Bishop hails the ‘golden heart’ of Liverpool and questions ‘rancid’ UK politics

Paul Bayes, retiring bishop of Liverpool, on ‘fudged’ politics, the LGBTQ+ community, the Liverpool bombing and how the city he served for eight years has a different mindset to the rest of England.

A retirement service was held for the bishop of Liverpool at Liverpool Cathedral on Saturday, marking nearly eight years since he took up the position in the city.

Paul Bayes united with leaders of other faiths following the terror attack outside Liverpool Women’s Hospital in November last year and has spoken up about the rights of the LGBTQ+ community and the increasingly ‘rancid and dangerous’ current political culture.

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He recently co-signed a letter with the mayor of Liverpool calling on home secretary Priti Patel to withdraw the Nationality and Borders Bill stating that it would create a ‘hostile two-tiered asylum system’.

The process to find a new bishop has begun. Bishop of Warrington, Bev Mason, will have the authority and care of the diocese until the new appointment.

LiverpoolWorld spoke to the outgoing bishop of Liverpool about his views, and hopes for the city he describes as having a ‘golden heart’.

How did you become the bishop of Liverpool?

I was ordained in the church back in 1979, so it was quite late on in my ministry that I came to Liverpool, I have previously worked in other roles including as a vicar, university chaplain and for six years for the archbishop of Canterbury as a national adviser.

The bishop in Liverpool city centre. Photo: The Diocese of Liverpool

I became the bishop of Hertford for four years. I was then asked to look at Liverpool, it’s a wonderful city and I also knew that the church was doing all sorts of lovely stuff here, so when I was asked I was really delighted.

Why have you decided now is the right time to retire? Will you stay in Liverpool?

The bishop of Liverpool Paul Bayes will be leaving the city to retire to Bath. Photo: The Diocese of Liverpool

I could retire at 65 and you have to retire at 70, I’m 68 so I always said I wanted to split the difference. Coming though the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s no such thing as the new normal yet, but were getting to the point where we vaguely know what the future might look like.

If I had stayed on to the last possible minute it would still have only been for another 18 months so I thought it would be good to bail out now so my successor can really get a grip on things.

You clear off so your successor can get a clear run at things when you’re a bishop. When I was working for the archbishop there was a lot of travel and you could live where you liked, my wife, who is now retired, was a teacher and she got a job in Bath, Somerset, we bought a tiny little terraced house and we’ve kept that house on. We let it out to tenants and now that’s paid off the mortgage so we are going to move back into that house in Bath and start a new chapter.

I hope it’s going to be a more inward chapter in my life, somebody once said being a bishop is not rocket science, but it is relentless and things keep coming at you and you do your best to serve God and meet the needs that come to you.

I had three-month sabbatical about three years ago, I managed to write a book and I enjoyed that. After we have moved, I will have a rest and then do some writing. It will be a more introvert life than the one we have now.

What have you noticed about the people of the city that makes it special?

When I knew I was going to become bishop, but nobody else knew, my wife and I came up and stayed in one of the hotels in Liverpool. Every time we went back in the evening, they didn’t know who we were, but they were really interested in what we had been doing.

As someone who was born in the north, in Yorkshire, but who has lived most of my life in the south it has been great to come to the north west and connect with people who are interested.

In some of the poorer parts of the community in Liverpool we have little churches and they are just salt of the earth people and it’s just fabulous to connect with them and see them making a difference.

The work that some of our churches are doing in areas like Kirkdale and Norris Green [is wonderful], it’s always a pleasure to meet people from those communities because they are real people, there’s no side to them, they will tell you what they think and that side of Scouse life is really great.

Plus, I used to be in Hertfordshire, there were only one or two decent places to get a coffee in the whole county, whereas here you fall over them in the middle of the city.

I’ve still not drunk my way round all the great coffee shops in Liverpool. Bath have a few, but I will miss the coffee culture in Liverpool.

What helped you during the pandemic lockdown?

In lockdown and the time before vaccinations, it was quite a dangerous world, and you could only go out once a day to exercise.

I never used to do any exercise but I started jogging and walking and the physical aspect of that was really health giving to me. Then we all discovered Zoom. I have an assistant bishop and archdeacons and previously I used to invite them round one by one for breakfast and prayer, but then we could do that by Zoom and we could do it every day.

We had a daily prayer time in the morning and then I would do my exercise, I am quite an introvert, so I didn’t mind that, I’m blessed that we were living in a big house [the bishop’s lodge], with big rooms so it didn’t feel like we were hemmed in during lockdown, so in that sense we got off very lightly.

I came out of lockdown having lost a bit of weight and a bit fitter, I’ve now put the weight back on and as to whether I’m still as fit, only my doctor would be able to know that.

We saw a great show of unity in Liverpool after the bombing of Liverpool Women’s Hospital, however, the Church of England has been criticised for confirming asylum seekers into Christianity – now we know more about the bomber Emad al-Swealmeen what are your views?

Liverpool’s faith leaders outside the Women’s Hospital. Image: LCC

The churches stood together and so did the different faiths in Liverpool, that’s because we have regular meetings and we know each other so we know if a horrid thing [like the bombing] happens, we already have that relationship there, and we were able to step into that.

A number of asylum seekers and refugees come to Liverpool. You get some who are Christians who have been given a hard time in their own countries and then they plug into Christian churches here. You get people of other faiths who express an interest in the Christian faith and we try to share the truth about Jesus as we see it with them.

