The Right Reverend James Jones

by | Jul 18, 2017 | Faith / belief based groups, Interview | 0 comments

How would you describe your religious or ideological identity?

I am Christian, a member of the Church of England that values its evangelical, Catholic and liberal heritage. The evangelical tradition sees the validity of scripture in contemporary issues of morality and faith, and as I have gone on in my spiritual journey I have valued the intellectual exploration of the liberal tradition, which identifies with the search for justice in God’s world, and I have also valued the Catholic tradition, its spirit of God in worship. But I still retain the evangelical call, which is that faith comes through a personal relationship with Jesus.

What made you choose to remain within this tradition?

As I child I was part of the Catholic tradition. When I went to university, I was influenced by the evangelical tradition and when I graduated, I joined the evangelical movement. Then I went for ordination, I went to an evangelical theological college and I then ministered in two well defined evangelical churches and then I became bishop of Hull. When I went to Hull I encountered issues which made me think again my understanding of the kingdom of God, in particular the murder of a child whom I met. My attempt to minister to his family and the city made me think again about how the Gospel relates to issues of social justice. That rethinking continued through Hull and into my time in Liverpool. If I were pressed to call myself something more than just Christian, I would call myself an earthed evangelical, somebody who still believes in the authority of scriptures, the personal relationship with Christ, but who understands that it is earthed, particularly in some of the most challenging parts of our society. What I found was is that the evangelicalism I had been nurtured in was very middle class and made sense within that middle class world, but was found wanting when you tried to reach out beyond that cultural group.

Do you think that Great Britain is an equal and tolerant society, in particular in relation to religion and belief?

There is a commitment to human rights in England, but we are in transition, as our culture changes, in interpreting and applying those human rights. There is a baseline of commitment to human rights, but it is not clear in a number of cases how those rights are expressed.

Do you think that human rights which apply to everyone are a good or a bad thing for British society?


Are there any ways in which evangelical Anglicans have a practical influence on HRs in contemporary Britain? Are you aware of any particular campaign in which you are involved?

The House of Lords, the environmental movement… I am very involved in. I am working at the moment. I have just given a lecture about the relationship between Islam, Christianity and the environment and I think that what we need to do is to help people trace back from the intuition into human rights to the source of that intuition, who is God.

Do you think that HRs generally speaking are respected by the Government and other public bodies in XXI century Britain?

People respect HRs when they are in their favour and they are less prepared to accept them when they favour people with whom they disagree. I think that is a general feature of society and the courage which is required is to seek HRs of those with whom we disagree… that is civilisation.

I think our public authorities do believe in personal human rights. It is difficult to generalise and you can always pick up examples where public authorities have misbehaved… I have seen that clearly in the work which I am doing. However, as a concept I think it is a concept that people embrace. In practice, on many occasions they can fall short of… For example, I am chairing an investigation into a hospital, where over twenty years ago older patients were admitted, put into morphine and died within days and many families think that in the most extreme cases their relatives were killed there. The European Convention, Art 2 assures every human being the right to life, and I am sure that if you say to anyone in the NHS ‘do you believe in the right to life?’, I am sure everyone will say they do, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t find within those institutions many examples in which people have disregarded those… and if those allegations are true, it is clear that they didn’t respect the right to life of those patients. However, as a general rule, people would assent to human rights, but then we come to the reality of human nature here.

What about the new proposed British Bill of Rights?

The European human rights legislation was clearly influenced by British lawyers, and if the people who are going to be the architects of the British Bill of Rights come from the same school of thinking of those who created the Convention, maybe that Bill of Rights will satisfy people who believe in the dignity of human rights, regardless of race, gender, etc. We’ll have to wait for what the British Bill of Rights proposes. But I think there is a powerful argument that if we need in today’s global village law that binds together all nations, there is narrative in there being that the Convention holds different nations together… and that is better than each Member State having different laws… and we can see that in areas such as environmental law and fight against terrorism… they go across boundaries… it is positive to have a law that brings nations together and it does not allow nations to do what they think it is right in their own eyes. In today’s world, if people’s reality is transnational, we also need a law which is transnational.

Do you think public authorities intervene too much or not enough in the lives of individuals and groups, both in general and in particular in relation to religion or belief?

