WORDS: SAM MACRORY
With a full time parish to attend to and legislative responsibilities in the House of Lords to fit in, the 26 Lordly bishops lead busy lives.
For the last few years, Bishop James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool, stretched his diary demands a little further, taking on invitations to chair independent panels into both the future of Britain’s forests and, more recently and dramatically, the Hillsborough tragedy. Given such a tough schedule, physically and emotionally, it’s not surprising that his body lodged a complaint.
“I was asking a question in the House about the future of the Community Justice Centre in Liverpool. As I sat down, my heart was pumping and I felt this pain in my chest. I’d felt a niggle before – I thought it was muscular…”, recalls the Bishop of a debate in the House of Lords last June. A test the following day revealed that the Bishop needed urgent surgery. “I remember distinctly, I said to the nurse, ‘This won’t stop me doing Hillsborough, will it?’ He then said, ‘You need an angiogram’, I said, ‘Right, well in a month’s time?’ He said, ‘No. Tomorrow.’”
It was, the Bishop admits, “Very, very scary”, but after a two-month recuperation period he was back at his desk by the end of August after missing just three of the Hillsborough panel’s 40 meetings.
Today, over a cup of tea in the soothing surroundings of the House of Lords, he looks to back to full health, his positive mood shared in his adopted city. The report, he says has seen “a cloud lifted in Liverpool – they feel they’re no longer alone, they’re not ‘walking alone’ anymore, because the rest of the world knows that this isn’t a grey issue – the documents, without anybody making any judgements, the documents tell the story”.
This Monday, MPs once again debated the report’s findings and what it meant for the next stage of what David Cameron has called the quest to address the “double injustice” of Hillsborough. Parliamentarians are still shocked by what they have learned. But not the Bishop. “Having been Bishop of the city all these years and knowing the people and knowing that their questions were genuine, when information began to be disclosed that confirmed what they were saying, it wasn’t a shock for me, it was that they were right all along.”
He praises the Prime Minister, who, he says, “coined the phrase ‘double justice’ – it wasn’t something that was given to him by a speechwriter” – and the Labour leader Ed Miliband, as well as the Merseyside MPs whose long campaigns showed the “pastoral dimension of the work of a Member of Parliament, which many people don’t ever recognise or value”.
His panel and the Civil Service support team are also spoken of in generous terms, but Jones is keen to stress the importance of a religious figure on the Panel, arguing that “because we cover the whole country, there isn’t an inch that isn’t covered by a parish of the Church of England. And unlike social workers and doctors, we don’t actually come in and out each day, we live there – 24/7. It gives us an authority to speak about where Britain is today”.
It helped that he doesn’t support either Liverpool or arch-city rivals Everton – when asked by fans whether he was a “’a red or blue?’… I thought ‘no, actually, that’s why I wear a purple shirt...” – but, more seriously, he believes that when the role of politicians, the press, and the police are called into question, it was “to use a very 21st century word, ‘appropriate’ to ask a bishop” to chair the Hillsborough Panel”.
A bishop, he adds, is “one of the leaders in the city and, by virtue of membership of the House of Lords, one of the leaders in the nation.” Constitutional reformers will flinch at that last sentence, but perhaps, beyond the immediate response to the report, the panel’s work has given them reason to think about whether our men – and women – of the cloth should automatically add ‘lawmaker’ to their duties?
“My own view is that the political class, important though it is, forms too narrow a base from which to draw both chambers in Parliament”, Jones argues. “What we need to do, in the debate about the future of Parliament, is to recover the sense of the unity of Parliament with two Houses that are complementary and not competitive, with the last word going to the elected, directly elected house – the House of Commons. And, what you need in the upper chamber is a collection of people, an assembly of people who are, in effect, the elders of society. They’re not elected but they have been elected in the sense that they’ve got to the top of their profession.”
And bishops, in particular?
