Born in Bideford, Devon, the son of Reverend Lionel and Florence James was educated in Northampton Grammar School, Lancaster University, where graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1972, Oxford University, where he received a Diploma in Theology in 1974 and Cuddesdon Theological College, Oxford.
Ordained as deacon in 1975 and one year later as priest, James was assistant curate of Christ the Carpenter from 1975 to 1978. He worked in Christ the King, Digswell from 1979 to 1983, became a member of the Advisory Council for the Church's Ministry in 1983 and held this post until 1987. Between 1983 and 1985, he was Selection Secretary and Secretary for Continuing Education and between 1985 and 1987 Senior Selection Secretary. James was Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie from 1987 to 1993 and Bishop Suffragan of St Germans in the Diocese of Truro from 1993 to 1999. Since 1995, he is a member of the Church of England General Synod and since 1999 71st Bishop of Norwich. In 2004, James was appointed to be a Lord Spiritual and to sit in the House of Lords. Since 2006, he is also a member of the Archbishops' Council and Chair of the Ministry Division, Church of England.
James has been married to Julie Anne Freemantle since 1978; they have one son and two daughters, one deceased.