I think they intervene too much. I was almost on my own on this. I was one of the few Church leaders who objected to the bill on incitement to religious hatred. Religion is extremely powerful and we see that through the abuse of women and children in some religious bodies. One of the ways to curb power is through humour. The moment you protect religion in a heavy handed manner, I think you create a more dangerous society, as you allow religious leaders who exercise huge power, to behave in a way that it is not restrained by normal human intercourse, that involves satire and humour, which is an important part of society. So, I do believe in the right of individuals to express themselves. I am worried that at the moment in our universities people have been refused access because of their views. It should be in universities that these ideas are interrogated, examined and dismissed, but not allowing the person to be heard is not the way. In the New Testament we are told that freedom to speak is essential. I do believe that is a virtue which must be respected in human legislation.

When do you think public authorities really need to intervene and interfere with people expressing their religious or ideological convictions through either actions or lifestyle choices?

I think they must do it when the view of one person leads to the damage of another, then society has a right to call that person to account and to intervene. Bearing in mind that some of the situations will be a clash, and we have seen that in the European Convention, because at times some rights are in competition with each other. That is why you need judges and not robots to administer the law. You need judges who are aware of the dynamics of a particular situation and can apply the law in a way that is both just and merciful.

Would you say that living in a parliamentary democratic society makes it easier or harder for you to live in accordance with your faith/convictions? Is there any other form of government that you would consider preferable?

No, I think it is the least objectionable. In a democracy, clearly the principle of the will of the majority is dominant. The majority is not always necessarily right, but the democratic structure allows for challenges to the majority and therefore, I think it is the least worst and that is a powerful point.

Given that we live in a democracy, do you feel that you have a personal responsibility to vote?


Is it a good or bad thing that Parliament has the final say in making or changing British law? Should judges have the power to strike down some laws?

I think we are in transition again. Once upon a time Parliament was supreme because the law lords were part of Parliament. Now that the law lords have been taken out of Parliament, there is a growing tension between the Supreme Court and Parliament. So, I think that we yet have to see how this is going to work out. I think we are going to see more tension involving the Supreme Court, and I regret that, because I think Parliamentary Sovereignty is something I subscribe to… there is the law under the Crown, and I think that creating that division… I’ll tell you a story. Every time that the law lords sat in the House of Lords, prayers were brought forward… instead of saying prayers in the afternoon, the bishop on duty was called to say prayer at the beginning… when the Supreme Court was created and the law lords no longer sat in the Upper Chamber, I, alongside another bishop, wrote to the President of the Supreme Court, asking if they would like the bishops to continue to say prayers at the beginning of their judgments, and we were told the offer was declined… Although this is symbolic, it signifies something… It was about the CofE no longer occupying that position which is guaranteed by that phrase ‘by law established’. And it was as if they were saying… the CofE has no special place within the Constitution. I can’t remember who said more recently, but that point was made recently by a judge. Now, these erosions take place very gradually, but something changed at that point and it is continuing to change, and my fear is that we will eventually lose the influence of bishops in the HofL and the influence of the CofE in the unwritten Constitution of the UK.

Would you say that an understanding of democratic as the will of the majority of people is problematic for minority groups? Do you think that parliamentary democracy is sufficiently inclusive of all groups and citizens in society, or is it more difficult for some people to participate?

I found that the HofL was able to accommodate the diversity of the nation more quickly and easily than the HofC. Interestingly, one is elected and the other is appointed. People may object to me using the word ‘democracy’ for the Upper Chamber, but I think there is a sort of democracy working in the Upper Chamber, because people who are there held a senior position in their organisations and their peers recognised that seniority, and from that position…. As a leader trade unionist or a doctor…they were appointed to the HofL, but also the process of appointment could ensure for instance the appointment of the Chief Rabbi. Had this depended on democratic elections, despite of his many virtues, he may not have been elected to Parliament, but there is a mechanism within Parliament, that seems to reflect the diversity of the nation. Do we have further to go? Of course, we have, but as society changes, hopefully institutions catch up with diversity.

Do you think that it is problematic that members of the HofL are not elected by the citizens?

I think an elected second Chamber would be a retrograde step. It is one Parliament, not two Parliaments… two Houses which complement each other… they shouldn’t be rivals. The elected House should have the last word. The Upper House should be an assembly of elders, people recruited from a whole range of social sectors, who have experience and expertise, which enable them to scrutinise legislation, amend it, make it better (because of their experience) and send it back to the HofC, which should have the final word on this. I think the political class that serves the HofC is too narrow base from which to draw the expertise and experience which is vital to create good legislation. So, I think it would be counterproductive to move from appointment to election in the Upper House.