But it’s also true that we’re there for everybody, if they’re hungry our food banks are not just for Christians. We make relationships in a whole bunch of different ways.

This young man [Emad al-Swealmeen], clearly as we hear more about him, his mental health was in doubt and he badly wanted to be accepted as a refugee.

I think in the minds of some people, becoming a Christian is a good way to do that, they think the government will say, ‘oh you are a Christian you must be ok’, but the government doesn’t say that and quite rightly the government tribunals are very sceptical about people who become Christians so it doesn’t help you get your citizenship.

We’ve got a number of people in Liverpool, mostly from Iran, who become Christians because they think the Christian faith is true and they know it won’t help their asylum application much but it gives them a family and it gives them a faith.

I think that’s what my colleagues thought that young man was like. Maybe he was like that because people with a mental illness, they can believe one thing one minute and all of a sudden it’s all different again.

So, I don’t think the churches were manipulated by this guy, mainly because his citizenship application was refused and if he was trying to play the churches then he would have packed it in at that point.

But I think he did stay in touch with Christian friends, so, I think like a lot of people he was a bit confused, he wanted human friendship and wasn’t sure about God.

But certainly the feeling, ‘here was a man who has taken advantage of the church’, I resisted that, partly because some of the people who said it were trying to drive a wedge - putting it crudely - between Christians and Muslims and there were some quite right wing extremist things said.

We’re resisting that and we’re standing up against it, so in a sense we [the church] may have taken a hit for being gullible or whatever, but I’d rather do that than take a hit for being exclusive or uncaring.

In the Bible it says you have to be as wise a serpents as well as innocent as doves. No church is in a position to decide on asylum applications and I hope we will be open to people in the future.

You have tweeted that our political culture is increasingly rancid and dangerous. Why? In an ideal world what you would like to see prime minister Boris Johnson do?

Boris Johnson.

Cressida Dick has stepped down and you’ll hear people are saying the reason she has stepped down is because you can’t just blame the Metropolitan Police culture on a few bad apples.

I think you can’t just blame political culture on a few bad apples. I don’t think it’s true there are one or two chancers in a political life that’s otherwise all squeaky clean.

I think the whole culture is at risk. I’m old enough to remember at the start of the Falklands conflict the 1980s when Lord Carrington, the foreign secretary, resigned. Not because he’d done anything wrong, but because he took responsibility for his department.

It’s hard to imagine anything political for which people might resign today. I think that’s a pity. John Major has spoken from a different political generation about this, about political culture, and I agree with Sir John, I think that courtesy, honesty and integrity are suspected now.

People say all politicians are the same: they’re only in it for what they can get. I think a culture where that happens is dangerous for democracy.

You may get demagogues who say, ‘they’re all the same, they’re all awful let’s just throw democracy over’ and of course sometimes in the United States that’s what you see happening and that’s why I think it’s rancid and dangerous.

What the prime minister should do is a matter for him, but it would be good to feel the steps he takes to come terms with what might be happening are transparent. Not only with him, but with a lot of other politicians.

You get the sense that people would rather blur everything and fudge everything. I said in one of my sermons that fudge is sweet but you can’t live on it.

Do you feel the church is any closer to changing attitudes towards those from the LGBTQ+ community?

Bishop of Liverpool Paul Bayes has spoken about LGBTQ+ rights. Photo: The Diocese of Liverpool

In the Church of England we have had all these agonised conversations and they will go on for some years, about whether we can be faithful to the Bible and accept LGBTQ+ people.

My own view is that we can and we should. It would be good to recognise LGBTQ+ relationships.

Recently, I have said it would be good if we could marry same-sex couples in church. I believe that is the direction of travel of the churches and that we should continue down that road.

I don’t think we should have people splitting off and doing their own thing. I hope for a church where we can all agree if people want to celebrate the love of same sex people that they can do that. If other people have a contentious problem then they should have the right to exercise their right of conscience.

In much the same way we do now in the Church of England over divorced people, no vicar has to marry someone with a previous partner still living, but the freedom to do that is given to the conscience of local leaders. I long for the day when the church as a whole will be like that.

There are other Christians who disagree with that and say if things change they couldn’t possibly stay in the Church of England. I hope they change their minds about that. Hopefully, it will happen in my lifetime and God willing I’ll live long enough to see it.

What are your hopes for Liverpool going forward and do you have any words of advice for your successor?

Paul Bayes at Another Place by Antony Gormley. Photo:The Diocese of Liverpool

I have a lot of time for the metro mayor, the mayor of Liverpool, local leadership and our local MPs, I think we are well led.

I hope the direction of travel towards transparency and integrity in the city will continue and I hope that the city won’t be penalised for basically facing the opposite way from the rest of the country.

People talk about the ‘red wall’, here in Liverpool, the whole diocese, there’s only one Conservative MP and that’s in Southport. The rest is Labour.

I hope that reality will be understood by my successor. I don’t mean that my successor should be a Labour-voting socialist, but people who live in this city need to know pretty quickly that this city is not typical of England.

I hope that whoever comes here will meet the city on its own terms and find out the golden heart of the place and then be able to speak up for it.

That’s what my predecessor bishop James [Jones] did over Hillsborough. That’s what his predecessor bishop David Sheppard did over the riots in Toxteth. I’ve tried to do that by speaking out over people on universal credit and other things, as well as the LGBT community.

I hope the new bishop will find their own way of identifying with Liverpool people and being a voice for this region.