The Revd John Frederick Vernon Nicholson MA: 1928-2014
An inspiring colleague, a believer in team ministry and an advocate of Christian unity for the sake of mission who gave 50 years of selfless service north of Birmingham
John was born in Bournemouth in 1928 and died in Leeds in 2014. From the outbreak of the Second World War John lived with his aunt and uncle, the Revd F G and Mrs Parker, in Shepshed, Leicester. His uncle was minister of Charnwood Baptist Church. John was baptised at Charnwood in 1944 and preached his first sermon at a youth service in the church later that year.
In 1946 John moved with his aunt and uncle to Woodgate Baptist, Loughborough, where he led a team of young people taking services in local village churches. At Woodgate he met Pamela, nee Bass, and they got engaged in 1950 and married in 1954. They had two sons, David and Christopher, and a daughter, Jennifer, and in later years rejoiced in being grandparents. The whole family were able to be present in Guiseley with John and Pam to celebrate their Golden Wedding in July 2014.
John was educated at Loughborough Grammar School becoming school captain and winning a minor scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge reading history and theology. He was a conscientious objector and did his National Service working on the land.
He experienced a call to Christian ministry and went to Regent’s Park College, Oxford, completing his training in 1954 and in the pattern of that day sat his finals in June, was married in July and ordained and inducted to Potter Street, Harlow in early September.
Potter Street was formed in 1662, but with the development of Harlow New town the area was ripe for expansion and during John’s ministry the membership grew from 18 on his arrival to 60 at his departure. The church had received oversight from Harlow for many years but an initial pastorate grant was obtained from Home Mission to make his ministry possible and the Home Mission rules had to be bent to enable a small manse to be purchased from the Harlow New town authorities. John records how he met Dr E A Payne, then Union General Secretary, perchance en route to a Baptist event who informed him the HM Grants Committee had to bend the rules to enable the house purchase to proceed. John justified that decision by his vigorous ministry reaching out to people coming to reside in the new town of Harlow.
Whilst in the developing new town John became convinced of the need for ecumenical cooperation and this was to be a mark of his subsequent ministry. This initial pastorate in a fast-growing area introduced John to a wide range of pastoral challenges which were to serve him well in his future charges and in his work as a translocal minister.
In 1959 John was called to Union Chapel, Fallowfield, Manchester. This move north proved seminal. All John’s future ministry was to be exercised north of Birmingham. Union Chapel was the continuing cause from Union Chapel in Oxford Road, where Alexander McLaren had exercised a 60 year ministry. On his arrival John discovered that the morning congregation was small, but the evening congregation numbered over 100. The church, being in the university residential area, meant that John became Baptist chaplain to the University of Manchester, working in an ecumenical team which was later to develop an ecumenical chaplaincy at St Peter’s House in the heart of the main university area.
The congregation at Fallowfield not only included students, but members such as Dr H H Rowley, the famous Old Testament scholar. The challenge to preach to a demanding congregation of academics and students was one to which John rose and his ministry at Fallowfield was regarded by both him and the church as a happy and significant one.
From Fallowfield John and Pam moved to the newly formed North Cheshire Fellowship. The then General Superintendent, Norman Jones, was an innovative and inspiring leader who took many opportunities to develop innovative forms of ministry in Lancashire and Cheshire. He took with him two students from Northern Baptist College as colleagues, one of whom, David L Taylor, went on to become a Regional Team Leader. The work of developing the Fellowship (later Tameside Fellowship following local government reorganisation) was not easy but characteristically John sought to weld the churches and the ministry team into a viable unit. Whilst in the Fellowship John served as Moderator of the Lancashire and Cheshire Baptist Association, taking the theme of “Unity for Mission”, which was a reasonable descriptor for the future direction of his own ministry.
John has been committed to the prayer of Jesus “that they may be one…. that the world may believe” since his student days and in 1971 he was appointed full-time General Secretary of the Manchester, Salford and District council of churches (later the Greater Manchester County Ecumenical Council). Much of the early work was preparing the churches for local government reorganisation and working out how to relate their mission to, and within, the new structures. As a nonconformist he felt able to engage in challenging some of the entrenched attitudes of the State church.
However, he formed lasting friendships with the Roman Catholic hierarchy and was on good terms with the Anglican bishop of Manchester, the Rt Revd Patrick Rodger, who, having come from the Episcopal Church of Scotland, felt at ease with the English Free churches. His work in Greater Manchester marked him out as a key figure in the development of local ecumenism post the 1972 Sharing of Church Buildings Act and in the growth of Local Ecumenical Partnerships (originally called Projects) and in the growth of County Ecumenical Councils. He was noted by students at Northern Baptist College for his enthusiasm and detailed knowledge of ecumenism when he worked with final year students as they prepared for the realities of Baptist ministry in the north of England.