What is then your view of the presence of bishops of the CofE in the House of Lords?

I have reservations about the amount of time that bishops are prepared to give. The bishops’ job is very demanding one and unless you are very disciplined, you can find that your commitment to the HofL is compromised by the very demanding church agenda, for which a bishop is also responsible. I used to make a rule of a day a week, which was planned in my diary. Whenever it was possible, on Tuesdays I would be in the HofL. If the bishops are not in the HofL in a regular and committed way, they don’t engage either with the agenda or with the body of people who are there on a regular basis. One of the ways of engaging is to serve in a community. That again takes a huge amount of time. In a bishop’s diary is half a day for a committee and all the paper work which is involved. Some bishops are very, very good at it. Other bishops aren’t as good.

I really want bishops to stay in the Upper House, but I want them to make an effective contribution. In my day the charge that was made against the bishops’ presence was… ‘well, when we debate euthanasia, you all turn up, but when we discuss other things, you are not seen’… well, this is an exaggeration, but there is some truth in it. I would love them to stay for a variety of reasons. The bishops start the day with prayers and in that context there is a pastoral role for bishops in the HofL, a quasi-chaplain role, because in my time, in the ten years I was there you ended up building up relationships with people, and in a highly political atmosphere, there are lots of pastoral needs, and on a significant number of occasions people would share with me, in a pastoral way, their thoughts. Secondly, the north of England is poorly represented in the HofL, and one of the things that bishops can do is providing a northern perspective. Also, dioceses of the Church of England are a blend of urban and rural societies, and there are very few people who can be representative of such a diverse context, and that gives bishops a unique authority. Also, because we are there, our clergy are in every community, and we are able to speak in a way that others can’t.

Do bishops speak on behalf of all people of faith?

Yes, we are not there just to speak on behalf of the CofE. We are pastors for all communities. This comes back to the idea of the kingdom of God. If this is the world, and not just the Church… well, let me give you an example. If someone calls the vicarage, the vicar will never ask the person whether he/she comes to the church… the vicar will ask where the person lives, and if the person lives in the parish, he will be there to help you. We are there for the whole community, we are there for everybody. We believe that the CofE has a pastoral commitment to everyone in England. When people ask our help, we do help. We bring that care for the whole community also to the HofL. As bishop of Liverpool, I shared Hillsborough, the north west constitutional convention, etc. So, when I sat in the HofL I was not there representing the needs of the members of the CofE, but representing the interests of the wider society, which I have been asked to do.

Is it good or bad that some decisions which affect the UK are made by the EU and by devolved administrations?

I think that the weaknesses of the European Union is twofold: 1. Democratic deficit, the lack of any sense of the voter that their vote influences the direction of the EU; 2. Self-interest and disregard for the rest of the world. By creating its internal market, it can in the end disadvantage people in the developing world. I have reservations about how the EU has behaved in this respect. I have sympathy for those who want them to be more democratically accountable. Those institutions are not really accountable. When I did the Hillsborough report, I coined this phrase… that was not reflected in the report in the end… but I said this is the patronising disposition of unaccountable power, and I think that the EU can make you feel from time to time that this is the patronising disposition of unaccountable power.

What does your faith teach you about people with power? How should they be held accountable?

That is a brilliant question and I could talk for ever on this. First of all, I think the Church has made a fundamental mistake of making powerlessness a virtue, and not understanding the virtue of power. We talk about Jesus as a powerless person, but in fact he wasn’t. In terms of personal charisma he was immensely powerful. He could silence people by his own power, he could get the attention from the crowds… He was immensely powerful and we need in the Church a theology of power. Life is power. Power can be abused, but we need to recover a sense of the goodness and virtue of power. We also need to recover a sense of power originating from God himself. Energy that comes from God.

Can power be corrupting? Can it be corrosive? Yes. Should power be held to account? Yes. That is why I think Christians must be involved in the whole democratic process, because that is a mean to hold powerful people to account. This patronising disposition of unaccountable powers needs checks and balances which are an important feature of our democracy.

Do you think that evangelical Anglicans are proportionately and appropriately represented in terms of MPs, members of the judiciary, local authorities, etc?

