Forty years since the publication of Bishop David Sheppard’s influential Bias to the Poor, his biographer Andrew Bradstock and his daughter Jenny Sinclair explore questions raised by the book and its underlying assumptions. Recognising the book was a prophetic challenge of its time, they critique some of its proposed solutions to poverty, cautioning today’s Church against returning to some of the approaches taken in the 1980s.
David Sheppard’s Bias to the Poor  is one of the most influential Christian books on social justice to have appeared in recent decades. Published forty years ago this year, it remains in print to this day (at least, as an e-book) and is described by on-line booksellers as still ‘an invaluable contribution to the ongoing debate about justice and Christian responsibility’. Certainly its controlling question – how the church can most effectively honour the God’s love for the poor – remains as relevant as ever. But what of the solutions it puts forward?
Sheppard began work on the book (hereafter BttP) in 1978, three years after becoming Bishop of Liverpool. His understanding of poverty had been sharpened by those years, but also by his ministry in East and South East London during the preceding twenty years, and by his observations of urban life in the United States during two visits in the 1970s. In London he had developed a passion for the inner city, which he argued the Church had for too long neglected and with which it needed urgently to re-connect. This was the central theme of his earlier (1974) book, Built as a City.
Liverpool was in a troubled state when he arrived, with unemployment rising ten times faster than elsewhere in the country, its manufacturing economy in a state of virtual collapse, and its most able sons and daughters leaving the region in search of well-paid jobs elsewhere. In July 1981, while Sheppard was preparing a first draft of the book, violent clashes between police and protestors broke out in the inner-city area of Toxteth, leading some Government figures to talk of leaving Liverpool to a ‘managed decline’.
By contrast, Sheppard’s response to poverty was based on his belief in the importance of community. This he saw rooted in Scripture, most clearly in St Paul’s teaching (Romans 12:5) that all are ‘members one of another’, where if one is neglected, the whole body is weakened. This meant in practice placing the well-being of others above self-interest, with no individual or group within society being able to prosper at the expense of others. He spoke of a divided Britain, between, on the one hand, those with a reasonable standard of living, who had decent jobs, housing and opportunities, and on the other, those who were trapped in a dehumanizing poverty.
All would benefit, he argued, if the affluent acknowledged their responsibility to help improve the situation of the poor. Those he would later define as ‘Comfortable Britain’ needed to see the problems in the ‘Other Britain’ as their troubles too, and that their actions could make a difference. Seeing the country as one body meant making sacrifices and exercising restraint in the interests of the whole community, sharing wealth as well as creating it. Sheppard’s hopes for change rested primarily on appeals to the ‘comfortable’ to make sacrifices for the benefit of the ‘others’.
The principal method by which the rich could express their ‘being members one of another in one nation’, was through taxation. ‘Taxation is the proper way by which wealth is distributed more fairly and by which the poor and the whole of society are given better opportunities’, he writes in BttP.‘Christians should take a lead in a public campaign to change the assumption that everyone pays their taxes grudgingly and unwillingly’. Greater tax revenue could solve worklessness and meet community needs. ‘Large sums are already spent on providing the necessary cushion against the harshest effects of unemployment’, he writes, but rather than pay large numbers of people the dole to go away and do nothing, all the jobs that needed doing in the community could be funded from the taxes of those ‘lucky enough to have… demanding and well-paid jobs… that is the way to a more co-operative society.’ Unemployed people would then start paying tax themselves and ‘increase the whole level of economic activity.’
All this was far removed from the orthodoxy of the time. Margaret Thatcher, who came to power while Sheppard was drafting BttP, believed that welfare should be provided by the voluntary sector, with the statutory services ‘underpinning where necessary’. Individuals should take responsibility for themselves and, through charity, the needs of others. Sheppard actively supported many charities and measures to encourage the voluntary sector, but he had learned about the vicissitudes of philanthropy. He felt strongly that wealth redistribution through taxation was essential to ensure the weaker members of society were properly supported. It expressed ‘an important moral principle’ and was ‘an earnest of the community’s acceptance that its weakest members are valued and not judged.’ Taxation was a greater reflection of belonging to one body than charitable giving since it was ‘indiscriminate’, whereas charity was ‘dictated by preferences and prejudices’.
