This article was first published in Crucible: The Christian Journal of Social Ethics, in July 2014. Reproduced by kind permission of the author and the publisher. 

In pursuit of the Common Good: David Sheppard and Derek Worlock, and the 1981 Toxteth Riots

The relationship between David Sheppard, Anglican Bishop of Liverpool and his Catholic counterpart, Archbishop Derek Worlock is legendary. Based upon a genuine friendship and belief that society would be more effectively served by their full co-operation with one another, they were known throughout Britain for the statesman-like behaviour with which they defended the poor and marginalised of Liverpool. From the start of their working relationship in 1976, they provided a ‘voice for those not normally able to make themselves heard.’[1] David Sheppard described their working relationship thus: ‘we did not agree about everything, but shared deeply the central truths of the Gospel. Derek’s commitment to the Gospel message of loving our neighbour made him speak out when he saw disadvantaged people being shut out of decent opportunities in housing, education or jobs. Our partnership did not “just happen”. Each and every week we made time to talk through current issues. Derek would often ring up and say “We must go and see so and so”. We would go together, to visit trades unionists or management, city councilors or government ministers.’[2] Their trust in one another was such that they frequently spoke and acted on each other’s behalf, [3] and the people of Liverpool came ‘to expect the Churches to act together.’ [4] The basis for this relationship and its subsequent expression lay in their faith and a commitment to the realisation of the Common Good within society which brought with it a determination that each person should be permitted to contribute to the community and fulfill their God-given potential. The 1981 Toxteth Riots, or the Liverpool 8 Uprising as the locals called it, provide an excellent case study of their work together and how they sought to translate these ideas of the Common Good, so prevalent in Christian teaching, into the pastoral reality with which they were faced.

‘to stand alongside the poor’: the understanding of the Common Good in Sheppard and Worlock’s partnership [5]

The Common Good is not a concept that can be easily defined. Although present in the vocabulary of the Catholic Church from the Pontificate of Leo XIII, it was not until the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the promulgation of Gaudium et Spes that something resembling a definition was provided. This stated that the Common Good was ‘the sum of those conditions which allow individuals and groups to achieve their proper purposes more fully and quickly.’[6] Within Anglican theology, ideas concerning the Common Good can be found in experiences of urban ministry, which speaks of ‘a spiritual belief in the power and creativity of people whatever their circumstances, to be empowered by the redeeming work of God in Christ, to experience new life in the gift of the Spirit, and to express that new life both in moral change and in projects of social and community transformation in urban neighbourhoods.’[7] Thus, both the Anglican and Catholic traditions have an imperative for the Church to assist all people in achieving their full, God-given potential.  Both Sheppard and Worlock viewed their vocations in these terms. Worlock, in his role as peritus during Vatican II, assisted in the drafting of Gaudium et Spes alongside Karol Wojtyla.  According to his biographer ‘this remained for him the most exciting of the council’s documents’ with its demand to make the world ‘more worthy of the surpassing dignity of man (sic), to aspire to a wider and deeper brotherhood (sic) and under the impulse of love to try generously together to respond to the urgent demands of our age.’ [8]  Sheppard also viewed his Christian vocation in these terms: ‘God the Creator made people in His own image: that includes His purpose that all of us should be able in some sense to put our stamp on the world and to know that we have the power to make choices which will affect our destiny and that of others’ [9]

In the promotion of the Common Good context is key. On arrival in their new bishoprics, Sheppard and Worlock were confronted with a city in decline and crisis. According to one commentator in 1980, the socio-economic situation was so dire that ‘Liverpool looks set to become the Jarrow of the 1980s.’[10] Sheppard and Worlock knew that they had to minister to this context and strongly believed that they had to do so in a way relevant to the city rather than remaining within a suburban or middle-class silo as the Churches had often been accused of doing.[11] For example, in With Hope in Our Hearts they stated: ‘It would have been a betrayal of our responsibilities not to apply Gospel principles to the needs and injustices afflicting those who we have been called to serve in the challenging and stressful years we have been together in Liverpool.’[12] This concept of the Common Good, with its emphasis on the achievement of human potential, became an umbrella term under which they placed a number of concepts that were central to their partnership. The most important of these focused upon the poor or disadvantaged of the city and manifested itself in the practice of what is now known in the Catholic Church as the ‘preferential option for the poor’ or as Sheppard preferred ‘bias to the poor’. It was from a belief in this concept and its rootedness in the Gospel that all of the practical applications of their work emerged. This meant speaking out for the poor and standing alongside them by putting their needs above all others, in order that a more just and equal society be created. Sheppard summed up their approach to this issue in an interview given to Merseybeat, the Merseyside Police Force’s magazine, in the aftermath of the 1981 riots:

I feel deeply for police officers doing an increasingly complex and dangerous job on behalf of us all. At the same time I am called to make a special effort to stand in the shoes of those who are disadvantaged and who feel alienated from the comfortable and successful parts of our society.[13]

This language is quite telling, with words such as alienation and disadvantage being key to their role in Liverpool.[14]

However, as their actions during and after the 1981 Toxteth Riots demonstrate, they did much more than stand in solidarity with the poor and disadvantaged by speaking out on their behalf.  For Sheppard and Worlock, the Common Good also entailed the concept of subsidiarity: the idea that communities should be encouraged and enabled to act for themselves and that power should reside not with the political classes and police, but with the residents of Liverpool 8 themselves.  ‘You cannot impose a solution on this community: it must be worked out with them.’[15] This understanding saw them support the establishment of the Liverpool Law Centre where they stood and walked alongside the poor by supporting them in answering the needs of the locality.  However, to this was added another important dimension, particular to Liverpool’s needs in the early 1980s: reconciliation. It would be no over-exaggeration to state that this one word underpinned their ministry:

It was following the worst night of fighting, while the smoke was still rising from burnt-out streets and vehicles, that Brian Redhead, from the BBC’s Today studio, put the direct question: ‘What is the Church’s role in all this?’ In replying with the one word ‘reconciliation’, we were setting ourselves a role for the years ahead which has been as difficult as it has been important.[16]

They argued that relationships between different sections of the community in Liverpool (the police, residents of Liverpool 8, and the political classes in the case of the riots) had broken down to such an extent that they needed to be consciously rebuilt in order for the Common Good to be achieved. Their approach saw them strive to listen to all members of the community whilst promoting the Gospel message of reconciliation to them.  It is to this role in the aftermath of the riots that we will now turn.  

‘Steps towards healing’: Worlock and Sheppard’s reaction to the Toxteth Riots. [17]

The summer of 1981 saw massive civil unrest break out on the streets of Britain. Following on from events in the St Paul’s district of Bristol in April 1980, amongst others Brixton in London, Moss Side in Manchester and Toxteth in Liverpool (all areas with substantial black communities) erupted into violence.  Liverpool was one of the worst affected cities. By the end of July, one disabled man had been killed by a police van, 500 people had been arrested, 470 police officers had been injured, 70 buildings had been burnt down and CS gas had been deployed for the first time in Britain.[18]  During the later stages of the riots, Sheppard and Worlock were on the ground in Toxteth and engaged in attempts with the leaders of the black community to quell the violence.[19] This role was made possible by the work of the local churches and their leaders, such as Fr. Austin Smith, who had become trusted figures within the community and who provided Sheppard and Worlock with vital information and the credibility required to speak for the poor and disadvantaged. However, it was their behaviour in the aftermath of the events that demonstrates their commitment to the Common Good and the methods used to ensure its establishment. For Sheppard and Worlock, the riots were fundamentally caused by the disenfranchisement of locals in Liverpool 8 where ‘there was a feeling of powerlessness, of having no say in the way in which their lives were run.’[20] The complete breakdown in police/community relations, the scale of unemployment and the neglect of L8 infrastructure combined to cause such feelings.[21]  If Toxteth people were to fulfill their potential, this alienation must be overcome through reconciliation. The key would be listening to the needs of all those involved. Sheppard and Worlock therefore became bridge-builders, working to ensure that the community in L8 had a voice and mechanisms through which that voice could be heard, and ensuring that the more systemic problems were addressed by those in power.

