Just as their faces are firmly cast in the bronze panels of their Hope Street memorial, the names of Derek Worlock and David Sheppard will forever be etched into the history of the city of Liverpool. It was their legacy that brought delegates from across the United Kingdom to Liverpool's Hope University for a major conference last weekend (6-8 September) Together for the Common Good
. Its purpose was to celebrate and reflect on the work that they and others did together, but more importantly to explore the role and purpose of Christian partnership and co-operation today.
Sheppard and Worlock came to the fore at a crucial time in Liverpool's life. The city was in political turmoil and economic meltdown, community relations hit an all-time low, exemplified by the Toxteth riots; but in the words of one conference speaker this became a "crisis of opportunity." It was perhaps, only the Church that had the moral capacity and authority to provide the leadership and intervention that was needed at the time. But it was the fact that the two men had already been willing to cross a religious divide and seek to heal the sectarian wounds of the city's Christian community, that brought a strength and credibility to their response.
Hindsight is a reality that we often speak of in terms of its benefit, but there are times when rather than seeing how things are, it is useful to engage with how they used to be. Hearing the early stories of Sheppard and Worlock's interaction highlights how far we have come since.
The cross-denominational co-operation that was so radical at the time is largely perceived as the norm today. Many speakers from the era were also keen to highlight the role of Free Church Leaders in that collaboration, including the Baptist Superintendent at the time, the Revd Keith Hobbs. It is vital that we continue to invest in these relationships and not take them for granted, lest we lose the capacity to bring about significant change and leadership in our society today.
One reason for this renewed focus on the work of Sheppard, Warlock and their contemporaries might be that today's political and social landscape increasingly resembles the one in which their intervention was so significant. There were inevitable conversations about welfare cuts, bedroom tax and the like, and a key question for churches is how to respond both in campaigning for social justice as policy is made and responding to the needs and inequalities that are likely to result.
Speaking at the conference, NWBA Regional Minister and member of the Baptist Union's Steering Group the Revd Phil Jump spoke of a need to re-define Common Good in the language that people understand. Responding to a question about the relative costs of the Trident missile programme and welfare provision he argued for an approach that recognises that those who make decisions over these things believe themselves to be acting in the interests of wellbeing.
'The task for the Church is not to convince people of the need to seek good, as though our nation's leaders and policy makers are intrinsically set on evil, but to articulate with greater clarity what Common Good is,' he said. 'We cannot complain if others set the values of society when they have only done so in the face of our silence.'
The Revd Ruth Gee, current president of the Methodist Conference, highlighted the work done by the Free Churches Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT) in raising public awareness and creating genuine change in the political rhetoric surrounding issues of poverty and deprivation. The report Truth and Lies
is the outcome of a longstanding collaboration between the Baptist Union, United Reform and Methodist Churches and the Church of Scotland.
In the conference's final session, Mr Jump spoke of days gone-by when Gladstone and other politicians sent observers to the Baptist Assembly to test the likely direction of the non-conformist vote. He challenged the conference to work together over the next two years to create such a commitment to the Common Good within the awareness of today's electorate, that politicians of every shade could not help but draw up their manifestos for the next election with this in mind.
There is no doubt that a generation on, Sheppard and Warlock remain as defining figures of the Church's engagement in the life of our nation and its communities. If nothing else this conference serves to remind Baptist Christians of the need to explore our own role in addressing the realities of our world.
Together For The Common Good
Can Christians help shape the political debate with a General Election on the horizon? Phil Jump reflects on the conference