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The Church at the heart of healing and justice

21 September 2012

The Church can help to meet people's deepest needs - as it has done with the Hillsborough Independent Panel, says James Jones

FOR some time, I have been thinking that chairing the Hillsborough Independent Panel might be the most important work I do as Bishop of Liverpool. The reaction of the families and of the wider world to our report confirms the thought. Truth and Justice are pillars of the Kingdom. Leaving my person aside, I am glad that a Church of England bishop should have been entrusted with a task so vital to the local community and to the nation at large. It places the Church at the heart of the aspirations of the people to live in a society that is true and just.

Part of my daily reading at the moment is the Divine Institutes by Lactantius, the third-century Christian apologist. I quote him in my foreword to the report: "'The whole point of justice consists precisely in our providing for others through humanity what we provide for our own family through affection.' It is the search for justice that has motivated the families and which is so basic a human instinct."

When I was asked by the Labour Government and then by the Coalition Government to chair the Hillsborough Independent Panel, I saw it as consistent with my pastoral responsibility for all the people who live within the diocese of Liverpool. Like a vicar, a bishop is not just there for those who come to church. Our understanding of the Kingdom is that we are pastors to all, whether or not they believe in God.

WHEN more than 30,000 people came to Anfield for the 20th anni-versary of the Hillsborough disaster, it was evident to all that the wound of grief was still open and sore, with many questions still unanswered. I was present at that service, and felt the emotional power of the remembrance and the volume of the voices petitioning still for justice.

The more I have worked with the panel and the secretariat, in consultation with the families, the more their pleas resonated with two fundamental aspects of my own faith and ethics: first, the call to heal the broken-hearted; and, second, the plea to grant justice to those who are denied it.

If I attempt to set this in the context of our society, I recognise that we are at a stage in our history where trust in institutions and their leaders has begun to evaporate. I need not rehearse the crisis of trust in politicians, bankers, and the media. The Church itself has been blighted by episodes of abuse.

Yet, for all the damage that has been done by abusive priests, the Church still, at a local level, maintains a level of trust. For all its faults and foibles, it is still known to be committed to the welfare of the people. Colleagues on the panel seemed content to have a bishop chairing it because a church leader had no vested interest, was known to be committed to the people, and had a certain independence from political patronage.

I WAS chairing an independent panel, and not an inquiry. The problem with judicial inquiries is that they necessarily involve lawyers and barristers for all those called before them. This usually leads to a very long process and soaring costs. The Saville inquiry into the Bloody Sunday shootings took more than ten years, and cost well in excess of £100 million. The Hillsborough Independent Panel did not interrogate people. Its terms of reference called us to oversee the disclosure of all the public documents related to the tragedy and its aftermath.

But, although a panel's work delivers more quickly and at a smaller cost, I think there is another great advantage. Judicial processes do not serve the victims and the bereaved well. They tend to distance those who are most affected. People with power in the processes are often patronising to the victims. In a culture of blame, liability and litigation over culpability conspire against getting to the truth.

Whatever the future holds for the panel process as a model of dealing with historic cases, it is clear to me that trust, transparency, and accountability are moral virtues that our society is embracing in an absolute and not a relative sense. As someone in Christ committed to justice, I welcome such an ethical society.

When we first met as a panel, we decided to meet the various family groups on the same day. Their dignified determination shaped us as a group of experts. We all brought a different expertise to the work. As the chairman and as a pastor, I found that one of the most moving aspects of the work was to gain the trust of the families, who said that this was the first time that they felt that they had been taken seriously and listened to.

CONSTANTLY I am asked where it will lead. We must now leave the documents to the appropriate authorities. I want to say nothing that will undermine the fairness of any judicial processes that may follow.

Over the past three months, my daily Bible reading has been the parable of the widow denied justice in Luke 18, and the words of Jesus: "Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?" He told this parable to the people so that they would "not lose heart".

I was so glad when the panel decided to choose the Anglican cathedral to disclose the documents to the families. Uppermost was the need to protect their dignity, and not to dishonour the memory of the 96. Last week, as we did this, four days before the Revd Pete Wilcox was to become Dean of Liverpool, he whispered to me: "This is like a window on to the Kingdom of Heaven." In that great sacred space, Truth was calling out to Justice.

Some have said to me that it is good to see the Church coming out from behind the fog of controversy over women bishops and gay relationships. I have thought that myself for a moment. And yet - at the heart of these controversies are also issues of justice for men and women. Whatever our theological convictions and sexual ethics, we have to recognise with humility that, although we need institutions to order our common life, at moments in our history, such as the struggle for racial or environmental or economic justice, it is the people beyond the walls of the institutions, sometimes including the Church, who have prevailed in the name of justice.

The Rt Revd James Jones is the Bishop of Liverpool and chairman of the Hillsborough Independent Panel.


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