Inevitably, it seems in retrospect, John was appointed British Council of Churches Ecumenical Officer for England and served as the Churches’ Unity Commission Field Officer from 1975 to 1979. The conversation between the English churches to find a way forward for ecumenical co-operation which could be expanded to include the Roman Catholics, black-led churches, free and Pentecostal churches addressed the gifts and skills John had mastered in Greater Manchester and he came to the challenge with his characteristic enthusiasm and the requirement that he could continue to live in Greater Manchester. This job involved much travel by train and car, but John was never daunted by the demand and, as always, Pam coped with the home and family as well as maintaining her teaching career. John led a somewhat frenetic existence, but that led ultimately to the “Ten Propositions”, rejected in different ways by the Anglicans, Baptists and Catholics. During this period John developed and refined what became ultimately the “five C’s of ecumenism” – Competition, Co-existence, Co-operation, Commitment, Communion” and he spoke about them whenever he had opportunity.
John was now something of an expert in local ecumenical partnerships and this led to his active participation in a World Council of Churches/Baptist World Alliance consultation on baptism, hosted by the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, thus adding an international level of engagement to his pursuit of Christian unity. He made a contribution to the British Baptist Quarterly on this experience, returning, thereby, to academic writing alongside engaged activism for mission.
John now had a portfolio of experience which commended itself to the energetic mind of Trevor Hubbard, General Superintendent for the North West of England and Michael H Taylor, Principal of Northern Baptist College and John was invited to the newly-created post of Association Minister and NBC tutor. John had already been involved with the College in the 1970s on a very part time basis, but this return was more focused and significant and the Association task was focused on “trouble shooting”.
John gave more than 50 percent to each task. In Bolton, Warrington and elsewhere John exercised his ministry of seeking way forwards focused on mission. At NBC he worked with Principal Michael H Taylor and educationalist, David R Goodbourn, to bring to fruition an Alternative Pattern of Training (APT), which was church-based rather than a residential College-based. This approach was originally scorned by the other UK Baptist colleges, but the pioneering and successful programme was ultimately adopted by all the Colleges. The success of APT was such that student numbers more than quintupled. John’s future may have been to become a full time tutor at NBC, but others thought differently and in 1986 he was asked to become Baptist Union General Superintendent for the North East Area incorporating the Northern and Yorkshire Associations, very different in size and ethos and different from the North West Baptist Association where area and association were co-terminus.
John knew the area from his work for Northern Baptist College in the APT programme. However, this was a significantly different challenge. John soon developed a close relationship with the Yorkshire Baptist team through the weekly team meeting and the Northern Baptist team in their monthly meeting. John set himself the task of helping all the churches in the area have a recognisable form of leadership and this he almost achieved during the eight years of his Superintendency.
Whilst serving as North Eastern General Superintendent John was asked to become Secretary of the commissioning body for the new Churches Together in England. Without slackening on his service to the Baptists of the north east of England, John took this task on, working closely with the Archbishop of York, as Chair, to appoint a General Secretary and staff team and set up the Enabling Group, the Local Ecumenical Group and other agreed structures. This monumental add-on to the work of Superintendency was achieved with his customary panache and enthusiasm.
John finally retired from the General Superintendency in November 1994, but this was only to open up a new chapter in his life as tour guide, member of the National Trust Regional committee for Yorkshire, political activist in the Liberal Democrat party, member of the leadership team at South Parade Baptist Church in Leeds, chair of the Governors of Northern Baptist College and then, in 1997, to serve as “acting” Superintendent in the North East for a period of a year after the death, from terminal cancer, of Iain Collins.
Eventually, age began to tell, but John continued to be actively involved as a volunteer at the Feed the Minds bookstore in Bradford, dispatching books to theological colleges in the two thirds world. John and Pam by this stage had moved from their home in Headingley to a retirement complex in Guiseley, north west Leeds, where in the summer of 2014 they celebrated their diamond wedding surrounded by family and friends.
John Nicholson was an inspiring colleague, a believer in team ministry and an advocate of Christian unity for the sake of mission. His mind constantly sought answers to problems of mission and ministry and the Baptist community in the north of England are the much poorer for his passing, whilst rejoicing in more than 50 years of selfless service north of Birmingham.
KGJ and WEW