New Labour's bishop follows Blair's calling

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THE BISHOP handpicked by Tony Blair will use his first sermon today to congratulate the Prime Minister on last week's Green Paper on the family.

The mutual admiration society began when Mr Blair made an unprecedented intervention, rejecting the two candidates proposed by the Church and instead choosing the Rt Rev James Jones to be Bishop of Liverpool.

His appointment provoked controversy about whether the State should have such a strong say. But he is at ease with the issue. "If we are a national Church, as we are, I think it is legitimate for the State to be involved in the process of discernment," said Bishop Jones.

"Theologically I have no problem with God being at work through the state as well as the Church. There is lots of evidence in the Bible that God uses people outside the Church to advance his will."

Bishop Jones succeeds the Rt Rev Lord David Sheppard, who was a thorn in the side of the Tory government. But he insisted yesterday he would continue the tradition of criticism of the Government. "I'm in nobody's pocket,"he said.

Nevertheless, Bishop Jones will use his first sermon to congratulate Mr Blair on his Green Paper on the family. "I welcome very much his statement that building families is the keystone to building communities," he said. Only when questioned further did he admit that he regretted the omission of tax benefits for married couples and the family.

The two men have met just once - in the BBC's Today studio when Bishop Jones was doing Thought for the Day and Mr Blair was in Opposition. Bishop Jones refused to elaborate on Mr Blair's "very detailed letter" about why he was the right man for the Liverpool job, but reckoned his media-friendly qualities were a plus.

Bishop Jones, 50, was an audio-visual producer before being ordained 16 years ago. As Bishop of Hull he played a prominent role in revamping the city's image and, like New Labour, he knows the power of presentation. He has, as he puts it, "a very high theology of communication."

His initial reaction was to turn down the offer - even though it was "a huge honour to be invited to follow in the footsteps of one of the greatest bishops in the 20th century".

He had not been in Hull long, and his family had moved three times in the past eight years. However, his eldest daughter, Harriet, 16, persuaded him. "She said: `If God is calling us, we must go'. It was a humbling thing for a father, let alone a bishop, to be led by his children."

Consequently, children will play a prominent role in this afternoon's ceremony, which will be attended by 2,700 people. He will arrive alone at the cathedral and knock three times on the door with a mallet used in the building's construction. He has requested that he be greeted by a child from the diocese to remind him of the words of Jesus that to enter God's Kingdom all must be children.

Bishop Jones's views are traditionalist. He believes, for example, that "the gay relationship is not equal to the heterosexual relationship". He added: "I recognise that public attitudes are changing, but at the end of the day the Church must have its beliefs shaped by an intelligent reading of the Bible rather than public opinion.

"I point up Biblical values because they are tried, tested and for the benefit of people in the community. At the same time we are all flawed and we all need God's mercy and forgiveness - bishops and politicians as much as anyone."