The most immediate problem was the issue that had sparked nearly all of the urban disturbances that year: police/community relations. As Scarman put it: ‘Relations between the police and the black community in Toxteth, as was made plain to me when I visited Liverpool, are in a state of crisis.’[22] Indeed, all of the analyses of the causes of the riots by local organisations place a greater emphasis upon this issue than any other. The policing methods employed were certainly problematic. Victimization of young blacks and heavy-handed policing were common, as was the routine abuse of the stop and search or ‘sus’ laws by the Merseyside Constabulary. [23] Sheppard argued that the resolution of the issue was vital to reconciliation: ‘it is crucial that the police establish better relations with the whole community. That must include allowing honest criticisms to be heard. At the same time they have a more dangerous job than ever.’[24] Two weeks after the riots, Worlock was approached by Kenneth Oxford, the Chief Constable, and asked to chair a meeting between the community and police that would offer ‘a free and frank exchange in the hope of restoring better relationships.’[25] After consulting with the other church leaders and gaining their agreement, Worlock consented to this. His handling of the events related to this meeting demonstrates clearly the commitment of Sheppard and Worlock to the establishment of the Common Good and the centrality of reconciliation to this work. The meeting was subject to controversy and possible violence. Despite this, Worlock stood by his commitment and attended, achieving an agreement from those present to meet again.[26] Dialogue was the only way to achieve reconciliation between the police and the community and Worlock remained steadfast to this; later meeting alongside Sheppard with community leaders in Toxteth to explain their reasons for taking part. This demonstrated how balance was essential to their work for reconciliation: all members of the community (the police included) had to be listened to if society’s potential was to be achieved. The difficulties inherent in such an approach were further highlighted in late August 1981 when the British Council of Churches made a controversial  £500 grant to the Liverpool 8 Defence Committee. This was interpreted in the media as a gift from ‘the Churches’ and Sheppard and Worlock were immediately attacked, despite the fact that they had not been consulted about it.[27] They responded: ‘In trying to fulfill our difficult role of reconciliation, we ask understanding for this gesture of help towards those who have felt alienated from the rest of the community.’[28] Once more through this statement, we see the needs of the community being placed at the centre of their ministry as they argued that this grant was an acknowledgement of the deprivation and alienation experienced in Liverpool,[29] thus rebalancing society.

As their involvement in the creation of the Liverpool Law Centre demonstrated, Sheppard and Worlock’s work for the Common Good did not just involve chairing meetings and undertaking difficult negotiations between parties in dispute with one another. The riots had opened up ‘much larger questions about race relations in the city and [demonstrated] the serious degree of unacknowledged racism in Liverpool’.[30] There is a good deal of evidence to support this claim. The black community’s association with Liverpool was long standing and they constituted approximately 8 per cent of the population; but this had ‘not increased their ability to enter into the social and economic mainstream of the city.’[31] Their employment rates within the City Council provide an excellent illustration of this: in September 1982, of 29,908 employees, only 272 were black and of the 7,703 teachers in the city, only 79 were black.[32] The Merseyside Community Relations Commission estimated that 60-70 per cent of young blacks were facing long-term joblessness.[33] In addition, access to housing and education was also severely limited for the black community.

The Liverpool Law Centre was a community-led initiative designed to help alleviate such inequality and provide a place ‘where potentially explosive issues might be defused and where legal advice might be available.’[34] Sheppard and Worlock used their contacts and influence to ensure the success of this initiative; working to reassure those who expressed doubts about the Centre and securing the support of likely allies.[35] Although, they were central in the negotiations and fundraising that enabled the foundation of the Centre, their belief in the principle of subsidiarity and its relationship to the Common Good was evident. Thus, they were insistent that the leadership, like the idea for the initiative, come from within the community itself.  In the longer- term, this was also viewed as a step towards reconciliation, allowing those previously alienated from society through their dealings with the legal system ‘to believe that the law could be a friend and not a foe.’[36] Finally, their support of the Centre was also an example of their work for the fundamental purpose of the Common Good: enabling people to achieve their full potential. They hoped that ‘the law centre could be a stepping stone towards the possibility of lawyers emerging from the black community.’[37] This hope was fulfilled.

