Outspoken: the former Bishop of Durham, Dr David Jenkins (1925-2016)Credit: KEITH BLUNDY
Outspoken: the former Bishop of Durham, Dr David Jenkins (1925-2016)
THE former Bishop of Durham Dr David Jenkins (1984-94) died on Sunday morning, aged 91, a statement from the diocese confirmed on Monday.
Dr Jenkins, whose career was marked by his strong political and theological views, died in Barnard Castle, County Durham, and had been living with Alzheimer’s disease for several years, his family said. His wife, Molly, died in 2008.
The Bishop of Jarrow, the Rt Revd Mark Bryant, said in the statement that Dr Jenkins’s impact in the wider community had been “perhaps even greater than in the Church”.
Dr Jenkins was Bishop of Durham during the miners’ strike in 1984, of which he was a passionate supporter. He was also forthright in his criticism of policies pursued by the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and the Conservative government, and spoke out in the House of Lords against the decline of industry and rising poverty in the north-east of England.
“Certainly there are many in the mining community who still speak of him with great affection,” Bishop Bryant said. “I was lucky enough to meet him on two or three occasions shortly after I arrived in the north-east, and his energy and sharpness of vision were still much in evidence.”
The Archdeacon of Sunderland, the Ven. Stuart Bain, recalled his “electrifying sermon” at his enthronement, during the strike in 1984, and “his less than flattering” comments about Ian MacGregor, the head of the National Coal Board. “The first and only time I have ever heard spontaneous applause during a sermon in Durham Cathedral.” (He had called MacGregor “an elderly imported American”.)
Dr Jenkins was born on 26 January 1925 in Bromley, Kent, in a Methodist family, though 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, when he was called to serve in the Second World War.
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 Headquarters in India, and did not return to the UK until 1947, when he was a Captain in the Royal Indian Artillery.
On his return home he went into academia, taking up a scholarship to The Queen’s College, Oxford, where he fostered some of his more liberal views.
Dr Jenkins graduated in 1954, and was ordained priest by the Bishop of Birmingham after studying at Lincoln Theological College. He served his curacy at St Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham, but was not destined for parish life, returning to his College as chaplain and a Fellow.
He continued to lecture in theology at Oxford until 1969, when he took up directorate posts at the World Council of Churches, and the William Temple Foundation. He was appointed Professor of Theology at the University of Leeds in 1979.
Mrs Thatcher allowed his name to go forward as Bishop of Durham after his predecessor, Dr John Habgood, became the Archbishop of York. The decision was met with widespread criticism, however. A petition of more than 12,000 signatures was delivered to the Archbishop of York, denouncing his suitability.
His consecration in York Minster was also blighted with protests. A fire caused by a lightning strike two days later was taken as a sign of “divine outrage” by his fiercest critics.
Dr Jenkins told BBC radio in an interview shortly afterwards: “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.”
He later questioned whether the resurrection of Jesus was “literally physical? After all, a conjuring trick with bones only proves that somebody is clever at a conjuring trick with bones.”
Dr Jenkins had previously suggested that the Virgin birth was a late addition to the Bible by early Christians to convince others that Jesus was the Messiah. He told the religious programme, Credo, on Channel 4: “I wouldn’t put it past God to arrange a virgin birth if he wanted, but I very much doubt he would.”
He continued to ruffle feathers in his retirement, when he served as an honorary assistant bishop of the diocese of Ripon & Leeds. In 2005, he was criticised for blessing a civil partnership between two gay men, one of whom was the Vicar of Holy Trinity, Darlington, the Revd Christopher Wardale.
Archdeacon Bain said: “Occasionally one did get a bit worried when the twinkle seemed to appear in his eye when he was speaking and you were never quite sure what he would say next. Often his more controversial comments about God got people talking about theology, debating and thinking about their faith; and, frankly, that had to be a good thing.”
Bishop Bryant said: “We thank God for his life and ministry and in particular for his time as Bishop of this diocese, and we pray for his family.”