28 April 2016
Anglican and Catholic partnership helped shape Liverpool's response to Hillsborough tragedy
The leaders of both faiths were not sons of the city but each served it well during the dark days after the tragedy in Sheffield
Liverpool is my favourite city. Like many southerners - I was brought up in London - whenever I've visited it I've felt the visceral magnetism of Liverpool's otherness. Opposite poles attract, though it doesn't always work so spontaneously the other way. This applied spectacularly to Bishop David Sheppard and Archbishop Derek Worlock. They were two southerners who were posted to the city more or less at the same time, and who were destined to try to help it through the trauma of Hillsborough. They had both struggled to adjust to the many differences between London and Merseyside, and it is fair to say Hillsborough cemented their bond. Not just to the people and the place, but between them. They were a unique pair, a partnership like no other.
I had the privilege of knowing both of them well, and I am convinced their total commitment to their adopted city was completely sincere. It was also the outcome of much hard work and soul-searching, and the final barriers of reserve were never entirely broken. Nevertheless the fact that two ex-public schoolboys from a long way south had come to love this unusual pocket of England was itself the key to their relationship with it.
As archetype, comfortably off middle-class middle-aged products of an elite education from the Home Counties were the very opposite of a typical working-class Scouser, whether Catholic, Protestant or neither, whether an Everton or Liverpool supporter - or a fan of Tranmere Rovers across the Mersey, the local minority taste. David Sheppard had captained England at cricket, not Liverpool's favourite sport; Derek Worlock's father had been Winchester's Conservative agent, not Liverpool's favourite party. Yet it worked.
Indeed it did, superbly. Both churchmen instinctively understood the meaning of solidarity, which was at the heart of Sheppard's socially committed Evangelical brand of politics and of Worlock's strong grasp of Catholic Social Teaching. Liverpool people also instinctively understood solidarity. It was in their very rainwater. So they had a deal. And it was already in place when the awful news came through from Sheffield on Sunday, April 15th, 1989, that a huge number of Liverpool football fans had been caught up in a horrific catastrophe that afternoon. Many had died, crushed and suffocated by the weight of fans behind them, an agonising public death shown live on television and witnessed by dozens of newspaper reporters and photographers.
In the week that followed the second, more sinister part of this tragedy started to unfold. Several tabloid newspapers, led by The Sun, decided to turn on the victims and blame them for their own deaths. They were fed these lies by the police and others in official positions, but there was nothing tentative nor journalistically sceptical about it, particularly in The Sun's coverage. It fell for the official cover-up because it wanted to believe it, and added startling and disgusting ingredients of its own. There has scarcely been a more disgraceful moment in British journalism.
And these were the wounds that David Sheppard and Derek Worlock had to try to heal. There is no other city in England where religion is so near the surface of everyday culture, nor where it would seem so natural and right that the local leaders of the Anglican and Catholic churches should step forward in the way they did. Derek Worlock immediately ordered a Requiem Mass to be said in the Metropolitan cathedral the very next day, and as 3,000 prayed inside, twice as many, drawn by rumour alone, gathered in the precincts for an improvised service of their own. David Sheppard hurried back just in time to attend the Mass within. Outside, a Salvation Army band played - the Liverpool football anthem "You'll never walk alone" especially - and the police lent a priest their loud hailer to lead the prayers. Spontaneously, a shrine of scarves and flowers took shape.
A week later it was the turn of the Anglican cathedral to hold a solemn memorial service, carefully prepared rather than improvised. Again with "You'll never walk alone" as a centre piece, but this time begun with a solo boy chorister breaking the silence, and the congregation then rising to its feet and joining in later verses to the crashing chords of the cathedral's huge organ. Catharsis is an overused word, but here it was revealed in its true meaning.
This epitomised what established religion in Britain does best - the organised and formal channelling of collective grief, uniting a community at one of its darkest moments. It may make such grief even more intense, because it is contained in an emotional space that is secure. That only makes it all the more affecting, all the more healing in the long term, but all the more open to misunderstanding as maudlin sentimentality or even collective hysteria. And such unpleasant and unfair interpretations were by no means absent from national press coverage over subsequent days.
Why is it that sections of the media feel entitled - to this day, I fear - to dump so much malice in Liverpool when they get the chance? It fell to the city's two chief pastors, Derek and David, to uphold the dignity and honour of a shocked community - not only suffering deep grief but also something akin to persecution - and to push back against all such cynical and devious mischief in the name of truth, the name of decency, and the name of Jesus Christ. They were not able to banish the dark cloud that hung over Liverpool from that day on, but they made it more bearable.
The solidarity they strengthened by their words and actions has survived; and now at last, after a two-year coroner's inquest, Liverpool has been vindicated. A cheap nasty self-serving smear has been labelled for what it was - a foul lie. And now it is certain that the cause of the disaster was never the victims of it, but the very people who should have prevented it.
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