Jeff Short chats to Andrew Bradstock about the biography of former Bishop of Liverpool, social reformer and England cricketer David Sheppard that he has wrote.

Batting For The Poor

Jeff: I am here with Andrew Bradstock who's written a biography of the celebrated cricketer and bishop David Sheppard. Hello, Andrew. It's lovely to have you on the program. To people of my generation David Sheppard is a name that is well known. As a boy I remember his name and that intriguing title 'reverend' before his name on the cricket scorecard. Back in the day before we had wall-to-wall television it was quite an enigma for a young boy like me. What did he mean to you? Why was there an attraction to write a biography of David Sheppard?

Andrew: Funnily enough my first memory was as a boy in short trousers looking at score cards and seeing Rev. D.S.Sheppard and thinking what is all that about. All sorts of things really. It's a full life. He's someone who never wasted a day. He started off as a cricketer, had an extremely promising career. He played for England more than 20 times; he captained England, captained Cambridge and Sussex. He had his whole career in front of him and then he did something quite different and that was step back from playing cricket in order to train for ordination in the church.

When he was a young student at Cambridge a bit against his better judgement he went to a Christian rally - it wasn't Billy Graham but it was someone like that - and basically gave his heart to the Lord. He was quite surprised by it. He'd been brought up to go to church; he'd been told that if he kept going to church and tried a bit harder every day he'd be alright and the message that evening was quite different. He had to accept Christ as his saviour and his friend and he came out a completely different person. It reoriented his whole life and set him off in a different direction so his plans for his career perhaps as a famous cricketer or he was training to be a lawyer were all put on hold and it then became clear to him that he needed to bring God into the equation. And the outcome of that was to go into the church. He trained for two years for ordination and then served the church for the rest of his life.

Jeff: It's hard for us to imagine that because it seems to be such a divergence. We don't have many sporting heroes who are Christian leaders or people of faith as such. It must have been quite a divergence for him. Just reading the book there was a strong religious background but it certainly wasn't evangelical Christianity. The founder of Toc H was a relative. Reading about these people it's fascinating but you think how does he get from there to ... He was one of the Wisden 5 cricketers of the year in 1953.

Andrew: Yes, he was quite a media star in those days and cricket was much more a national sport. It's come back a bit this year with Ben Stokes and the world cup but in those days people followed cricket much more avidly, more like soccer today really. He was in the papers all the time. So it was quite a big deal when he stepped back like that. We do have some sports people who are Christians but it's a minority. The media were not quite sure what to make of it but he did use the opportunities and the platform that he had to tell people what had happened to him and encourage them to go down the same path.

Jeff: What specifically though was the attraction for you? There is a uniqueness about this if you've got a sporting interest and I guess there's also something about the fact he moves on from that and almost has another conversion when he sees a group that he perhaps didn't see before which is people with a disadvantage.

Andrew: Yes, that's right. He did come to see the gospel had two sides. One was it could transform people individually but also it had something to say about society and how we organise ourselves and the importance of looking after each other, particularly those who are at the margins. Although he himself had a privileged upbringing he used his position within the establishment to speak for those he called the voiceless, the left behind, the marginalized. I've spent most of my life working at the interface between Christian faith and public life, I suppose, so in that sense he was an attraction. I'm also passionate about cricket; I don't think you could have done justice to his biography if you didn't have those twin passions. Writing it now against the background of our political discourse degrading so much into personal abuse and so on he knew how to disagree well. He had very strong opinions that differed from particularly the government of the 80s, Margaret Thatcher's government, but he never resorted to personal criticism. He was a bridge builder. He tried to maintain good relationships while also getting his point across. It's been quite salutary to reflect on his life against that background, although it's not really a biographer's job to comment on current issues. But you can't help reading it against that.

Jeff: When I read it I wondered what he would have said about food banks, for instance.

Andrew: One doesn't want to put words in his mouth; he would obviously have seen the value of them but he also always wanted to go deeper, and ask deeper questions. So he wouldn't have just accepted that we had food banks he'd say why, in a country that is quite wealthy, do thousands of families depend on food banks in order to survive. Why are wages so low that people need to use them? They are the kind of questions that he asked and that's what made him quite an uncomfortable figure around politicians.

