Not such a blasphemous bishop

by
09 September 2016

Evangelicals should recall the prophetic example of David Jenkins, argues Philip Lockley

PA

Reaching out: Dr Jenkins in 1984, at the HQ of the pit-deputies union in Doncaster, when it voted to strike

Reaching out: Dr Jenkins in 1984, at the HQ of the pit-deputies union in Doncaster, when it voted to strike

THE passing of Dr David Jenkins, a former Bishop of Durham, will be greeted with mixed emotions by many Evangelical Anglicans. For an older generation, he epitomised the dangers of theological liberalism in the Church hierarchy — supposedly squandering the potential of his public platform to sow seeds of doubt, and not faith.

For a younger generation, his name — if people have heard it at all — is one of several shorthands for how the Church of England lost the plot in the 1980s. But now that Evangelical opinions and priorities appear safely back in the ascend­ancy in the Church — indeed, in much of the episcopate — there is perhaps a collective sigh of quiet relief going round: “We’ll not see his like again.”

This response is a pity, and the future Church will be poorer, the longer it persists. I write this not out of any party allegiance to the wing of the Church which Dr Jenkins represented, but as a young Open Evangelical, who dipped into Dr Jenkins’s theology out of curiosity, and found it nothing like his rumoured reputation. Viewed with dispassion, his time as Bishop of Durham throws up several chal­lenging lessons for Evangelicals today.

 

FOR someone dubbed the “Bishop of Blasphemy” by the tabloid media, Dr Jenkins wrote an extraordinary amount about God in conventional Trinitarian terms. He also con­­stantly related his faith in a triune God of love to the God revealed in the Bible; he only insisted that “the God of the Bible is not shut up in the Bible.”

For Dr Jenkins, “the gift of biblical faith in the living God” was about facing up to reality — a reality of our past, present, and future, which God is most certainly involved in and active through. It was this that convinced him of the urgency of the need to realign elements of Christian theology with modern, post-Enlightenment thought-forms, and scientific and historical discoveries.

God has no “normative world-view” — whether from Ancient Israel, first-century Palestine, or even Reformation Europe. Rather, God is alive and at work through the diversity and dynamism of creation and human history.

Here — Charismatics may be surprised to learn — a bold belief in the Holy Spirit loomed large in Dr Jenkins’s theology. Indeed, while he was Bishop of Durham, he often mocked an ecclesiastical culture that seemed to have less faith in the Holy Spirit than in the Church Commissioners.

 

DR JENKINS always insisted that his efforts to communicate modern ways of talking about God were missional in purpose: he was at­­tempting to engage an audience outside the Church; to let them know that Christianity was not as superstitious and intellectually in­­defensible as atheists had as­­sumed.

And yet press coverage focused unflinchingly on the opposition that he provoked within the Church — an opposition driven largely by media accounts of his “unbelief”, not what he actually said. A clerical protester who interrupted Dr Jenkins’s consecration with shouts of dissent later admitted to The Guardian that “he had never met the new bishop, nor had he heard the television programme. . . He had just read about it in the newspaper.”

Almost all the controversy that Dr Jenkins attracted with his public theology fitted a paradigm of media reportage which had been forged two decades before, in the prodigious heat and equivocal light of the Honest to God affair. Back then, Dr John Robinson had rehearsed the part of the donnish “unbelieving bishop”, too clever by half for the punters in the pews, and Fleet Street had lapped it up. Who knew, until then, that the old Regency cry of “Church in danger” could sell so many papers or paperbacks in the Swinging Sixties?

Of course, Dr Jenkins added a new dimension to this cardboard cut-out, “loony prelate” role for the 1980s, when he made his political opinions known: on the miners’ strike, the Conservatives’ “wicked” cuts to benefits, and an industrial strategy apparent­ly at ease with re-enacting William the Con­queror’s “harrow­ing of the North”.

 

ALL this should be instructive for Evangelical Anglicans today — not least, those filling increasing num­bers of positions on the bishops’ bench. This is because a problematic media paradigm still remains when reporting on the Church. Newspapers and broadcasters want to notice only institutional contr­o­versy, never consensus; Christian “reaction” is a story only when it fits a framework of a fear of changing orthodoxies, and never a radical response to the gospel.

As Archbishop of Can­­terbury, Dr Williams just about escaped the donnish-lefty box that lay in wait for him, as the heir-apparent to the Robinson-Jenkins media legacy.

If, however, Arch­bishop Welby and others, including the present Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, are finding themselves called by the imperative of their Evan­gelical faith to criticise the injustices of social policies, economic assump­tions, or regional strategies today, they might well find themselves subject to altern­ative efforts to side­line and ridicule them.

If they cannot be skewered for heresy, that other stock narrative of empty pews and declining numbers will soon be wheeled out to em­­phasise the Church’s irrelevance, with the suggestion that no one is listening.

The answer from Dr Jenkins’s life, however, would seem to be this: stand by your vision of God, and speak to and for the people anyway. A population does listen when a thoughtful, honest, and concerned Christian leader speaks. One of the reasons why he was so significant was that people listened, despite their not being in the pews.

Tears were wept across County Durham when Dr Jenkins retired in 1994. He is still remembered as the bishop who reached out to a public beyond the Church, never shutting up about the God who loves us. What could be more Evangelical than that?

 

Dr Philip Lockley is an ordinand at Cranmer Hall, Durham. He was formerly a Lecturer in Theology at Trinity College, Oxford, and taught modern church history in the university.

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