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David Sheppard: Batting for The Poor, by Andrew Bradstock

20 December 2019

Patrick Coldstream on David Sheppard’s gifts to Church and State

ANDREW BRADSTOCK has written a remarkable book about a remarkable man. David Sheppard was a star who shone brighter than nearly all others and had three careers, as batsman, bishop, and peer. Bradstock has expertly woven diversity into a tapestry where a mass of detail, including pages of cricket scores, supports the big stories of personal theological growth, sporting prowess, passionate social concern, and extraordinary inner-city leadership.

David had a conventional upper-middle class start: preparatory school, public school, military service as an officer, Cambridge. Before any schooling, he was playing roulette cricket, indoors; at Northridge prep school, he made the first XI in his second year; at Sherborne, the headmaster foreshadowed David’s later famed charisma by attributing “character” to him (a quality in boys who had “achieved in life as a result of effort and self-control . . . service to others . . . strong both intellectually and physically”). He had enough of that to be made head of his house when only 17.

David’s was a respectably church-going family anyway, but at Cambridge everything changed for him. Bradstock writes: “He embraced the Christian faith in a personal and life-changing way, a moment he would later describe as ‘my conversion to Christ’. . . It brought ‘a new centre to his life’, and a recognition that the ideas he had about his future would need to be ‘examined at a new depth’”.

Cambridge cricket led to county cricket and test-match cricket. The university allowed him to be away. By his last season for Cambridge, he was already a phenomenon; Bradstock loves this: “he crowned the season by topping the national first-class batting averages with an aggregate of 2262 runs at an average of 64.6. . .” He was named one of Wisden’s five Cricketers of the Year in 1953: “few cricketers had achieved as much as Sheppard by the age of 23. Tall and well-built he looks a batsman from the moment he takes guard.”

But he turned away from cricket, hearing the call to ordination, a parish in Islington, the Mayflower Family Centre in Canning Town, a bishopric in Woolwich, and finally the Liverpool diocese. His faith never flagged, but his understanding of it matured. From the simplicity of his Evangelical roots, for example, he came to accept vestments and incense at services as part of the Anglo-Catholic tradition. More fundamentally — which pointed the way that he was to follow in Liverpool and later — he described his time at the Mayflower Family Centre in Canning Town as a “second conversion” to “Christ in the City”: “Gradually I realised that loving individuals would not shift some of their greatest needs unless the structures of society were attended to also.”

Central Press PhotosDavid Sheppard playing for the Duke of Norfolk’s XI against the Australians at Arundel in April 1964

Prime Minister Harold Wilson overruled the advice of the Archbishops and insisted on having David for Bishop in Liverpool, where Wilson was an MP. When the Sheppards arrived in 1975, Liverpool was a city in trouble. As a result of closer ties to Europe, more air travel, and containerisation, the ports workforce had shrunk from 25,000 to 3000 in 30 years. Unemployment was intolerable. Divisions between bosses and workers and between Irish Catholics and English Protestants looked ruinous.

Bradstock gives us three masterly chapters on the great ministry of reconciliation pursued by David and later on by Roman Catholic Archbishop Derek Worlock and David together. Here, really, was faith in action under pressure; here, doctrinal difference could be set aside for love’s sake as the two bishops made the habit each Good Friday of standing together under the Cross.

Bringing Church and city together was the objective for the Church’s inquiry, championed by Archbishop Robert Runcie, which produced the report on Faith in the City. David was an inspiration behind this; so the Church Urban Fund, money collected around the whole Church to promoted inner-city initiatives, is another monument. The House of Lords would have missed him when his term as bishop ended; so he became to first bishop to be immediately appointed a life peer.

Desmond Tutu contributes an affectionate and grateful foreword to the book: “As a former captain of England, he could not be dismissed lightly . . . but it took great courage. As a cricketer he sacrificed much by refusing to play against a team calling itself ‘South Africa’ but chosen only from its white minority.”

Sir Mark Hedley, once a High Court judge, now a lay minister and Deputy Lieutenant of Merseyside, provides the author with a summing up. Bradstock writes: “For many, Sheppard was a natural leader. He had an aura that led them instinctively to put him in charge. This was partly due to his celebrity, but other less palpable factors were at work. ‘He had that extraordinarily old-fashioned concept called “presence”, Mark Hedley recalls. ‘It’s indefinable but hugely important. When David was there, you knew it. Not because of anything he did. But just because he physically tended to dominate a gathering.”

Patrick Coldstream is a former Chairman of Hymns Ancient & Modern.


David Sheppard: Batting for The Poor: The authorized biography of the celebrated batsman and bishop
Andrew Bradstock
SPCK £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18

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