God's man in Soho

When the bishop met the porn actress he said he was following in Christ's footsteps. Is this what Tony Blair had in mind for his hand- picked prelate?
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It is quite a list to be going on with. He is "self-righteous" and "pushy", a "cheap little man" whose only motive is to "improve his image" and "be seen as a saint". He is a "cassocked clown" but then what else could you expect from "Blair's bishop" - the first clergyman to be hand-picked for a top job by New Labour? And all this even before the first programme has been broadcast in the television series which has prompted such a cascade of vitriol.

It might have been with rather skewed preconceptions, therefore, that I knocked on the door of the new Bishop of Liverpool this week. It might have been, had experience not taught me that there can be a significant gap between reality and the world of phantasms routinely paraded before us by Auberon Waugh, A N Wilson and other members of the church of the poisoned mind.

What had occasioned their disdain was the news that the bishop, the Rt Rev James Jones, had gone to Soho to meet a troupe of lap-dancers and a porn actress and "declared that he was walking in the footsteps of Christ". It is part of a nationwide journey among people who have little or no contact with the Church which is to be televised on BBC 1 every night throughout Holy Week. As well as sex, the bishop encounters poverty, wealth, crime, disability, unemployment and religious conflict.

I took a taxi to the Victorian mansion which was, for all its location in one of the poshest parts of Liverpool, until two years ago home to Jones's predecessor, the stalwart campaigner against unemployment, poverty and the city's legendary sectarianism, David Shepherd. The taxi-driver got lost on the way. He must be a left-footer, I decided. Perhaps he could find the Catholic bishop's residence more easily. "No," he said, "I don't know where that is either."

It was a measure of the challenge Jones faces. David Shepherd, and his RC counterpart, Archbishop Derek Worlock, inherited a Liverpool where bitter divisions between Catholic and Protestant were a lingering reality. But Jones has arrived in a city where religion is no longer real enough to stir hatreds. It is a place where, before he can hold forth about the word of God, Jones knows that he has first to go out and hear the word on the street.

It is not a role to which the Church is accustomed - as was demonstrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who pulled out of the series protesting it was to be broadcast too late - just at the time when the generation who are most out of touch with the Church are likely to be watching. Jones was an odd replacement, for his reputation is of a forthright speaker rather than an attentive listener.

Despite the fact that he was the Prime Minister's personal choice for the Liverpool diocese - after Blair rejected the first two names he was offered by the Church - Jones has not been afraid to speak critically. He was the only bishop to object to Robin Cook's decision to take his then mistress on an official Foreign Office trip. In his old job, as suffragan bishop in Hull, Jones also publicly declared that Prince Charles "would undermine his spiritual and moral authority" if he were to make Camilla his Queen. More recently, he has criticised Blair for not changing the tax and benefits system to help married couples, and attacked business leaders, saying long hours were destroying family life.

But there is an engaging openness about the man in person. When I arrived at the door of Bishop's Lodge it was opened, not by a clerical underling, but by Jones. And though he begins the six BBC 1 programmes on a rough estate in Kirkby wearing a dog-collar and in purple, by the third he is wearing clothes like those of the people he meets.

It is more than just a question of clothing. He does attempt a bit of indirect evangelism in front of The Angel of the North in Gateshead. But when he asks a group of jobless youths whether they believe there is anything "up there", he is nonplussed to find that one replies: "Yeah, aliens." "It made me realise," he said in his spacious study, "how wide the chasm is between us."

In the places where he finds suffering he attempts nothing more than solidarity. In Liverpool, with snow on the ground, a single mother shows him there is no money left on the pre-pay card for the gas meter. She sets out the pound-for-pound detail of her titanic weekly struggle to feed her children. She recounts her failed suicide attempt. Then she asks, without self-pity, "But why should anybody else care?" Jones knows that he cannot pretend that the overwhelmingly middle-class Church of England has showed her much sign of doing so in the recent past.

But he also acknowledges in the programmes that empathy is not enough. He goes out on patrol with the police in Leeds and shares the "gotcha" satisfaction when they catch two burglars in the act. But then, seeing one offender break down at the station, Jones is overcome by the pathos of the youth's failed potential. "I was torn between being glad he's caught, and sad he's so messed up," he told me.

He is faced with another hard choice at the old Swan Hunter shipyard in Newcastle, where he meets a redundant worker who laments the death of the old ways. "But doesn't the market help us understand what jobs we need?" asks the Blairite bishop, who sends his own three children to a private school. The market can measure the value of a thing, but not of a person, the redundant man says. People have the right to work, to have dignity, to pay the bills and put food on the table - and the Church should be outspoken about all that. Jones lets the unemployed man have the last word.

Back in his study, the bishop talked at length about what he has gained from his nationwide tour. It has been a complex reworking of his experience. He ranged widely, speaking of the relationship between the market and poverty, and between social and familial fragmentation. He reflected on the delusion of sexual liberation. He spoke of the difficulty of getting young priests to work in the inner city. He lamented the lack of spiritual analysis alongside the economic, the moral and the social.

Above all, however, he has learned just how wide is the gap between the people and the Church. "It's huge. Where the Church is connected to the local community, with good leadership, it is flourishing but most of our culture is as foreign to the Church as some of the places that missionaries went in the last century," he concludes. "The Church has to get out there: I have realised that Jesus spent relatively little time in synagogues but much more of it on the road with the people." That, of course, was two thousand years ago. The message seems to have been a long time trickling down.

"The Church is only one of the institutions from which people feel alienated," he said. "It's serious because without sound institutions how does society hand down values from one generation to another? There is, among our people, a serious disillusion with politicians, and an extreme cynicism which insists that those in public life are only out for themselves. The notion of public service has evaporated."

That, too, is a spiritual crisis, he feels. "It is no good politicians insisting that their private lives are separate from their public role... If a politician deceives someone close to them - in their business or family - how can we trust them not to deceive on other matters?"

It was no coincidence that public support for the bombing of Iraq the second time was much reduced; many assumed President Clinton was lying about the need for that, just as they now knew he had lied about Monica Lewinsky. "The more you drive a wedge between private life and public office the more cynical people become. It calls for a debate about the nature of leadership."

It is not perhaps what Tony Blair most wants to hear from his hand-picked prelate. But no one could say he was not warned.

`The Word on the Street' begins on 28 March, at 11.30pm, on BBC 1