Almost a year ago, our parish newsletter, The Clarion, ceased publication. At that time, I had been writing a column for the newsletter for several years and had one written and submitted but it never made it into print. Val Roseberry, dear friend and valiant master of our website, asked me to start the column again, this time on the website. I am delighted with this notion.
What I offer here is the column from November 2020. Although it was written before Christen Herman’s aneurysm and subsequent death, and before Peter Rood’s absence and eventual retirement, it still seems to have some relevance.
This comes with my thanks to Val and my hope that you will find some value here.
Every month, I receive a newsletter from the Church Pension Fund, the folks who are primarily responsible for feeding and clothing Amy and me. [Our great thanks to them!] Along with the newsletter comes a necrology, an accounting of the pensioners who have died in the previous month. In the most recent listing, I knew five people in the list, more than in any previous month.
Among those listed was Richard Henshaw, who died at 99 years. Dr. Henshaw was my Old Testament professor at Bexley Hall, Gambier Ohio, where I attended seminary from 1964-1967. Along with an appreciation for the Psalms and the Prophets, Dr. Henshaw gave me a scholarly example that has served me wonderfully well from those earlier years to now.
The curriculum at Bexley in those days obliged each student to take a number of courses in both New and Old Testament. So, we students got to know our Bible teachers rather well. My debt to Dr. Henshaw includes what he taught me and others directly about the make up and authorship of the Hebrew Scriptures. But for my present purpose, there was something else, rather more incidental, for which I thank my learned professor.
At some point in some course, likely early in my years in seminary, a student in Dr. Henshaw’s class asked him a questions, likely a very good, reasonable question. Dr. Henshaw pondered the question for a moment and then said, “I don’t know. I don’t think I ever thought about that.”
My learned and much respect teacher, with a thoughtful straight face, said “I don’t know.” Astounding, and over time, for me, quite liberating. So easily and so thoughtfully, Dr. Henshaw gave me—and all the rest of us—the liberty to admit to not knowing, and to have that admission pose no threat to our standing in the community of learning.
For 40 years, I have taught students aspiring to ordination, and for a longer period of time, I have taught in assorted parishes, most recently our dear St. Stephen’s. And although I have always sought to provide dependable information and faithful answers, there have been times when the Henshaw Gambit has come into play. That is, I have been able to admit that I did not know the answer to a perfectly good and altogether reasonable question, and to do so without embarrassment or disappointment with myself.
The Henshaw Gambit was of greatest help to me in the earlier years of my teaching life, when I was struggling to keep my own learning just a bit ahead of the learning of my students. I remember one particular instance where my not knowing and my willingness to admit to it, served me particularly well.
I was the new liturgy professor at the Episcopal seminary in Austin, beginning in 1982. When I began work there, I taught students who were beginning their life at the seminary at the same time as I was beginning, but there were two years worth of students already in course when I arrived. It was among those more seasoned students that the Henshaw Gambit and a bit of grace proved saving.
As a teacher of liturgy in the Episcopal world, one is often asked questions about the rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer, those italicized instructions in the rites. “The Celebrant says to the people…” or “The people may stand or kneel,” and so forth. Rubrics.
It is the common assumption on the part of people who ask of a liturgy professor questions about the rubrics that he/she will know the rubrics in such detail and with such clarity that an unqualified and dependable answer will be forthcoming. Although I admit to knowing more about the rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer than the average person waiting for a bus, I am not possessed of flawless recollection in every instance.
Early in my life at the seminary in Austin, I realized that in one of my classes, with the third year students, there was a student who was “possessed of flawless recollection in every instance.” Firstly, I was threatened by this student and felt that I had to know at least what he knew and likely more. Then, secondly and very happily, I was blessed by the visitation of the Henshaw Gambit. I realized that, when asked in class about a rubrical matter, I could venture an answer and then check with “John” about its accuracy. I could even not know! Lord have mercy!
As it turned out, my vulnerability in class served me very well in my relations with those students. My willingness to value “John’s” knowledge, to respect his competence as a “rubrical lawyer,” not only lightened my load but also seems to have done for some students what Dr. Henshaw did for me.
In conclusion, I am writing this column on November 6, while the whole country awaits the outcome of our protracted election process, the counting and re-counting of ballots. It is a season of not knowing. That may well be why Dr. Henshaw’s wisdom comes to mind. Perhaps, for the moment, we need to be content not to know, confident that our not knowing is not the end of the story.