Recommended books, Sport, Theology & Church

‘David Sheppard: Batting for the Poor’ – by Andrew Bradstock [review]

batting-for-the-poor-by-andrew-bradstock.jpgDavid Sheppard scored more runs in a single season, and more centuries as a student, than anyone else in the history of Cambridge University cricket. 

Such was his talent that he was selected for England’s 1950/51 Ashes tour of Australia at the end of his first year as a student.

But, at the same time his sporting career was just starting to flourish, he experienced a decisive conversion to Christ at a student mission.

Batting for the Poor is a fascinating biography of his remarkable journey from famous cricketer to influential clergyman.

Key moment

After graduating, Sheppard played just one full season of county cricket with Sussex (as captain), before beginning training for ordination into the Church of England.  As Bradstock writes, “the moment he ’opened his heart and mind to Christ’ remains the key to understanding the whole of his life.”

Sheppard made a commitment to minister in the inner city and served a formative curacy at St Mary’s Church in Islington. He then went for 11 years to the East London docklands area, Canning Town, to run the Mayflower Family Centre.  He came to see “that the church needed to ask how it could serve people, rather than inform them what it could offer.”

These contexts engaged Sheppard into a culture very different to his privileged upbringing and he had to undergo a significant adjustment. For one thing, his fame as a cricketer counted for far less than it would in other contexts. But also, the first-hand experience of working class culture and poverty significantly affected both his conservative theology and his political outlook.

Cricketing comeback

Despite his busy ministry, Sheppard did not entirely give up cricket and over the next decade played with significant success for Sussex and England.  One of the most striking aspects of his early life is the ease with which he returned for spells to play top-class cricket after ordination. It illustrates the very different world of 1950s/early 60s cricket where talented amateurs like Sheppard were welcomed back into the fold whenever available.

Remarkably, after a gap of 5 years, he was recalled to the England team in 1962 versus Pakistan and was then selected for the 1962/63 Ashes series.  He played in every Test and scored 330 runs, including a century at Melbourne.

Social justice

Both Sheppard’s ministry and cricket careers were increasingly hallmarked by a concern for social and political justice. As early as 1960 he refused to play against South Africa’s all white teams. He then infuriated the majority of MCC members by forcing a Special General Meeting in 1968 to oppose England playing against South Africa under apartheid. His motion was defeated but it was a highly emotional and bitter meeting. The row cost him many friends, including his university and England teammate, Peter May.

As Desmond Tutu writes in the Foreword, however, these sporting interventions were very significant politically in the struggle against apartheid.  Sheppard’s stance may have lost him some old friends but it made him many new ones.

Liverpool

After leaving the Mayflower, Sheppard spent 6 year spell as Bishop of Woolwich and lived in Peckham. In 1975 Sheppard began a 26 year term as Bishop of Liverpool. His impact on the city was immense. In a city known as ‘England’s Belfast’, he bridged the sectarian divide with Catholics and consistently advocated for economic investment. He played a key role in helping heal wounds after the Toxteth riots and the football tragedies of Hysel and Hillsborough.

Sheppard was a key driver of the Faith in the City report which famously angered Margaret Thatcher’s government and which Bradstock argues significantly influenced national urban policy.  His concerns about the inner city won him enemies closer to home too. One of his vicars in a more leafy area complained ‘If you’re not poor, black or unemployed he doesn’t want to know’.  Other clergy begrudged his high media profile ‘Its easy to see your Bishop in Liverpool. All you have to do is turn on the television.’

Informed and inspiring

This a superb biography. Andrew Bradstock writes with a great economy and confidence because he clearly has such a deep understanding of the divergent areas relevant to Sheppard’s life.  He grasps the nuances of the worlds of top-class cricket, conservative evangelicalism, the C of E and the Church’s social and political engagement. He does not ‘tell’ the reader what to think but deftly presents a balanced and thoughtful account of Sheppard’s remarkable journey.

He also avoids hagiography which is the curse of ‘Christian biographies’. He fairly critiques Sheppard’s leadership style and the impact his ‘patrician manner’ could have on others.  He is honest about the challenges Sheppard’s family faced and discusses the impact of his decisions on his wife’s mental health problems. He quotes John Woodcock, who wrote that ‘ambition and virtue could be seen vying for supremacy’ in Sheppard.

This is biography of the very highest order: informed, honest and inspiring. A brilliantly crafted account of a fascinating and unique life. Highly recommended.

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