Sheppard would later swear allegiance to Tony Blair and sit on the Labour benches in the House of Lords. In BttP he is unequivocal in his support for big government.
A concern for the weak, which reflects a bias to the poor, must include some way of controlling the economy and of restraining the demands of the most powerful… Concern for the needs of the weaker demands that everything is not left to chance and to the uncertainties of international market forces. The Government must take a major part in controlling the economy. Indeed, every government does so. A moral re-entry [into the market] must include a determined effort towards fairer redistribution.
Rather than advocating fundamental economic reform to generate jobs with a decent level of pay, Sheppard’s solution to low wages was for the State to expand welfare. Whilst he and others advocating this had the best of intentions, with hindsight it has become clear that correcting the excesses of finance capital through welfarism entrenches a low wage economic model geared to the interests of big business.
Instead of radical economic reform, Sheppard advocated paying a ‘social wage’ – something akin to what is now known as a universal basic income – to people with no or very low paid work. He had floated the idea in Built as a City, and saw it as a way of helping those who feel they are valued very little to believe more easily that they are useful – indeed, today some argue it could encourage more people to contribute to their community. At a time when patterns of employment were changing rapidly, he wrote, a
reasonable social wage… significantly more than the bread line of Supplementary Benefit… [would] make it possible for those who do not have a job, or who may lose their job, to face future changes without fear.
Sheppard was upfront that his thinking had been influenced by aspects of Marxist thought which he said helped him understand poverty. ‘It would be impossible for a Christian in the twentieth century to consider the situation of the urban poor without taking a careful look at the Marxist analysis and philosophy’, he writes in a chapter on Liberation Theology in BttP. ‘Christians have important common ground with Marxists, which should be affirmed wholeheartedly before we examine our disagreements’.
In fact, he did have serious disagreements with Marxism (and Liberation Theology), not least the emphasis it places on system change over spiritual liberation. He believed that ‘social and political changes must go hand in hand with people being changed from inside out’. Sheppard saw the importance of both the personal and the political. The argument of BttP, he wrote, ‘is that these are not opposites. The Christian must work and pray for the change both of the individual and the system.’
In contrast to Margaret Thatcher’s emphasis on the responsibility of the individual, Sheppard took a patrician position in terms of the fight against poverty. Just as he thought that the sacrifices of ‘Comfortable Britain’ should be administered through the State, so he thought the Church should effect change for poor people by virtue of its role as the ‘national church’, by speaking on their behalf. One reviewer of BttP even considered it a virtue that a public-school educated diocesan bishop of the Church of England was ‘willing to act as a mouthpiece’ for the voices of the poor. His devotion to poor working class communities is well known. But fundamentally, he saw Church and State, not the poor themselves, as the agents of change.
Alongside class, race was a significant theme in BttP. For Sheppard, inequality on the basis of colour, particularly in terms of employment opportunities, was a great injustice. As a cricketer, he had been a high profile campaigner against apartheid, and as a churchman in London and Liverpool he recognised the imperative to understand what he called the ‘black experience’. He felt that discrimination on the basis of colour could be eliminated if employers and trades unions adopted two key policies: keeping accurate statistics, so that a firm can know whether it is discriminating or not; and accepting the principle of ‘affirmative action’, which for him did not mean giving someone a job based on the colour of their skin, but rather ensuring ‘that special and appropriate training [is] offered to those who are at a particular disadvantage.‘
His approach to antiracism was influenced by Martin Luther King Jr’s conception of ‘the beloved community’. He would be appalled by the racial essentialism of our time: his instinct was always to build coalitions. In Liverpool, in the wake of the troubles in Toxteth, he worked assiduously to build bridges between the black community and the police, one practical outcome being the creation of a law centre in a predominantly black neighbourhood. This he hoped would address the alienation of the black community from the criminal justice system and lead to the emergence of Liverpool’s first black lawyers.
