THE Rt Revd Dr David Jenkins, who died on Sunday, aged 91, was the Bishop of Durham cast in a media storm in 1984 as an “unbelieving bishop”, and later by the Prime Minister who had elevated him to the episcopate as a “cuckoo” in the Church’s nest.
Yet during his ministry he also received many letters of support; and in retirement he looked back on a bruising period with the recognition that he had perhaps sometimes been too frank with reporters, and left hostages to fortune.
This turbulent priest was born on 26 January 1925 in Bromley, Kent, into a Methodist family. After attending a lively Crusader Bible class at Christ Church, Bromley, he was confirmed in the Church of England as a teenager. He attended St Dunstan’s College, Catford, but his education was put on hold in 1943, aged 18, for war service.
After officer training at Harrogate, he was commissioned in the Royal Artillery. When the war ended, he was serving as a staff officer at the General HQ in India. He did not return home until 1947, when he was a Captain in the Royal Indian Artillery.
He took up a scholarship to The Queen’s College, Oxford, and graduated in 1954. He fell under the influence of the liberal Catholic theology of Charles Gore, and was ordained priest by the Bishop of Birmingham, Leonard Wilson, after studying at Lincoln Theological College. He served his title at Birmingham Cathedral, lecturing at The Queen’s College, Birmingham, before returning to his Oxford college as Chaplain and Fellow.
He continued to teach at Oxford, lecturing to students, including ordinands, on the radical theology that had become a ferment in the Church and media in Britain in the wake of Honest to God, until 1969. Then, he took up a new post of Director of Humanum Studies at the World Council of Churches, an outcome of the Uppsala Conference of 1968. With its anthropological and social emphasis, this broadened his understanding of the scope of the gospel.
He lived in Geneva with his wife, Molly, and family until 1973, when he left to become Director of the William Temple Foundation, in Manchester. Appointed Professor of Theology at the University of Leeds in 1979, he retained his Manchester association as Joint Director.
In 1984, Dr John Habgood was translated from Durham to York. Durham was viewed as an academic see, and Jenkins, now an “open” theologian, was regarded by the Crown Appointments Commission as a suitable nominee. This was confirmed by Downing Street under the constitutional arrangements put in place under James Callaghan.
Disparaging remarks about the General Synod which Jenkins made on the BBC Sunday programme promptly got him into a debate in the Church Times letters columns. But this was only a warm-up. In May, in an interview on the LWT programme Credo, which followed a controversial series, Jesus: The Evidence, he spoke about the Virgin birth: “I wouldn’t put it past God to arrange a virgin birth if he wanted to, but I very much doubt if he would. . .”
What ensued recalled the storm over Hensley Henson’s nomination to the see of Hereford in 1917. There was unrest in the diocese, a national petition, and a volume of hostile correspondence which prompted a Church Times leader comment seeking to reassure the readers. Thanking the paper for its support, Jenkins wrote to say that his apostolic responsibility was not to defend credal formulae, but to explore and expound “the great Catholic symbols in the light of the best current knowledge”.
Two days after his consecration in York in July, the Minster caught fire while the press and broadcasters were close to hand for the Synod. The fire was popularly ascribed to a lightning-bolt, though no firm conclusion was reached by the authorities. But, for the media, Jenkins was a gift that went on giving: in a phone-in he spoke of the possibility that the disciples had “pinched” the body of Jesus.
Then, in October, he took part in a discussion for the Radio 4 series Poles Apart, and spoke about the reality of a symbol in history, as opposed to the term “literally physical”: “I was very careful about my use of language. After all, a conjuring trick with bones only proves that somebody is clever at a conjuring trick with bones. I am bothered about what I call ‘God and conjuring tricks’. I am not clear that God manoeuvres physical things. I am clear that he works miracles through personal responses and faith. . .” The phrase “conjuring tricks with bones” was to follow him everywhere.
His enthronement sermon plunged him into fresh storm over the miners’ dispute. He criticised both sides; but suggesting that the Government was indifferent to poverty and social unrest, and that a settlement might be reached by “Mr MacGregor [the Coal Board chairman] withdrawing from his chairmanship and Mr Scargill [the miners’ leader] climbing down from his absolute demands” attracted fire from the Right, which made hay with his description of MacGregor as “an elderly imported American”.
At a meeting in Newcastle in March 1985, Margaret Thatcher commented: “You may have noticed that recently the voices of some reverend and right-reverend prelates have been heard in the land. I make no complaint about that. After all, it wouldn’t be spring, would it, without the voice of the occasional cuckoo!” Her speech gave Jenkins the title of his 2002 memoir, The Calling of the Cuckoo.
A strong supporter of women’s ordination, he was asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, “to make one of your speeches about God” during the final-approval debate in 1992. This and his 1986 speech to the Synod about miracles were republished in The Calling of a Cuckoo.
This book characteristically lacked the clarity and structure of his Free to Believe (1991), which had been co-written with his daughter Rebecca. So far as his theology is concerned, it is possible to imagine someone who has read every word he published remaining quite incapable of articulating it systematically.
He wrote as he spoke. Whether he was preaching from the pulpit at Durham to a packed congregation on Easter Day, delivering a prestigious series of Bampton Lectures, or addressing the Synod on the Virgin birth and physical resurrection of Jesus, the pace and passion of his delivery were as likely to stimulate the emotions of his hearers as to inform their intellects.
But his speed of thought and expression, with its rapid-fire accumulation of adjectives and adverbs, contained a consistent pattern of theological themes that wove a thread throughout his ministry.
First of all, just as Irenaeus asserted that “the Glory of God is a human being fully alive”, so Jenkins celebrated the Glory of Man (the title of his Bampton Lectures in 1966) as a key to grasping the glory of God. Like Irenaeus, Jenkins had a gift for turning a phrase, and his celebrated apophthegm “God is as he is in Jesus, therefore there is hope” exactly captures his theology of the incarnation as God’s response to the admixture of tragedy and glory in our human nature.
Second, Jenkins revelled in the excitement of living with questions. One of his earliest publications was Guide to the Debate about God (1966), and he never tired of debating the big issues, whether in the lecture room, the mass media, or in conversations with concerned parishioners over coffee after church. He was by no means as radical in his beliefs as many have caricatured him, but he was suspicious of easy certainties, and scathing about “certainty-wallahs”. Any kind of fundamentalism which closed down debate made him uneasy. It was this that lay behind his public stance on the Virgin birth and resurrection.
Ian Hislop has told of how he once asked Rowan Williams whether the story of the Three Wise Men was true. “Oh no,” replied the Archbishop, “it’s far more important than that!” Jenkins sought to lift people’s sights above issues of mere historical factuality to truths “far more important than that” — truths that go to the heart of what it means to be human beings fully alive and thereby glorifying God.
By no means least, long before the terms “applied theology” and “contextual theology” became commonplace, Jenkins was applying theology and contextualising it in ways that shed the Light of Christ on socio-economic and political issues with courage and conviction.
As Adrian Hastings observed, Jenkins combined the academic liberal theology of Dennis Nineham with the prophetic liberation theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez, and the impact was felt all the way from the rarefied atmosphere of the WCC HQ in Geneva to the militant minefields of County Durham. His theology was difficult to systemise, but might be summarised as bottom up, freed up, joined up, and down to earth.
He was ever ready to accept what is true in what is new, but he also treasured traditional expressions of Christian belief. He played the melodies of modernity together with the tunes of tradition and thereby reached the ears of those long deaf to the good news of God as he is in Jesus.