Sheppard and Worlock were also concerned to challenge the economic structures in society which inhibited the achievement of the Common Good and which had, in some part, been responsible for the riots. By 1981 Liverpool, once the country’s second most important port, looked set to become Britain’s first deindustrialized city. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, it became a testing ground for a multitude of urban generation initiatives.[38] Between 1971 and 1985, employment in the city fell by 33 per cent and unemployment levels were invariably twice the national average, standing at 20 per cent in 1981 compared to 10 per cent nationally.[39] In many other ways, Liverpool was a centre of urban decline with some of the worst examples of urban dereliction in the country. By 1981, 15 per cent of property lay derelict with little chance of economic regeneration occurring to reverse the trend. To deal with such socio-economic deprivation, Sheppard and Worlock lobbied both William Whitelaw and Margaret Thatcher to appoint a Minister for Merseyside. They envisaged that this would be ‘someone who would come and listen to a not always coherent voice, but who would be seen to share the people’s concern.’[40] Again, the idea of enabling the people of Liverpool to have a say in their future was central and this was seen as a means of healing the broken relationship between Liverpool 8 in particular and central government. Michael Heseltine, Secretary of State for the Environment, was duly appointed in July 1981. On his appointment he set out his plans: ‘The recent events on Merseyside are … a challenge to us to reappraise our approach to the problems, to see whether what is already being done can be done better, whether the resources available are being deployed to the best possible effect, and what more can be done, if resources can be made available.’[41] He therefore set out to break the ‘culture of failure’ that had damaged Liverpool’s reputation and address the high rates of unemployment and lack of economic investment that had plagued the city for so long. Schemes established by the newly formed Merseyside Task Force included the Wavertree Technology Park and the International Garden Festival. But, it was Sheppard and Worlock’s aspirations for the Minster for Merseyside that tells us most about their vision of the Common Good: community life, often the first victim of urban regeneration, was to be preserved and ‘in our opinion, there was need for the encouragement of affirmation, validation and investment if such instances were to be developed. … We asked him if he was willing to risk giving money to projects in deeply hurt areas, where perhaps as much as fifty per cent of the finance offered might be wasted.’[42] It was therefore important to Sheppard and Worlock that the local people felt involved in the schemes, had a sense of ownership over their direction and that they be given control over their own destinies. Such an approach was most likely to promote reconciliation and the Common Good. 

For Sheppard and Worlock, the Common Good meant rebalancing society and creating spaces in which everyone could contribute to the development of the community through the use of their talents and in doing so, fulfil their potential. In 1980s Liverpool, and in particular in the aftermath of events as traumatic as the riots, this was no easy task. But their faith, belief in the principles of their Churches’ social teachings and relationship with one another, gave them the strength and framework needed to approach such a mission.  Their approach to the fulfilment of the Common Good can be viewed as a short, medium and long-term process: The first, and most pressing, element needed to establish the Common Good was reconciliation, as without healing the broken relationships in the city, nothing could be achieved.  Thus, by engaging with all sections of the community through their involvement in the police-community meetings, they hoped to start a dialogue in which everyone was listened to and respected and from which eventually more constructive relationships would flow.  However, more positive relationships could not be achieved without the empowerment of the alienated sections of society. As their support of the Liverpool Law Centre demonstrates, Sheppard and Worlock believed that the community in Liverpool 8 had to feel a sense of possession over its destiny. Once this ownership was felt and achieved, people could start to realise their potential, as the emergence of lawyers from the black community demonstrates.  However, the Common Good remains a moot point for newly empowered communities without access to jobs, housing, and education.  Again, Sheppard and Worlock addressed this long-term difficulty by lobbying for the appointment of a Minister for Merseyside. The best measure of a theological concept is its translation into practice. In their promotion of the Common Good, Sheppard and Worlock proved themselves to be adept at this process, taking a vague term and building structures that would allow its fulfilment within the context of Liverpool. For them, the Common Good meant enabling people’s voices to be heard and allowing the fulfilment of potential. Whilst they may not have fully realised these aims, they created a society in which the Common Good became an expectation rather than an aspiration.

© Maria Power

Dr Maria Power is a fellow and member of the Las Casas Institute, at Blackfriars, Oxford. Her academic research focuses on the role that religions can play in ameliorating violence and ethnic conflict. Maria is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society at St Mary’s University and in 2019, she will be a Holland Visiting Fellow at the University of Durham. She was a member of the T4CG Steering Group from 2014-2016.

There is a longer version of the article with full academic references here, entitled Reconciling State and Society? The Practice of the Common Good in the Partnership of Bishop David Sheppard and Archbishop Derek Worlock.


