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Book review: 40 Years of Ministry in Liverpool by Neville Black

16 February 2024

Andrew Bradstock on a long Liverpool ministry

THIS is both a primer in urban ministry and a frank and heart-warming account of an exceptional parish priest and follower of Jesus.

If urban ministry is still in the “Too hard” basket for many in the Church, this book suggests why. To be effective, it requires less a seminary “training” than a commitment to rooting oneself in a community, getting alongside people where they are, and innovating and reassessing continually. Vision, enthusiasm, and a determination to succeed also help. While the author has these, he can also acknowledge his mistakes and shortcomings.

As an Evangelical ministering in the inner city, Black had to rethink his theology early on: to see salvation as relevant to both individuals and “communities like Liverpool 8”; to prioritise “Kingdom” over Church; to commit himself to “going out to” rather than “bringing or fetching in”. If that was unremarkable, it is the stories that Black tells, as he works all this out, which make this book: the response of a conservative priest when asked whether salvation might be anything but “personal”, the reaction of Evangelical church members to those wanting to help, but not necessarily believe or join the church. “I had to learn that mission was not about me confronting people about their need for God, but God leading people to take tentative steps towards a church community,” Black writes.

So, here is no detached overview of urban ministry; rather, he offers conversational-style anecdotes and pen portraits, bringing to life the communities that he knew and the tensions that he discovered and sought to resolve within them. Black’s love for the city in which he ministered for forty years is clear; and the ground-level stories that he relates about its tensions, including those between the police and the black community, are telling. They famously spilled over in Toxteth, where Black was serving at the time. His part in ministry initiatives, such as the Evangelical Urban Training Project (now Unlock), is also discussed, as is his clearly fulfilling marriage.

From a self-confessed man of action, this is a remarkably reflective book. There are constant references to the benefit of hindsight, and questions for reflection to end each chapter. Black’s comments on the bishops he worked with are revealing: Stuart Blanch and James Jones come out well, David Sheppard less so. Class difference was clearly a factor.

Hilary Russell once observed that Sheppard’s contribution to Liverpool came from his being rooted in and identified with the city, while “to some extent above the fray”. Black’s comes from being very firmly in the fray, out of which he has written an absorbing and inspiring memoir.

Dr Andrew Bradstock is an emeritus professor of the University of Winchester. He is the author of
David Sheppard: Batting for the poor (SPCK, 2019).


40 Years of Ministry in Liverpool
Neville Black
(Copies cost £12.50 incl. postage, and are available from the author at: nevilleblack55@me.com)

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