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"God answers my prayers everywhere except on the golf-course."

Billy Graham

David Sheppard, Batting for the poor

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Andrew Bradstock, London SPCK 2019. ISBN 978-0-281-08105-9

This well researched book has chapters of Sheppard’s early life, Cambridge, his curacy in North London, the Mayflower, Bishop of Woolwich and his time as Bishop of Liverpool, which accounts for a quarter of the book. There is a chronology of his life and career cricket stats at the end. The author sets out his approach in the introduction that “cricket and the church were interwoven in his life and must be treated as such. Thus writing separate chapters on each has been avoided”. Similarly the author regards Sheppard’s Christian faith as something that “infused his life including his passion to work for justice, reconciliation and the common good, and it cannot be compartmentalized”.

Sheppard had previously written two autobiographies Parson’s pitch and Steps along Hope Street on which the author could draw as well Sheppard’s personal papers, including 60 box files of correspondence– not to mention correspondence with and interviews of those who knew Sheppard at the various stages of his life. The author makes a point that having never met the subject he was qualified to bring an objective approach to the book.

For those looking for how faith and cricket interacted, there are two interesting examples. After becoming a Christian, he wondered whether it was right to spend so much time playing cricket. Some well-meaning Christians were quick to tell him that it wasn’t! However, he concluded that since “Jesus wants his followers in the middle of every walk of life. It was God’s will for me to give some years to playing cricket”. There is also an account to his time as captain of Sussex who were championship contenders when he ordered his bowlers to bowl leg stump to a leg-side field in order to restrict the opposition’s scoring and force a draw. The book states that he later “felt ashamed of his tactics and apologized to one of the opposing captains when the sides met again, a gesture one commentator attributed to the seriousness with which he took his faith. Sheppard was to refer to those matches as his most unhappy memory of cricket”.

There is some discussion of the development of his faith. He underwent an “evangelical” conversion at Cambridge, which is described in details and was very involved in Iwerne camps. The book describes the ethos of the evangelical movement of which he was a member in the 1950s as one which: “discouraged its members from taking an interest in social or political questions seeing this as a distraction from the core business of making new converts” and from activities like ballet, fiction and debating. When he wrote his first autobiography in 1964, he saw himself as “a Christian trying to work out his faith in the worlds of cricket and in ministry in East London”.

At the time when his name was thought to have been in the frame for consideration as an Archbishop, the author comments: “Whether Sheppard remained an evangelical is a moot point. The question may not have troubled him. He disliked labels, considering them misleading”. The author suggests that “At Cambridge he understood the kingdom largely in spiritual terms: it required people to be ‘born again’ to enter its gates. By the time he was at Woolwich he thought the gospel was also about lifting one’s horizons ‘to what God wants the world to be like and what He wants us to be like as His responsible partners’.

One important example of his theological thought is mentioned: “Sheppard also became unhappy in later life, with what he called ‘the dogma… of a wrathful God punishing an innocent Christ’ … a more helpful interpretation of Christ’s suffering on cross, Sheppard believed, could be found in a verse from St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. This placed an emphasis on God initiating a process of reconciliation with humanity. He thought that this not only took away the idea of God punishing his Son but could inspire people to seek to repair divisions even when the fault lay with the other”.

In Liverpool he played a full part in the community, working closely with the City leaders and playing a full part in the Heysel and Hillsborough disasters. Not everyone agreed with his priorities; the book quotes a local vicar who advised a colleague who wanted a meeting with the bishop, that the best way to “see” him was to switch his TV on. The book presents a balanced view of the man – a compassionate Christian leader but with a driven and ruthless streak. He was accused of neglecting leading the diocese in favour of national and ecumenical projects. An incident is recounted of a visitor who travelled from London to Liverpool for an appointment, who arrived late and was told that the bishop had no time to see him. The book describes how his wife, Grace, suffered from some mental health issues, suggesting that her condition was not helped by his uncompromising lifestyle.

It is a very readable book which gives a real insight into the England cricketer and Bishop of Liverpool. The Yorkshire Post’s review of Steps Along Hope Street suggested that the bishop’s second autobiography “tried to cater for too many tastes…(being) as much political and sociological as ecclesiastical and cricketing too? ‘The many ingredients make it a heavy pudding and the pudding is too filling”. One might say that some of the same assessment could be applied to David Sheppard, Batting for the poor.

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