dying in order to live. For Michael, the great redemptive work of Christ, the dying in order to live, was not something to be studied or acknowledged in some cerebral way. It was to be lived.

We recall the outpouring of af­­fection and gratitude which filled Liverpool Cathedral on St Mat­thew’s Day 1996 when Michael re­­tired. We arranged no fewer than four great processions during the service, designed to allow a good number of people to come forward and at least shake his hand. But for each pro­cession, dozens of people became scores of people, and handshakes be­­came brief conversations, and short conversations became longer con­­versations. Each time, all the music we had planned was sung, and the organist kept on impro­vising.

In the last eight years, he was pained by the illness of his wife, Steve, and the very real cost for him to sustain, as best he could, his care for her. There was the pain of the incompleteness Michael knew when Steve no longer knew him and when she died; it was the reverse of the closeness of the life they had shared. His was the offering of a life to be used by God, a sustained and ded­icated offering.

The Ven. Peter Bradley adds: My memories of Bishop Michael centre on his work as Chair of the Board of Ministry in the diocese, and his enthusiasm for and commitment to the newly ordained.

He was well aware of the anxiety felt by many at the prospect of meeting him, and he did all he could to put them at their ease. I remem­ber, however, his frustration at what he perceived as the short­comings of the then residential training courses, when at an ordination retreat in answer to his questions on the An­­glican divines, beginning with “What do you think of Hooker?”, he received the reply: “It’s a position in a rugby team, isn’t it, Bishop?”

The same candidate further com­pounded the error by re­­sponding to Bishop Michael’s next question, “So what about Lancelot Andrewes?”, “Isn’t he the consultant in the Doctor in the House film?”

Bishop Michael and Steve offered generous and warm hospitality to those new to ministry, and many then, and after, appreciated both his straightforward attitude and can­dour. He was totally committed to the ordained life, and served as a marvellous example to those who were privileged enough to work with him. While always aware of the need for innovation and change, he once openly admitted that he was always in favour of change, as long as he was in charge of it.

Canon Frances Briscoe adds: Michael, once “converted” to the ordination of women, did a lot to promote it, with his characteristic enthusiasm. He was instrumental in getting women into incumbencies in the diocese. We women have much to praise and thank him for.

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Church Times: about us

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)