The singing sermon writer

2008-06-25 00:00

Ron Nicolson’s name is well-known in Pietermaritzburg. Not surprising, as his roots in the city are deep; he went to school here, then university, and most of his working life has been spent here. But as those who read his columns in The Witness know, having deep roots has not made him narrow-minded. “I suspect discerning people can see an inveterate sermon writer in there,” he says, talking of his columns, but sermons or not, what comes across most clearly is a humane, sensible approach to life.

Having been to what he calls “the usual schools” — Merchiston and Maritzburg College, with the slightly unusual start of a year of kindergarten at Girls’ Collegiate, Nicolson went to university on the local campus of the then University of Natal where he did an honours degree in English. It was only after this that Nicolson decided to study theology and be ordained.

At this stage he went off to theological college in England, to Chichester. “It was a lovely place to be in the 1960s,” he says. “England was still quite austere in many ways — it was not so long since the war. The television was still black-and-white, although there was none here of course. And you would get rabbit for dinner, often with lead shot in it.”

When his studies were finished, Nicolson returned to South Africa and was ordained. As a young priest, he worked at the old St Saviour’s Cathedral in Pietermaritzburg — his home town again. Then he had five years in Howick, followed by a stint in Pinetown. “In those days, I was a bright young thing,” he says, “full of self-confidence, ambition and probably lots of arrogance. I was in a church that was changing, and had a Bishop who went out of his way to encourage younger clergy.”

Nicolson continued to study at the same time as running a parish — the university ran courses for clergy on Mondays, the traditional day off for the Church — and he did his honours in what was then called divinity. When he was Rector of Howick he began to work for a master’s degree: “Even in those days, everyone in Howick went to bed at 7 pm, so I worked in the evenings,” he says. He did this for three years, and then submitted his thesis — and had it accepted for a doctorate rather than a masters, something that doesn’t happen very often. “So then I had to think about academia,” says Nicolson.

His working life fell neatly into three sections — and university was the second. He was both a teacher — professor of religious studies — and an administrator — dean of human and management sciences — on the local campus. It was a life he thoroughly enjoyed, seeing parallels between being an administrator and being a clergyman. “It was ‘pastoralia’,” he says, “trying to keep people happy and enthuse them.” What he doesn’t say is that you can only do the latter if you are enthusiastic yourself.

He continued at university until he was 65, having been given an extra five years past the usual university retirement age. The church, however, only retires people at 66 — the reasons, says Nicolson, are actuarial rather than anything more esoteric, and so, when he left UKZN he went to the Bishop and said he was now a free agent and would be happy to go anywhere for a year. Once again, he was sent to Howick, and the year stretched to four, until he decided it was finally time to retire properly, although he still lives there.

I ask if it has been a relief not to have always to be available to his parishoners. “No, I never minded the thing of my time not being my own, but I was glad to hand over the pastoral responsibilities, the feeling that you always have people on your conscience, that perhaps you haven’t really done right by them. It’s nice not to have those niggles.”

Retirement can be difficult, and I ask Nicolson how he has adjusted. “I haven’t had time to think: ‘What shall I do?’ I was thinking the other day — has it been easy? I was frightened that I would lose all human contact, but in response to that, I overcommitted myself,” he says. “Of course, there is a loss of status, and you have to learn to adapt to not having constant feedback. That’s one of the good things about life in the church.”

He has been helping the university with report writing, as well as working on two books, one of which, Persons in Community, has just been published (see sidebar). He also continues to write for The Witness. His connection with the paper began long ago, as one of the team that wrote the Saturday Talk column. Now it is an occasional column, written when Nicolson feels he has something to say. Sometimes he responds to the news, at other times he deals with more personal concerns. “The ones I like doing best are the ones that don’t begin with a cause. I like to bring in something from ordinary life, and then reflect on that.”

Then there is reading — sometimes serious pieces, like journal articles, but often much lighter. He has read all the Harry Potter books, and has just finished Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. He has rejected the suggestion that he should take up golf, but is relishing the extra time he has for singing.

“I have joined the Madrigal Singers again,” he says. He first sang with them — as a baritone — 10 years ago, and has always, since his childhood days in a church choir (Maritzburg College had no choir when he was a pupil there) loved choral singing. “I don’t think I would have ever been good enough to take up music as a career. In my late 40s I went for singing lessons to Barbara Knox. But maybe I was too old, or never really had the range. But I love my choral singing.”

Nicolson insists that his has been a very ordinary life. But it is one into which he has packed a lot, and received a lot of enjoyment from doing it.

exploring african ethics in a global culture

Persons in Community: African Ethics in a Global Culture has recently been published by the University of KZN Press. The book is edited by Ronald Nicolson and, through a series of contributions by various academics, explores how the communitarian ethics of African society can marry with the individual ethics of the modern global world.

Nicolson describes the book as focusing on the practical rather than, as many books dealing with the subject, concentrating on the religious or the philosophical.

Among the chapters in Persons in Community are ones on economic systems and where they can be married into the world, and another on how to motivate workers in a community where the prevailing values are communitarian. It also deals with other problems, such as how Africans engage with the economy, with HIV and with male-dominated societies.

The book came from a conference held at the Ethics Centre on the local university campus.

Nicolson is currently working on another book, this time for Cluster Publications. He describes it as closer to his own field, as it is on the Anglican Church and same-sex marriage, exploring whether there is any way in which the two sides in the church can exist together, whether they can find an accommodation where they can agree to differ. Nicolson thinks they can, but agrees that only time will tell.

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