New Bishop of Leeds is the spy who loved God

The Right Revd Nick Baines. PIC: Lorne Campbell/Guzelian
The Right Revd Nick Baines. PIC: Lorne Campbell/Guzelian
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The man chosen for the big new job in the Church of England has been revealed this week. Jayne Dawson meets the new Bishop of Leeds.

Life certainly has its twists and turns. At the age of 23 Nick Baines was just beginning a job as a spy at the secretive and controversial intelligence centre, GCHQ. It sounds dramatic, but there really is no other way to describe it.

It was the 1980s, the Cold War was at its height, the Russians were the enemy, and even today Nick cannot talk about the work he did during his four years at Government Communication Headquarters, except to say that it involved his skills as a Russian linguist.

Move forward three decades and that very same Nick Baines is now in a different job. He is in fact the Right Reverend Nicholas Baines, who this week has been announced as the new Bishop of Leeds and put in charge of the newest and biggest diocese in the whole of England. You have to admit, it’s quite the change.

As to how it happened, well that’s a big question.

Bishop Nick, as he is now known, was an active church member but it was his experience of GCHQ that made him question the world more deeply.

“It was a strange time. I worked there when Margaret Thatcher not only banned all union representation but removed all our employment rights at a stroke. On a personal level I left the union when I was forced to and rejoined when we won the legal right to be members.

“But the work I was doing meant that a seriousness grew in me. Basically, my belief became more and more that there is only one world and a human being is a human being, wherever they are and whatever they are doing. Eventually I gave up the job and attended theological college.”

The full story for Bishop Nick began in Liverpool. He grew up there, one of five children of a civil servant and a GPO telephonist, and attended his local comprehensive school, before taking a modern languages degree at Bradford University.

It was shaping up to be a conventional life before his job at GCHQ, and the decisions that followed from that, sent him down a different path.

After theological college, he became a curate and vicar for a decade before beginning to be promoted within the church. He was appointed Bishop of Croyden, a post he held for eight years, and then moved to Bradford where he has worked for the last three years.

Along the way he married Linda, a health visitor and artist, and, at the age of 56, has three adult children - Richard, Melanie and Andrew - and two grandchildren.

But for now life is all about the new job, and it is a particularly interesting one because it ends a dramatic chapter in church life when a lot of things happened for the first time.

For starters, to create what is a completely new post, three bishops in Yorkshire had to be made redundant.

The bishops of Bradford, Leeds and Ripon, and Wakefield were all told their patches were being done away with and, as Bishop Nick was the Bishop of Bradford, he was one of those three people.

Then one huge diocese covering more than 2,000 square miles and two million people was created, to be headed by the new Bishop of Leeds.

The idea of all the upheaval was to create a more modern church structure better able to serve the people in the region.

Finally, and also for the first time, a job description for the new Bishop of Leeds was created and the job effectively advertised. It was called a Statement Of Need and was not for the faint-hearted, covering 32 pages.

It rolled out massive statistics about the patch to be covered - which has an economy bigger than eight European countries - and called for “an experienced and inspiring leader with a heart for the people” who would have to tackle “dented morale” and relish the possibility of a “huge change programme”.

Step forward Bishop Nick who seemed to tick every box - except that isn’t quite how it works. Potential bishops are not allowed to apply for the job, but are called for interview.

His interview was on January 9 in front of a panel of 14, including the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, and lasted about an hour and a half, including his own 15-minute presentation. He was asked a lot of good, searching questions and the experience wasn’t too bad, he says.

He was then told he was the preferred candidate and two names were submitted to the Prime Minister who, by convention, accepts the first one of the list.

After that Bishop Nick was asked if he would accept the job and at that point the Queen appointed him.

“The Queen can’t ask you initially in case you refuse, it has to be certain that you will accept,” he said.

In fact Bishop Nick knew for three weeks before the official announcement this week that the job was his .

“It was painful having to keep it a secret. My wife knew and our children worked it out for themselves, I didn’t tell them, and that was it.”

There is still process and pomp and ceremony to be gone through, and the new diocese does not yet exist, officially coming into being in April, but all will be sorted by the summer.

Bishop Nick, who now begins a sabbatical in which he says he intends to read a lot of books, seems comfortable with the newness of it all. “I was the first bishop in history to be made redundant and the first to be elected to a diocese that doesn’t yet exist,” he says.

In recent times his name has actually been mentioned in connection with many top jobs in the Church of England, including the Archbishop of Canterbury which, in the event, went to former oil executive Justin Welby.

So did he take the soon-to-be-redundant job in Bradford because he was hoping to be made Bishop of Leeds?

“No, I didn’t expect it, though I know other people mentioned my name, but that is just something that happens when a post needs to be filled.

“I thought that I would need to move on when the Bradford post went, but I imagined someone completely fresh would be chosen to fill the Leeds post.”

As for what sort of bishop he wants to be, he said: “I want to be a humane bishop, one who can lead effectively and who can communicate.

“The whole point of the church is to create space in which people can find that they have been found by God.

“The church does need to grow in terms of worshippers, but I want it to grow in confidence.”

On a much more pragmatic level, he says the job also means he will now have to add Leeds United, Huddersfield Town, Barnsley and Halifax town to his existing list of football affections.

One thing is certain. Bishop Nick is a thoroughly modern bishop. He is known as a great communicator and is an experienced broadcaster.

You might well have heard him on Radio 2, bringing Liverpudlian wit and sparkle to Pause For Thought, now on the Chris Evans show, to which he has contributed for the last ten years, and also on the Radio 4 Thought for the Day

His slots can cover all manner of subjects from Star Trek to Monty Python to the Rolling Stones to help him get his message across.

As well as that he writes a blog called Musings of A Restless Bishop which has around ten thousand readers each week where he is not afraid to tackle the big subjects of life and death.

He is also an enthusiastic tweeter with thousands of followers. In and amongst he has written six books.

He said: “New media offers access to people who might otherwise seem to belong to a remote and mysterious world.

I’m passionate about Christian engagement in the big, wide world. not on our own terms but on the basis that we get stuck in wherever we can; committed to the world in all its pain and glory. And it’s something about which we need to be a bit bolder and thicker-skinned.”

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