The Revd Nigel Uden, Moderator of the United Reformed Church General Assembly, explains how reading about ‘wilderness’ and ‘vineyard’ people has inspired him
A recent reading highlight has been Andrew Bradstock’s authorised biography of David Sheppard, Batting for the Poor. Sheppard was a one-time first-class cricketer, and later, Anglican Bishop of Liverpool. Bradstock has a close association with the United Reformed Church, having twice served as its Secretary for Church and Society. His book is a fascinating account of a life that was at once passionate about batting for England, and for England’s poor.
As well regarded as his sporting life was, Sheppard would become one of the highest profile Christians in Britain in the last quarter of the 20th century. Alongside the kudos that being a sportsman afforded, he was never priest of a very ordinary parish. Having a privileged background that included education at Sherborne School and the University of Cambridge, he surprised many by focussing throughout his ministry on inner city contexts and having a sincere ‘bias to the poor’.
Sheppard arrived in a 1970s Liverpool that was experiencing many challenges. In Bradstock’s words, it ‘was a region grappling with economic decline, sectarianism and a deficit of hope.’ Sheppard’s earlier ministries, at St Mary’s Islington, at the Mayflower Family Centre in Canning Town, and as Bishop of Woolwich, prepared him for 22 Merseyside years – years of remarkable community leadership, after which he was awarded the Freedom of the City. Bradstock records how Sheppard and Grace, his wife, felt they had ‘become infected with the magic of Liverpool, which makes us want to write, to paint, to sing and to share in its life’.
But Sheppard’s Liverpool episcopate was not a one-person show. It is forever associated with Derek Warlock, the Roman Catholic Archbishop who was granted the city’s freedom at the same time. Moreover, the ecumenical embrace was wider than the two of them, and included successive moderators of the URC’s Mersey Synod: John Williamson and Graham Cook. Some of Sheppard’s Church of England colleagues apparently felt he was more interested in ecumenical endeavour than he was in them. Be that as it may, as Sheppard and Warlock’s distinguished contribution to the regeneration of Merseyside was acknowledged, Sheppard said: ‘This honour is … a recognition that you see the churches as comrades in arms in the life of Liverpool’.
Warlock and Sheppard regarded one another as brothers in Christ. They collaborated in many ways, among them, writing together. Though dedicated to the social issues of the city, they were also profoundly spiritual people. Sheppard’s roots were evangelical, and that remained a discernible element of his faith. In 1990, the Bible Reading Fellowship published a book of Lenten meditations by both Warlock and Sheppard, titled With Christ in the Wilderness. The book contained a Bible passage, a reflection and a prayer for each of the 40 days. Drawing on the book’s title, Bradstock explains how a mentor of Sheppard’s used to speak of ‘wilderness’ and ‘vineyard’ people in the Old Testament: ‘The wilderness was where God would be revealed and where there were clear boundaries of right and wrong, while the vineyard depicted the settled life of the nation of Israel, where ethical decisions about justice in the community might be more complex. The premise of the book was that vineyard people need sometimes to withdraw into the wilderness to renew their clear vision of God.’
I think you may be able to tell that I warmly commend Andrew Bradstock’s book. Among the sections that have helped me most is this wilderness/vineyard point. I find it speaking to the URC I have come to know better as I have travelled around it these past 18 months. Alongside so much that is effective and fruitful, there is a sense in the URC that we are in a wilderness. It’s not one to which we have deliberately taken ourselves, but toward which circumstances in both the Church and the world have moved us over many decades.
I have almost never come across a URC context where there is a lack of commitment. We are a Church rich in able and dedicated people. Yet, we are very small compared with 50 years ago. Our place in society is lower profile, and there is a widely held view that we are called to change quite radically if we are to be as effective for the future as our forebears were in days gone by. It is not always a comfortable place, and yet I see it as a gift. If we are sagely to discern what God is beckoning us to become for the future, do we not need ‘to withdraw into the wilderness to renew [our] clear vision of God’? While the URC hasn’t reached where we are deliberately, maybe it is necessary for us deliberately to place ourselves in that wilderness of self examination and prayer, where the vision that once defined us can be reimagined for tomorrow.
Later in February, Lent will begin, which is often a period to reflect on Jesus in the wilderness. The Gospels suggest that Jesus experienced the wilderness as a place of both temptation and revelation. In our contemporary wilderness, we too can be tempted: tempted to bury our heads in the sand; tempted to disillusion, even despair; tempted to hide behind busyness; tempted to trust our resourcefulness. Being Moderator has prodded me into a wilderness different from any of that. It’s the wilderness where I open myself to discover and learn what it is God calls us to be as the URC for the next season of our life. In truth, I do not know what that is. It’s precisely why I feel the need to hold in tension our time in the vineyard and that in the wilderness.
Nigel Uden, February 2020