Bridge-building leadership

In this period of polarisation there is much discussion about the contribution churches can make to heal divides. In Liverpool a generation ago, a bridge-building partnership between church leaders provided the inspiration for Together for the Common Good, and still serves as a source of encouragement to many today. Here, Andrew Bradstock, author of the authorised biography of the late David Sheppard, reflects on the role of the celebrated cricketer and bishop in the partnership.

David Sheppard received many honorary degrees and fellowships from universities, but one he initially found puzzling was a doctorate in technology. This was from Liverpool Polytechnic, later to become Liverpool John Moores University, and the reason for his surprise, as he told the Vice Chancellor, was that he couldn’t even mend a plug. The VC’s reply was both clever and telling: ‘Ah, but you’re a bridge builder’.

Building bridges was indeed something Sheppard was committed to. In every context he looked to find ways to bring people together. As a young curate in Islington, or as warden of the Mayflower Family Centre in Canning Town, he worked to link the church with the community. He described his home as a ‘bridge’ where people could meet. He spoke of ‘building bridges of friendship’, of keeping ‘bridges of contact’ open. He saw the Christian gospel in terms of making connections and building just relationships. Jesus came, not only to break down the barrier between God and human beings, but also to overcome estrangement between people. Promoting peace and reconciliation was a profoundly Christian calling. We are ‘members one of another’ he liked to say, quoting St Paul (Rom. 12.5), we are created to thrive in interdependence.

Sheppard always tried to avoid disputes becoming personal. Before he entered the Church, he had been an England test cricketer, and had deep differences with fellow players over his stance on boycotting South Africa under apartheid. Later, as a bishop, he challenged politicians on how to tackle issues such as poverty, unemployment and bad housing. But he always looked for ways to restore friendships and heal divisions. When he became Bishop of Liverpool in 1975 he found a city and region riven by painful rifts, some longstanding. The deepest was between the Catholic and Protestant communities, which had been at loggerheads for 200 years, sometimes quite violently. He found tensions between the black community and the police which might spill over into unrest, and within industry, when a factory relocated and more people became unemployed. He encountered division between local and central government, between a city council run by Militant and the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher.

Sheppard’s commitment to building bridges did not waver in the face of such challenges. He made it his mission to bring reconciliation across boundaries by addressing the causes, not just the symptoms. In the wake of the Toxteth riots he spoke publicly of the need for the police and the community to come together and talk, and worked behind the scenes to broker dialogue. He played a leading role in establishing a law centre to improve people’s contact with the police and to restore their confidence in justice. During one industrial dispute he kept negotiations from breaking down by holding discussions with both sides and creating a process for mediation which all accepted. Remarkably he worked to break down the sectarian divide, finding in Archbishop Derek Worlock, his Roman Catholic counterpart, a partner as committed to building bridges as himself.

In a city then described as ‘the Belfast of England’, the Sheppard-Worlock partnership was extraordinary. Recognising themselves as ‘brothers in Christ’, they took every opportunity to be seen together in public, consciously working to bridge the divide between their traditions. Hostility between their churches may have thawed a bit by the time they arrived, but still, they took risks by appearing together, indeed they had been warned ‘to leave well alone’ for fear of arousing old hostilities. Old suspicions were not far below the surface, but by patient example and conscious effort they brought the remaining barriers down and changed the culture for good. They made the idea of churches working together for the wellbeing of the city the ‘new normal’, a civic role that earned them enduring public affection. It is a measure of their achievement that, after nearly two centuries of bitter sectarian division in the city, they could say towards the end of their time that ‘people in Liverpool have come to expect the churches to act together’.

They have much to teach us in our own time of deep division. Bridges can be built, and old hostilities ended, when people in positions of leadership have the courage to listen, address root causes and encourage all sides to take responsibility for the common good. This involves, as Sheppard understood, reaching across differences, respecting different opinions and finding creative ways forward in shared purpose. To many, Sheppard was a ‘born leader’, but his was a model of Christian leadership which sought, not to take sides, or to promote the interests of his own institution, but to build bridges on which people could meet.

Andrew Bradstock

Andrew Bradstock is an emeritus professor of the University of Winchester and has been researching, teaching and writing about the relationship between faith, politics and social engagement for more than 30 years. After gaining degrees in Theology, Politics and Church History from the universities of Bristol, Kent and Otago, he lectured at colleges of higher education in Southampton and Winchester and held positions with the United Reformed Church and the Von Hügel Institute at Cambridge. From 2009-13 he was inaugural Howard Paterson Professor of Theology and Public Issues at the University of Otago where he established New Zealand’s first Centre for Theology and Public Issues.

Andrew Bradstock

David Sheppard: Batting for the Poor (SPCK, 2019), the authorised biography, is available via the SPCK website.


Header photo by kind permission of Stephen Shakeshaft.