Faith and Reason: Literal belief in bishops exploded: Peter Mullen this week pays a back-handed tribute to Dr David Jenkins, whose absence will make duller this weekend's meeting of the General Synod in York.

THEOLOGIANS and dignitaries from every diocese in the Church of England are to meet for a symposium in honour of the Right Rev David Jenkins, who retired as Bishop of Durham last week. I mingled with the distinguished participants in the grand hall of Auckland Castle and was privileged to be given a preview of the various tributes to be paid to Dr Jenkins.

The proceedings were to begin with a lecture by Dr Dowtitt-Etcherly, Visiting Professor of Negative Ontology at the University of Erehwon, who, during the cocktails and canapes, whispered in my ear: 'The truth is, of course, that David Jenkins does not exist. I wouldn't put it past God to arrange for there to be a David Jenkins if that's what he wanted - but I very much doubt that he did.'

'Ja,' chortled Professor the Reverend Nein from the Fahrtgesprach College of Modern Preachers in Ulm-am-Ahre 'This Jenkins-type figure which they refer to as Jenkins is nicht Jenkins aber Jenkinsheit allein.'

''What is Jenkinsheit?' I dared to ask.

Professor Nein beamed and poured himself another lager: 'That is easy. When people in their existential experience - Dasein Experienz - feel Jenkins-type qualities, they say 'There must be an actual Jenkins - Es muss ein Jenkins sein.' '

'They can't help it, you see,' added Dowtitt-Etcherly helpfully. 'Primitive 20th-century people are unable to express pure abstract qualities. They have to personalise these things. It's hard for them to imagine, say, talkativeness, intellectual vacuity and self-publicity as qualities, so they have to invent a person who is then said to embody them. So they say 'David Jenkins'.'

'Sort of like an incarnation?' I said. But the two Reverend Professors only frowned and busied themselves with the sausages on sticks.

'But if there never was a Jenkins,' I persevered, 'why have people turned out to celebrate him?'

'Nein, you have nicht the understanding]' said the Professor 'They are celebrating themselves. There ist no Jenkins. 'He is ein epiphenomenon.'

'He means,' said Dowtitt-Etcherly, 'that these people probably once knew someone Jenkins-like: perhaps a cuddly old uncle with daft ideas - someone they were attached to as children. Now the old uncle is dead but the people still remember his cuddliness and the daft ideas. The remembrance is so strong that they think the old uncle Jenkins-like has come back from the dead.'

'Ja. Es lebe Jenkins]' said Nein almost choking on a vol-au-vent.

It was too much and I protested: 'But we know that Jenkins exists] We have evidence. The four television channels he was always appearing on.'

At this, a great number of distinguished academics and radical clergymen hemmed me in and pressed upon me so that I feared the worst. I recognised some of them.

There were Drs Vacuous and Limbo who, as the Archbishop's Chief Theological Advisers, had published the best-selling book (and accompanying video) Religion is Tosh. There was the gaunt figure of Professor Abgott from the University of St Embryo and All Research Stinks Department, at Uppsala. And there was Deaconess (soon to be priested) Krone Menschstrangler from the Faculty of Politics, Semiology and Arm-wrestling.

'Come of age, laddie]' said Krone. 'You can't possibly believe in a physical, actual David Jenkins in these enlightened times. And besides, the four television channels all present him in different ways. So there is no possibility of discovering a real, historical David Jenkins.'

I said, 'But Dr Jenkins himself claimed to be the Bishop of Durham.'

'Nein,' said Professor Nein. 'That is only Redaktionengeschichte - or, as you say, newspaper talk.'

'But what do you make of well-attested reports that he had a previous existence - at Leeds University, that he was consecrated at York Minster in 1984?'

'You'll be claiming next,' said Abgott, 'that the Minster was struck by lightning around that time] A primitive myth, that's all - like the Star of Bethlehem.'

'But what about his support for the coal industry?'

'Ah,' said Nein, 'You mean the Gemeinschaft fur spezial Pleading] That was just the pits. Ha] Ha] Ja?'

But Nein's laughter faded and there was a hush throughout the great hall and a wiry, dapper figure with bright eyes and white hair trotted into the room. He stood at the foot of the stairs and began to address the symposium. 'Ah yes, well, good morning, good evening. Yes. No. Er, yes and no. For the no, you see, is part of the yes. And when we say yes we mean no and vice versa. Because the very yes-ness itself is part of the no-ness which is to say that what we affirm is what we deny and what we deny . . .'

I was overjoyed. I interrupted: 'See] See] It's him] You can't deny that he exists now. He's here among us in person.'

Whereupon the Jenkins-like epiphenomenon cast a huge sceptical smile in my direction: 'My dear boy,' he said, 'You are confusing hermeneutic criteria with quasi-historical hypothesis, thus leaping to epistemological conclusions which are not justified by the parameters of the existential discourse.'

The various distinguished academics giggled as I said, 'What does that mean?'

'It means,' said the Jenkins-like epiphenomenon, 'that you don't know your ontology from your armpit. You see I really do not exist. I never have existed - except of course in the minds of liberal academics. Moreover, you see, I can prove that I don't exist.'

He took a deep breath and I thought for a moment that he was going to inflate and float away like a Christmas balloon. But he said, 'You remember Descartes said, 'I think, therefore I am'? Well, I have improved on that. Listen: I doubt, therefore I am not]'

And he vanished forever.

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