Peter Elson speaks to the RIGHT REV JAMES JONES, Bishop of Liverpool
THE quashing of the accidental death verdicts on Hillsborough at the High Court yesterday can be directly traced to the dramatic findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel on September 12.
For the man who chaired the panel, James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, it has been an incredible 12 months.
His work on the panel went directly to the heart of what he believes his role is in the community.
He previously worked as a religious education teacher in Kent and ran the schools’ community service programmes.
“That’s the heart of what I am, a pastor-teacher,” he said.
“As chairman of the Hillsborough Independent Panel dealing with all that traumatic material, I found what appealed most was regularly meeting the families and acting as a pastoral priest.
“It meant a huge amount to me that the Hillsborough families said this is the first time they’d been listened to or understood. They actually said, ‘We’re putting all our trust in you, you’re our last hope’.”
His Hillsborough involvement first came from being consulted about who should be on the Panel and he ended up being asked to chair it.
“I consulted the Archbishop of Canterbury and many people as it would be a major commitment,” he said.
“I found it completely at one with being Bishop of Liverpool.
“At the 20th anniversary commemoration, I said to a colleague that I hoped nobody would mention the then prime minister, Gordon Brown, as he’d stated there would never be another Hillsborough inquiry.
“Then Andy Burnham, the Culture Secretary, mentioned Gordon Brown and the crowd booed. A lone voice shouted out ‘Remember the 96’ and like a corporate jack-in-the-box, as if rehearsed, all 30,000 crowd of people shouted ‘Remember the 96!’. Andy Burnham was visibly shaken.
“But without that event it was unlikely to have got the impetus to set up the Independent Panel leading to the High Court quashing the accidental death verdicts.
“Right from the start we were cautious about the outcome as truth brings its own pressures.
“The virtue of a panel is that you’re interpreting documents not interrogating people.”
So how did Bishop James develop the religious beliefs which brought him to the crucial role he played on the Panel?
Well let’s face it – if God decides to wrestle with you on an isolated mountain ski lift in Switzerland there will be only one winner.
So it was for Bishop James who was called to become a priest in just such circumstances.
“I was straddled on a ‘button’ - a ski-lift with a pole dangling down and a small seat on the end,” he recalled.
“It’s the kind of ski-lift which makes most people pray, even if they’re atheists. This happened during a ski-ing holiday and each evening there was an epilogue on the subject ‘How does God guide you?’
“And I wondered how this applied to me? Then, sitting alone on the ski-lift on this beautiful mountainside, snow fallen everywhere, with no sound but the whirring of the lift machinery, I sensed God saying ‘I want you to become a priest’.
“But I didn’t want to and found I was wrestling with God. I literally shouted out ‘Yes, if that’s what you want me to, I’ll do it!’
“I was almost defiant in my response, but my well-being suddenly irradiated with a sense of peace.