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notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Monday, May 23, 2005A day for remembering
I remember the day a giant of a man shook my hand in a dusty Baptist church hall after an ecumenical event, way back in an era where ecumenism was cutting-edge and Liverpool a laboratory of justice and change. The man was a bishop yet he was wearing an MCC tie, and he engaged our small group of spotty youths with conversation about sports.
I remember the day I took from a shelf of Crosby Library a well-worn copy of Built as a City, the text of a man born in privileged circumstances starting to describe the processes which led him to align himself with society's outsiders, of a leading sportsman beginning to make his mark as a massively influential urban church leader. A theology which was new to me - which saw God in the concrete as a collaborator with the poor.
I remember the day I sat on the damp grass at a 1980s Greenbelt, engrossed in a seminar debating a Christian response to unemployment - which was so pertinent to me and my gathered friends, out-of-work in Liverpool at that time - and glancing around, seeing our bishop and his wife, wrapped up in wooly jumpers, sitting against marquee poles, equally engaged with the subject in hand.
I remember the day I knelt at David Sheppard's feet, me a thirty-something churchgoer some way towards responding to an ache to follow him into urban ministry, an outsider to the Church of England until that moment, when he held his hands over me and said, "Confirm, O Lord, your servant John with your Holy Spirit."
More than anything I remember the hot summer afternoon in 1997 when Bishop David summoned me to his home to take some time to listen to me talk about my journey towards ordained ministry, and to say a prayer for me as I prepared to begin. It was not small talk; in fact we spent a good while discussing in some detail P.J. Waller's classic text, Democracy and Sectarianism: a Political and Social History of Liverpool, 1868-1939, which I'd been reading and he obviously knew well. An hour in leafy Woolton which sent me on my way towards the city well and truly affirmed in my sense of calling.
I remember some time after that being asked to read a lesson at his retirement service at Liverpool Cathedral. His wife Grace read the first lesson and the RC Archbishop of Liverpool the third; three thousand people heard us. I was a humble ordinand, unsure to this day why I was chosen to read. It was an example of David's eye for the small ones and heart for encouragement.
I shall remember today also, the day of the Service of Thanksgiving for Bishop David's life and work. I travelled in with Pip and Joan, who like David gave years of life and service to the people of Canning Town through the Mayflower Centre, and who in turn influenced folks like me to see the value in such devotion. Again, the cathedral was full.
A good selection of David's co-workers from over the years gave warm, amusing and insightful tributes to this extraordinary man; rousing and sensitive songs were sung; David's ordination bible and his cricket bat were brought to the altar by a member of the L'Arche community and a young local cricketer; David's daughter Jenny thanked us for forming her father into the great man he was; the Archbishop of Canterbury blessed the gathering and balloons fell on the processing clergy at the end.
Two sets of words stood out for me - a colleague echoing the question of a taxi driver: "Why midday on a working day when the ordinary people of the city can't make it?", a sentiment I feel David Sheppard would embrace; and Sir Mark Hedley's story of David and Grace standing with a group of Everton residents attempting to serve injunctions to stop demolition of houses they dearly wanted to keep - a story which had everything: class humour, devotion to justice, solidarity with the poor.
Today's extraordinary occasion was to me a reminder of what this strange journey I'm on is meant to be about. I doubt I'd be on it at all were it not for David Sheppard.