It is hard not to see BttP as a book of its time. The core questions it asks about, for example, the economy, the future of work and overcoming poverty, or how the Church can reconnect with poor communities, or the urgency to eliminate racism, remain. But there is a danger in uncritically adopting the solutions it presents. It will not profit the Church to return to its 1980s worldview.
In terms of his conviction that the Church needed to be involved in deprived urban areas, Sheppard’s voice remains unquestionably prophetic. He and his family lived out that conviction personally, and through his example and advocacy, encouraged many clergy in subsequent generations to do the same. This commitment was underpinned by a lifelong respect for rooted communities and their distinctive histories. He consistently called for Christians to reject the mindset that to ‘make it’ in life you should aspire to leave and move to a ‘better area’. Sheppard was consistently misunderstood in his advocacy of this, but he anticipated correctly the dire consequences for ‘left behind’ communities and the abandoned places.
‘If we want the Church to be able to root itself firmly in urban working-class life,’ he writes in BttP, ‘we must give up regarding that sort of social mobility as inevitable…’. In the face of appeals by neoliberal government ministers to young people to ‘get mobile’ and look for work, Sheppard and his opposite number in Liverpool, Roman Catholic Archbishop, Derek Worlock, called instead for the creation of more jobs in inner-city areas to provide an incentive for the adventurous to stay. The bishops were prescient in their fear that, if young people did settle elsewhere, the health of the community they left behind would be scarred for decades to come.
Yet forty years on from BttP, and from the Faith in the City report which Sheppard was instrumental in driving forward two years later, the Church is still failing to connect with poor communities. In fact the estrangement has got worse: despite notable stories of exceptional estates or inner-city churches engaging creatively and effectively, the vast majority of churches remain, both in perception and reality, middle-class and out of touch with poor communities.
In part this is rooted in a belief that the church is there to provide a ‘service’ to these communities. Perhaps this is a local manifestation of the ‘top down’ approach identified earlier, but its effect is essentially to ‘other’ and alienate the very people they aim to help. It is a grim irony that, while the Church today claims a prophetic mission to serve poor communities suffering from the effects of the cost of living crisis, those same communities are mostly deeply estranged from the Church.
If church communities could recognise their own vulnerability, conceiving of themselves as ‘neighbour’ rather than ‘host’, and instead of taking a service provider posture, adopting an attitude of mutual respect, then there may be hope to rebuild the relationship.
A fresh understanding of the concept of ‘common good’ would help the Church reconnect with poorer communities. Each local church needs to discern its vocation as a constructive neighbour committed to putting human dignity at the heart of economic, civic and cultural life. Alongside its neighbours, the local church can help to build a common good across differences of opinion, background, class and education, enabling each of the parts of a community to flourish together.
Common good is one principle within Catholic Social Teaching, and ‘subsidiarity’ is another. Subsidiarity is when decisions are taken close to those they affect, where people take responsibility, where communities manage things locally themselves, relying less on the state or the market to provide solutions. Sheppard is right to argue in BttP that the market ‘must not be allowed to be our sole master’, but his suggestion, in the same breath, that decentralisation is not always for the good, even that ‘centralised power… is properly used when it protects the interest of the weaker’, carries an outdated and patrician air, not to mention a carelessness about democracy. Given the current trends across the West of governments becoming increasingly technocratic, his confidence in the State as a benign force now seems naive.
Sheppard importantly, however, did recognise the significance of place and belonging, lending his support to local communities, and putting his considerable energy into the retention of jobs and investment. He would recognise today the intensification of the process he warned against in the 1980s. He would lament how neoliberal culture reframes leaving home to find work as ‘freedom’, and how the ‘left behind’ communities, abandoned in the process of globalisation, are branded as ‘bigoted’ for valuing family, love of country and tradition. As the writer David Goodhart describes it, the cleavage between the ‘somewheres’ (about half the population) and the ‘anywheres’ (about 25% of the population) constitutes arguably the most important fault line in contemporary British politics, and the Church is all too often identified with the latter. Big city cosmopolitans often fail to understand that this economic abandonment and social shaming of proud local cultures has opened up a fundamental divide in the UK.
