Meet the Leeds city centre vicar on a mission

Rev James Barnett, minister to New Communities in Leeds.
Rev James Barnett, minister to New Communities in Leeds.
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Leeds city centre can seem a pretty godless place at times, but it’s James Barnett’s job to change that.

“Faith is a thing I fight for,” he tells Grant Woodward.

SPEAK to someone who has wandered sober through Leeds city centre late at night and you may find it hard to convince them there is all that much spirituality on show.

Spirits, sure. There are plenty of those being knocked back by the drinkers who pack the many buzzy bars and nightclubs.

But as for any discernible evidence of faith or religion? That’s a bit harder to put your finger on.

The same feeling pervades many of the flashier parts of the centre during daylight hours too.

While Leeds has embraced city living in a big way, it would be a bit of a stretch to claim there is any real sense of soul or community here.

Apartment block residents live behind walls guarded by entry-coded gates and railings. Neighbours seldom know each other and the traditional ties that bind individuals together in other communities no longer seem to apply.

But then by the very nature of their being here it could be argued that city dwellers are consciously removing themselves from the sometimes claustrophobic nature of suburban life.

And it’s precisely this that makes James Barnett’s job all the more difficult.

James is the newly-branded Minister to New Communities, whose task is to provide spiritual support to those living in the apartment buildings concentrated along the River Aire.

Ask him why he got the job (he was formerly vicar at St George’s Church on Great George Street) and he says he’s not too sure.

But chat to him for a few minutes and it’s actually pretty easy to see why.

A personable 34-year-old (although he reckons the mostly younger crowd who populate his new parish consider him ‘an old fart’), he plays rugby every Saturday and isn’t averse to the odd drink or three.

Raised in Halifax in a church-going family (his brother is a serving police officer with West Yorkshire Police), he swapped physics for theology at university and subsequently became a vicar.

But while his first posting was on a sink estate in Bolton, he’s quick to recognise that his new gig is a different beast altogether.

So does he think it’s going to be a difficult job?

“Yes and no. It’s not a difficult job in the sense of what I’m asked to do. My job is to spend time with people, invest in them, care for them and talk about something that ultimately everybody’s interested in, which is God.

“People may go, ‘I don’t want anything to do with it’ but we all at some point ask the question ‘Does God exist?’ And while we may come to different conclusions, we all ask it.

“The difficult part of the job is that the area I’m working in seems largely untouched by the church. Have I met many Christians living down there? No. Would it be difficult to persuade them to come to church? Yeah, it would, because I think people have largely given up on going to church. But then, that’s not what I’m trying to do.”

Instead, in the absence of a physical church to act as a focal point for flat dwellers, James is taking the church to them. But, for all his enthusiasm, it’s not going to be easy.

“The average income in this area is around £40,000, which is a decent amount to earn. It’s an extremely transient area, surprisingly transient in fact, and there seems to be a lack of community.

“But people are people. Whether you’re rich or poor. The people I’ve encountered are warm, welcoming and generous. They want to sit down and chat and we’ll talk about anything.

“Some of the people I’ve met are lonely, others are struggling with problems you would expect to find on an estate somewhere.

“I think people assume that if you’re rich then you’re going to be all right. But it doesn’t always work out like that.

“Just because you’re well off it doesn’t exclude you from the struggles that we all go through. No matter how wealthy you are, you still have needs.”

And James is clear that he doesn’t want to preach. Even if someone doesn’t share his beliefs he’s still keen to get to know them. His interest, he says, is in the individual, not in their religion or lack of it.

“Am I in the conversion business?” he ponders. “Yeah, of course I am. But I would hate for that to be written in a way that sounds aggressive or self-righteous.

“I will happily sit down with an atheist and we’ll have a proper argument about what we think, share a drink and then both go home and say we’ve made a good friend.

“The product is not the problem, the way we’re selling it is. The church talks about itself too much. I am genuinely passionate about going to where people are at and seeing if there’s any way I can be of support and help point them in the right direction.”

Word of mouth, pitching up at various meetings of organisations and groups connected with city centre living, plus the de rigeur Facebook and Twitter pages, have been James’s principal means of reaching out to residents. But it’s not easy.

“It’s a nightmare,” he admits, rubbing his bald head and letting out a groan. “90 per cent of people I will never meet. But I’ve got to find a way of accessing as many as I can.”

What would help is having somewhere to base himself. To that end he’s currently in talks to secure a rent-free unit on Clarence Dock.

I wonder if he thinks something must be missing from the lives of the people he’s trying to help?

“I guess you’ve got to take it on a case by case basis,” he considers. “For some people, no, there isn’t. I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to say there’s a God-shaped hole in everybody’s life.

“But does a relationship with God enhance your life? Yes, I believe it does. Remove God from my life and there’s not that much there.

“Is God there for the difficult times? Yes. But is God also in the business of partying? Yes. The first miracle Jesus does is turning water into wine, that’s got to be a statement if ever there was.

“So for the twenty-something who’s out there partying and having a great time, I would say Christianity is as much for them as it is for the next person.”

This sense of celebration in religion is not new – James describes himself in theological terms as a charismatic evangelical – but it’s not quite the same thing as what goes on in the city centre on a Friday or Saturday night, is it?

James, who lives in Meanwood with wife Clare and their three young children, is clearly no killjoy. But I can’t help but wonder what he makes of the scenes played out in his new parish after dark.

“I’ve had some really great nights out in Leeds city centre, I think it’s a fantastic place to go out,” he says. “But there are parts of it that make me sad and worried about what’s going on in people’s lives.

“Don’t get me wrong, there are parts of it I think are fantastic, people genuinely having a really good night out. Happy days. But I also see a lot of people who on the surface seem to be enjoying themselves but underneath it all I’m not convinced they are.

“There’s a thin line between having a great time and pretending you are. There’s a lot of drink and a lot of drugs. Coke is the drug of choice and people seem to be enjoying it.

“But what people tell me is that there are massive highs and massive lows, it’s flipping expensive and very addictive. If you think they can get away with it, more power to you. But I’m not convinced you can. I think it will come back to bite most people on the butt.

“And I certainly feel that a lot of the drugs are papering over other stuff, people who are very lonely or messed up, people who can’t engage with real life.

“That frightens me. That makes me worried for Leeds. If Leeds wants to get a reputation for being a party city that’s not a problem for me, as long as Leeds has also got a reputation for being a city that can engage with real life and can engage with its problems. And I’m not sure it is at that point yet.”

Despite the many hurdles in his way, though, James isn’t about to give up on his new flock in a hurry.

He’s got a five-year contract and is determined to make a difference, to be there for those who feel there might be something missing in their lives or who just need someone to talk to.

“People are intrinsically spiritual beings,” he tells me before I go.

“Spirituality is not about sitting locked in your room talkiing to God, it’s as much about the way we relate to each other as anything else.

“And I would certainly be slow to criticise somebody else’s lifestyle without sitting down and actually spending some time getting to know them.”

* James can be contacted via email: at