Appropriate is an interesting word… Appropriate to what? Many evangelicals wouldn’t see this as a priority, going back to what I was saying earlier, because they think the kingdom of God is about gaining souls for eternal salvation. One of the questions is how evangelicalism has lost its way from the 19th century to the 20th century, in which there was such a gap between personal salvation and social justice. Evangelicals are now recovering that ground and you would find organisations such CARE which aim to increase the evangelical voice within institutions of our society. There are probably appropriately represented. I don’t think anybody discriminates against them, because they are Christians, and someone who is arguing that they are being discriminated will be using that as an excuse because they were not probably good enough for their jobs!

Would you say that in Great Britain there is enough distance between the people who make law/policy and the people who deliver and interpret the law? Are the judiciary sufficiently independent?

I think creating the Supreme Court was a move in the direction of separating out the people who create the legislation from those who administer it, but I think that probably it is a cultural power in which those boundaries are blurred. For instance, the proportion of people of the world of laws as MPs is greater than any other profession, isn’t it? And these people train together… I have to say that after my experience in Hillsborough, I think more emphasis should be made to this area… I think this is a really serious point for me, and my mind is being formed at this moment on this issue, and I wait to see the outcome of the inquest and the outcome of the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service, and I want to reserve my position. I have lots of thoughts from huge admiration to serious questioning. I was asked to speak in a seminar in the Home Office. I did a lot of work in preparing that. I was trying to help people understand how power operates in society, and it is a very complex issue. Again, it echoes the patronising disposition of unaccountable power. This can be exercised in a benign way, and it is often done… but not always.

Do you think that public authorities really understand the needs of Christians in general and also evangelical Anglicans? Is the understanding of any of these bodies better or worse than others?

I think in the end it would depend on the quality of the person they are dealing with. If an institution is dealing with an able professional, who is demonstrably making a positive contribution, they will have respect for that person’s faith. If they are dealing with somebody who is an awkward customer, they will take note of the person’s faith, but what sometimes happens is that this awkward customer will say that it is his faith leads to the way he is being viewed. So, I am sometimes sceptical when people say that they are being persecuted for their faith. Probably they have done their job badly and they are trying to blame it on discrimination grounds. I know this is a huge generalisation, no doubt. However, I have not been convinced by those situations in which people have claimed that their faith has been the reason why they have been dealt with badly.

Is it important for you personally always to act within the law of the land? What circumstances, if any, justify breaking human law?

We are fortunate because we are not in that position in this country, but there are countries in which worship and testifying your faith can be against the law. I pray that I would have the courage to stand up against society at that point. Theoretically, you should be entitled… This is what I was referring to earlier on, when the first Christians were told that they were not allowed to talk about the resurrection. They claimed the right of freedom of speech, to talk about the resurrection. I pray I would have the courage.

Are evangelical Anglicans campaigning for a particular change in the law?

I suspect it is in the field of personal conscience. The famous examples are the bed and breakfast owners’ case. Should they be allowed to prevent a gay couple from using their business? They are saying that the law doesn’t allow them, doesn’t protect their conscience. However, the answer is that from the moment your home becomes a business you enter a different realm…. I can understand those tensions… I think they are relatively minor, by comparison with the big issues that we face in our planet.

Do your beliefs require you to speak out against injustices affecting third parties, particularly the weak and the vulnerable?


Do you think that the RL is applied equally to everyone in British society? Do some groups experience either preferential or prejudicial treatment from public bodies?

It is not applied equally. If you have money, the law can serve you better than if you don’t have money.

Should the same rules which apply to private citizens, apply equally to public authorities including the police? Should they be allowed to suspend certain rules under specific circumstances?

There must always be a flexibility to adapt in each situation, but it should always be done in a way which is accountable. That is why accountability and transparency have become so important. We live in a changing world and culture, with new threats and opportunities, and a law that was conceived in a generation has to be rethought for a future generation, but that is why transparency and accountability are so important.

Is there anything which you would like to add?

I think I said everything I wanted to convey about this particular topic.

James Jones became Bishop of Liverpool in 1998 having been Bishop of Hull since 1994. He established and chaired the Governing Body of the faith-based St Francis of Assisi City Academy jointly sponsored by the Catholic and Anglican Dioceses. It is the first Academy to take the Environment as its specialism.

He broadcasts regularly especially on ‘Thought for the Day’ for the BBC. He has written a number of books including ‘Jesus and the Earth’ (SPCK 2003) which looks at the relationship between Christianity and the environment.

He has been awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Divinity from Hull University, an Honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Lincoln and an Honorary PhD from Liverpool Hope University. He retired as Bishop of Liverpool in 2013.


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