Bradstock review of  ’40 Years of Ministry’.

This is both a primer in urban ministry, and a frank, heartwarming account of an exceptional parish priest and follower of Jesus.
If urban ministry is still in the ‘too hard’ basket for many in the Church, this book suggests why. To be effective it requires less a seminary ‘training’ than a commitment to root oneself in a community, get alongside people where they are, and innovate and reassess continually. Vision, enthusiasm, and a determination to succeed also help, and while the author has these, he can also acknowledge his mistakes and shortcomings.
As an evangelical ministering in the inner-city, Black had to re-think his theology early on: to see salvation as relevant both to individuals and ‘communities like Liverpool 8’, to prioritise ‘kingdom’ over church, to commit to ‘going out to’ rather
than ‘bringing or fetching in’. If that was unremarkable, it’s the stories Black tells, as he works all this out, that make this book: the response of a conservative priest when asked if salvation might be anything but ‘personal’, the reaction of evangelical church
members to those wanting to help but not necessarily believe or join the church. ‘I had to learn that mission was not about me confronting people about their need for God, but God leading people to take tentative steps towards a church community’, Black writes.
So here is no detached overview of urban ministry, rather conversational-style anecdotes and pen portraits, bringing to life the communities the writer knew and tensions he discovered and sought to resolve within them. Black’s love for the city in
which he ministered for forty years is clear, and the ground-level stories he relates about its tensions, including those between the police and the black community, are telling. The latter famously spilled over in Toxteth, where Black was serving at the time. Black’s role in ministry initiatives, such as the Evangelical Urban Training Project (now Unlock), are also discussed, as is his clearly fulfilling marriage.
From a self-confessed man of action, this is a remarkably reflective book. There are constant references to ‘the benefit of hindsight’, and ‘questions for reflection’ to end each chapter. Black’s comments on the bishops he worked with are revealing; Blanch and Jones come out well, David Sheppard less so, with class difference clearly a factor. Hilary Russell once observed that Sheppard’s contribution to Liverpool came from his being rooted in and identified with the city, while ‘to some extent above the fray’. Black’s comes from being very firmly in the fray, out of which he has written an absorbing and inspiring memoir.


Foreward by Rev Dr Samuel Wells is Vicar of St-Martin-in-the-Fields and visiting professor of Christian Ethics at King’s College, London.

He has published 35 books

Neville Black is a social and ecclesial entrepreneur. He has spent his life on border between the church that is and the church that could be. Most people think of the church as an institution: dependable, durable, wise, hospitable – but static, backward-looking, slow to change, elitist and self-satisfied. Neville has never thought of the church as an institution; he thinks of it more as an insurgency. He understands people’s need for abiding signals and habits of constancy, for needing people and things to rely on: but he’s never found much of that in the gospels, where he’s perceived a message of a realm of God breaking in. Neville wants to be part of that burglary – that break-in: it might make a mess, it might tread on toes, but it’s what the Holy Spirit is doing, and he’s always wanted to be part of it. And to be fair, Neville would tread on toes whether he meant to or not.

This is a story of how Neville’s imagination, energy, and tender heart grew from childhood hardship and evangelical piety to empowered leadership and finally visionary entrepreneurship. There are always at least two stories going on: one amid adversity, with considerable challenges, the need to support those closest to him, the class and regional prejudice and small-mindedness of the church; the other of creativity, resilience, effervescent inventiveness, infectious kindness and generous embrace. And the third story is of Neville and the Trinity – fired with the Spirit, walking humbly with Jesus, captivated by the Father – yet wrestling like Jacob, seeking who he really is and who God really is. I imagine most who read this will know and love Neville already. I for one owe him more than I can ever describe or detail. But I’m sure that all who read this will know and love Neville by the time they finish. Because this is a man who has allowed the Spirit to sing a song in his heart. And because of Neville, we will never forget how that song goes.


David John Ison, KCVO is a retired Church of England priest. From 2012 until he retired in 2022, he was the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in the Diocese of London.

This is an extract from David’s email to Neville Feb ’24 regarding Neville’s book…

You came to lead a session at St John’s College Nottingham on inner-city ministry in 1978, which was inspirational and led to my wife Hilary and I being called to work in the inner-city. We spent nine years in Deptford, SE London, then nearly five years on a housing estate in Coventry, and after 12 years living in the very middle of Exeter went to the centre of Bradford to be at the cathedral for nearly seven years; and finished by taking what we’d learned to apply at St Paul’s Cathedral, which was the most difficult gig of all, retiring 18 months ago. We are so grateful to you for helping us on our ministry journey, rethinking the middle-class white academic evangelical theology we’d learnt (I found Ken Leech really helpful with that) and developing sacramental and embodied ministry; and look forward to hearing about your own experiences.

All good wishes and every blessing,

David Ison