“Bishops are a part of that because the Church of England is woven into the fabric of our nation historically, culturally, and if you look at our landscape, our language, our literature, our leisure, our learning, our laws, our liberty – it’s all intertwined with the Church of England and the Christian faith. And that’s not to say that we are to be monolithic, and it’s not to deny the plural nature of our society, but it’s to acknowledge our history and our cultural heritage. Something like Hillsborough shows, actually, there still is a role in our society for such a body to contribute to our sort of common life and build up a sort of common good.”
For a country increasingly diverse in its choice of faith, some might also argue that a bishop has no more right to be there than an imam or rabbi.
Jones admits that this is an area which “can be scrutinised further and that can be nuanced”, but argues that the “difficulty with, say, Islam, is that it’s less hierarchical religion and therefore it’s difficult to identify the leaders on a permanent basis. So you do it by finding leading politicians who are Muslims, or would you find people leading in the field of, law and justice, who are maybe Sikhs or Hindus? It’s slightly different for the Church of England because it’s the religion that’s our passport in, whereas with the others it’s usually a different profession, and if you want to choose the religion as a passport in, that’s going to need quite careful attention as to how you do that.”
He insists that his fellow peers hold “huge respect” for the bishops, adding that “our sense is that our contribution is valued and certainly, when it comes to both the government and the opposition, we’ve had assurances that there is a place for bishops in a future house.”
What about a place for religion? After all, the Parliamentary day still begins with prayers in the Chambers of both Houses, a behind-closed-doors ritual which some Parliamentarians argue is outmoded.
The Bishop insists that “a lot of people – we’re talking benches”, come in for prayers, but offers a recent example of an always evolving process.
“The prayers are set and you can’t deviate from them, but, at the end of prayers we have what’s called ‘The Grace’, and that used to be said only by the bishop. Now, all the peers are joining in saying that prayer. It’s typical of the British constitution – unwritten – that it evolves, and you can actually see it in the prayers.”
However, the Bishop is sympathetic to politicians who distance themselves from religion, whatever their private views, arguing that “you’ve got to be very careful when you stand up and claim God for your political reasoning, because it doesn’t give any space to somebody on the other side of the argument who may also believe in God.”
The panel looking into the future of Britain’s forests, which followed the Government’s botched attempted sell-off, worked on a far less emotionally-charged subject, but as a vocal green campaigner, James Jones took the work no less seriously. He believes the government needs a green agenda like “letters through a stick of rock, that’s how we’ve got to get the environment – not as the sugary glaze on the outside that you lick off and then doesn’t have any permanence”, and he admits to “disappointment” that the environment seems to have fallen off the political agenda.
As for reports that Owen Paterson, the new Environment Secretary, is an arch-climate change sceptic, Jones lays down a – mischievous-sounding – challenge.
“I think the onus of responsibility is upon him in the light of those comments. But he’s a farmer, isn’t he, by background? All farmers know that you cannot destroy the earth. No farmer will destroy the earth, because that’s their very means of livelihood. If it is for a farmer, it certainly is for the planet. The Earth is not a limitless larder that you can plunder with impunity.”
Having played a prominent role in two of the key moments of this Parliament, the Bishop of Liverpool – who years ago was described as “Blair’s bishop” after winning the admiration of the former Prime Minister – is becoming a well-known figure in political circles. Some say he is an outsider contender to succeed Rowan Williams as the next Archbishop of Canterbury, but for now the Bishop is counting down to a holiday at the end of this month. David Cameron has asked him to stay on as an advisor to the Home Secretary, leaving Jones “still in the mode of being geared up to do Hillsborough”, but the time off, he says, gives him the chance to “work through my own emotions” after the trauma of the report’s findings.
And then? “If, in the future, I’m asked to do something else I’ll obviously consider it in the way that I considered this. But I don’t think I’m open for business just yet.”
Be it in Liverpool, London, or beyond, Bishop James Jones will soon be in demand again soon.