Like the communities Sheppard was passionate to defend, the poorest communities today are ‘somewheres’; these are people living not only in the inner cities but now also in the post-industrial and coastal towns which will benefit most from investment in jobs and infrastructure, as the ‘Levelling Up’ agenda unfolds. The divine call to a ‘bias to the poor’ requires the Church to be prophetic in expressing its solidarity with these communities, in both words and action. Given how out of touch many churches have become, this will not be easy. It involves leaving the service provider posture behind in favour of genuine mutually respectful friendship.
Authentic prophecy always carries risk, because it requires the surrender of tribal allegiances and the speaking of words people do not want to hear, that even the prophet may find uncomfortable. As Jesus himself found, speaking the truth can be costly, bringing ostracism, ridicule and humiliation.
Would the Church be prophetic in calling for ‘an end to poverty’ through more generous state benefits and higher cash payments, or even the equivalent of Sheppard’s ‘social wage’? Perhaps, though it does not seem ‘prophetic’ to collude in another generation of families on welfare dependency. It sounds more like a capitulation to a politics of low expectations, like a Church still stuck in the politics of the 1980s, with an attachment to a worldview unable to offer the hope and the resistance needed in this new era.
Reflecting God’s love for the poor does not mean parking poor people in endless dependency on a beneficent welfare state. The dignity of work is a principle at the heart of Catholic Social Teaching and therefore the prophetic call may well be to move the debate on from ‘poverty’ to ‘economy’ and ‘work’, asking questions about why this particular economic model generates low wages and why the working poor is a growing category. Such a challenge would call for greater constraints on finance capital, dignified work for all, self-determination, and moral responsibility.
The prophetic call might also involve the local church congregation reimagining itself as a relational church, a ‘community of place’, committed to building relationships of solidarity with poor people in the neighbourhood and encouraging their leadership.
Rediscovering the true meaning of the common good would give the Church a framework, rooted in the Gospel, to help it discern its call to uphold the human person, to recognise the importance of relationship for reweaving the torn social fabric, and to demand economic reform which balances the interests of the whole population.
Building relationships and bridges across divides – economic, ethnic, social, religious – was at the heart of David Sheppard’s ministry and commitment to the poor. The challenge is to interpret that same commitment in today’s new context, and as he did, discover how to make it effective in the light of the Gospel and within our calling to seek first the Kingdom.
Andrew Bradstock and Jenny Sinclair
Andrew Bradstock is an emeritus professor of the University of Winchester and a former trustee of T4CG. His authorized biography of Bishop David Sheppard, Batting for the Poor, was published by SPCK in 2019.
Jenny Sinclair is founder and director of Together for the Common Good, and daughter of the late Bishop David Sheppard.
You may also be interested in:
by Jenny Sinclair for the Urban Mission Group, Churches Together England
 David Sheppard, Bias to the Poor, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1983.
 David Sheppard, Built as a City: God and the Urban World Today, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1974.
 See David Sheppard, The Other Britain, London: BBC, 1984 (the 1984 Richard Dimbleby Lecture).
 Bias to the Poor, pp. 133-4.
 Bias to the Poor, p. 124; ‘Any Questions?’, BBC Radio 4, 29 October 1982; The Other Britain, p. 13.
 Hansard, Lords, ‘Expenditure Cuts and The Public Services’, 8 April 1981, col. 547-8.
 Bias to the Poor, pp. 138-9.
 Bias to the Poor, p. 123; cf. Built as a City, p. 194.
 Bias to the Poor, p. 151.
 Bias to the Poor, pp. 155, 158.
 Peter Hinchliff, Theology, July 1983.
 Bias to the Poor, p. 70.
 Bias to the Poor, p. 50.
 Faith in the City: A Call for Action by Church and Nation. The Report of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas, London: Church House Publishing, 1985.
 Bias to the Poor, p. 137.
 David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, London: Hurst & Co, 2017.
This article was featured in T4CG’s Easter 2023 Newsletter. You can subscribe to our newsletter here
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