  • [1] Sheppard, D. and Worlock, D. (1994), With Hope in Our Hearts: God’s Reconciling Love Reflected in a Unique Partnership, Hodder and Stoughton, p.18.
  • [2] The Guardian, 9 February 1996.
  • [3] ‘Handwritten note: August 1981’, Liverpool Record Office, Sheppard Papers, 920 SHP 10/14.
  • [4] With Hope in Our Hearts, p. 9.
  • [5] Worlock, D. and Sheppard, D. (1988), Better Together: Christian Partnership in a Hurt City, Penguin p. 75.
  • [6] Vatican Council II, Gaudium et Spes On the Church in the Modern World (1965), Catholic Truth Society, §26.
  • [7] Northcott, M. ‘Introduction’ in Northcott, (ed), Urban Theology A Reader, Cassell, pp. 1-7, 6.  
  • [8] Furnival, J and Knowles, A. (1998), Archbishop Derek Worlock His Personal Journey, Geoffrey Chapman, p. 120.
  • [9] Sheppard, D. (1983), Bias to the Poor, Hodder and Stoughton, p.12.
  • [10] Merseyside Socialist Research Group. (1980), Merseyside in Crisis, Birkenhead, p. 10.
  • [11] See Northcott, ‘Introduction’, pp. 3-5 for a précis of these criticisms in the Church of England and The Times, 10 August 1981 for the Catholic Church.
  • [12] With Hope in Our Hearts, p. 19.
  • [13] ‘Article for Merseybeat’, Liverpool Record Office, Sheppard Papers, 920 SHP 10/14, January 1982.
  • [14] See for example With Hope in Our Hearts, pp. 18 and 22, and The Guardian, 29 March 1991.
  • [15] With Hope in Our Hearts, p. 19.
  • [16] Better Together, p. 170.
  • [17] Better Together, p. 181.
  • [18] BBC News, ‘Toxteth Riots’, 28 June 2006,, accessed 5 March 2014.
  • [19] Better Together, pp. 165-168.
  • [20] Better Together, p. 169.
  • [21] For an example of their analysis see ‘Gore Memorial Lecture – 1981’ Liverpool Record Office, Sheppard Papers, 920 SHP 10/14, November 1981.
  • [22] Scarman, L. (1981) The Scarman Report, Pelican, p. 32.
  • [23] Frost, D and Phillips, R. eds. (2011) Liverpool ’81 Remembering the Riots, Liverpool University Press, see particularly pp. 30-64.
  • [24] ‘Gore Memorial Lecture – 1981’ Liverpool Record Office, Sheppard Papers, 920 SHP 10/14, November 1981.
  • [25] Better Together, p. 172.
  • [26] Better Together, p. 172.
  • [27] Daily Express, 28 August 1981.
  • [28] Liverpool Daily Post 28 August 1981.
  • [29] Steps Along Hope Street, p. 215.
  • [30] Parkinson, M. (1985) Liverpool on the Brink: One city’s struggle against Government cuts, Policy Journals Ltd, p.15.
  • [31] Parkinson, M. and Russell, H. (1994) Economic Attractiveness and Social Exclusion: The Case of Liverpool European Institute of Economic Affairs, p. 14.
  • [32] Gifford, A. Brown, W. and Budley, R. (1989) Loosen the Shackles: First Report of the Liverpool 8 Enquiry into Race Relations in Liverpool, Karia Press, p.53.
  • [33] Murden, J. ‘”City of Change and Challenge”: Liverpool Since 1945’ in Belchem, J. ed. (2007) Liverpool 800 Culture, Character and History, Liverpool University Press, pp. 393-485, 442.
  • [34] Better Together, p. 187.
  • [35] Steps Along Hope Street, pp. 217-218.
  • [36] Steps Along Hope Street, p. 218.
  • [37] Steps Along Hope Street, p. 218.
  • [38] Murden, ‘Liverpool Since 1945’ p. 428.
  • [39] Parkinson and Russell, Economic Attractiveness, p. 11.
  • [40] Better Together, p. 179.
  • [41] ‘Notes of Speech Made by Heseltine’, National Archives, London, PREM/19/577, 15 July 1981.
  • [42] Better Together, p.181.