Jeff: A comment I'd like to make is on the honesty and integrity of the biography because you showed there was a cost and sometimes a cost that other people in his life paid by him pursuing the cricketing and working from 5 in the morning to late at night on issues and other people in the family paid a cost. I'm not sure you'd say warts and all but I think there's an honesty, a light and shade and an integrity and I applaud you for that.

Andrew: It's kind of you to say that. It's certainly not what theologians call a hagiography - the story of a saint. I did think I had a responsibility to tell the true story. Yes, there was a huge cost. His wife Grace put up with quite a lot really and I had access not only to his papers but also her diaries, which is why it's the authorised biography; the family gave me access. But I didn't write necessarily what they wanted. I am quite critical in places where I think that's warranted. He had a sense of vocation that drove him but he also did seem oblivious sometimes to the effect he was having on those around him. I think his daughter grew up thinking he was a bit of an absentee father and of course the tragedy was that his wife Grace suffered from a severe form of agoraphobia for 20 or 30 years, a good chunk of their relationship. She's written very frankly about that herself. She's an author in her own right. I don't skirt round those difficult issues. I think it's worth seeing the cost involved, the hidden wiring, if you like, behind the public figure.

Jeff: Getting back to David, I came from a low church, evangelical background and when I was at theological college and training college it was amazing to see his book Bias to the Poor on virtually everybody's shelf. It opened me to it. I think it would be difficult for people to understand. Liverpool back then was quite a divided city. There were faith tensions and he was part of a group with Derek Worlock the Catholic bishop and John Newton the Methodist.

Andrew: That's another example of his bridge building. When Sheppard went there and Worlock went there in the mid Seventies there was still very deep division between the Protestant and Catholic communities. It was often referred to as the Belfast of the mainland. They really set about tackling that and were very deliberate at being seen together in public. In 20 years they really did change the landscape. They gave permission, if you like, for churches at grass roots level to work together, to see that they had more in common than in difference. The fact that that sectarianism is not an issue now I think is part of their legacy really. It's a remarkable thing.

Jeff: The city has had a makeover of the buildings and the docks but I think underneath that is the makeover of the heart, the heart of society. It has become acceptable to get on with your neighbour whichever church door they're going through.

Andrew: I spoke to a number of people in Liverpool who had their finger on the pulse for several decades. No one person was responsible for Liverpool's transformation but they all point to the fact that Sheppard and Worlock played a major part in the transformation that the city has gone through. When they went there, there was massive unemployment, the docks were closing, housing was poor, sectarianism, strikes, all sorts of things. And yet in 2008 Liverpool became the city of Culture. People said to me that would have been utterly inconceivable thirty years before but they made it possible to even think of applying for that. When you go to Liverpool now it's an utterly different city. They really threw their all into it and were keen on promoting a good image of Liverpool because it was attacked by the media in quite unfair ways.

Jeff: We're running out of time. I could talk to you forever - we haven't even got on to Bob Willis and the current problems in English cricket. But one of the forewords is by Bishop Desmond Tutu. You talk about David Sheppard being a man of strong principle and influence, and his stand against apartheid.

Andrew: It's a great honour that Desmond Tutu has written the preface but that's not just because we wanted a famous name to splash on the front. He really applauds Sheppard for his role. And again, that's a costly role because very few people in the Sixties thought we should boycott South Africa but Sheppard stood out and thought this was the only way to bring about change. Tutu acknowledges that Sheppard played a key role in bringing down apartheid. And again that's rooted in Sheppard's faith. People often say he's a political figure but his faith drove him to seek justice and respect for everyone. I'm glad we haven't said too much because we don't want people to go away thinking I don't need to buy the book because I heard it all.

Jeff: There are plenty more things to say because he was behind the Church Urban Fund which has blessed so many people and the work goes on. The star may have died but the light shines on through people like David Sheppard.

Andrew: 'He being dead yet speaketh'. It was such a full life and I hope I've captured some of it. CR

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