David Sheppard, in his years in Liverpool, worked hand-in-glove with the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool, Derek Worlock (a third of all Catholics in England are in the province of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool) , and between them they transformed the attitude of the city. When they both arrived, within a few months of each other, they found a city that was still sectarian: it had both the largest Orange Lodge, the Protestant community, outside Ireland, and also the largest branch of Sinn Fein, the nationalist political wing of the then IRA outside of IReland. It was a place of riots. John Lennon sung Imagine – “Imagine there is no heaven” – was written after watching the inter-sectarian fighting in Liverpool. Yet Sheppard and Worlock lived together in harmony, met and prayed together, and set an example which transformed the life of that city and transformed the attitudes of Britain to sectarian difference. In the 1980s there were great riots, the worst riots that Britain has seen until 2011. They tackled with prophetic and powerful words the appalling poverty into which the city had sunk, and they never let up in their work for the common good.
That, as we know, is the theme of this conference, and I want to to explore very briefly some of its more awkward theological angles, to set some context for the next few days.
First of all, to use the old phrase of liberation theology, is God’s bias to the poor. It is very clear in the New Testament reading that we’ve just heard read. We often hear it in our culture as a rather agreeable and heart-warming little ditty about good news for the poor. In the exceptionally hierarchical and deeply unequal society of the time of Jesus it was provocative in the extreme. He had taken the passage, and claimed that in him alone was it fulfilled. It is no wonder that there was outrage.