Durham's next bishop eschews controversy: Michael Turnbull believes in the Virgin Birth and in Hell, writes Andrew Brown

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The Independent Online
THE NEXT Bishop of Durham said yesterday it was a pity there had not been a photocall at the Resurrection. The Right Rev Michael Turnbull, the Bishop of Rochester for the last six years, will be translated to Durham on 6 July, when the Right Rev David Jenkins retires.

Dr Jenkins, 69, caused a huge controversy at the time of his own appointment in 1984 when he told an interviewer that the Resurrection 'was not just a conjuring trick with bones'. People began to think he had dismissed the Resurrection as a conjuring trick with bones.

Bishop Turnbull, 58, an evangelical, was anxious to avoid any such excitement yesterday, when speaking at Church House, central London. After the Resurrection, he said that he believed in the Virgin Birth and in Hell, though not, perhaps, in eternal damnation.

Dr Jenkins had made the diocese famous throughout the world by the vigour with which he attacked what he saw as mythological fancies, such as the Virgin Birth, the Three Wise Men, and Conservative industrial policies. He did not believe in any of them.

Bishop Turnbull was more circumspect. He would not go so far as to assert that the traditional Christmas story was true. But he was not prepared to deny the picturesque bits out of hand. 'We don't know, really, whether the Wise Men were a historical event. But the New Testament would be poorer without these stories. It is quite possible that there were visitors from the East who did come and make some kind of homage to the infant Christ.'

Bishop Turnbull was definitely in favour of the Virgin Birth, which Dr Jenkins denies on theological grounds: he believes that though God could have worked such a miracle, it would have been out of character to do so.

Dr Jenkins caused most of his theological ructions by accident, but his political storms were more calculated. He described Ian MacGregor, chairman of the Coal Board during the miner's strike, as 'an elderly imported American', and his only regret is that he said 'American' not 'Canadian'.

Bishop Turnbull has no such ambitions. He said that the established church had to be politically involved, but that this would normally involve working closely with the government of the day.

Asked what he was proudest of among his accomplishments in Rochester, Kent, he replied that the diocese had opened six new churches, and planned to open four more; and that he had set up an order of lay evangelists.

Durham, said Bishop Turnbull, was a diocese with a long evangelical tradition, going back to St Cuthbert in 687. He produced no more recent examples of missionary zeal; in fact Durham, the fourth most senior see in the country, has this century been regarded as a position for the Church's intellectuals. Bishop Turnbull's appointment will be seen in some quarters as putting a stop to the excitements previously generated.

The only substantial area on which he disagrees with Dr Jenkins appears to be the treatment of gay clergy. Dr Jenkins has protected men in his diocese against pressure from parishioners who disapproved of their boyfriends. Bishop Turnbull, asked what his policy would be, replied that: 'An admitted and open lifestyle is incompatible with full-time ministry.'

Nor is he sympathetic to Anglo-Catholic causes. Asked whether he feared a mass exodus of opponents of women priests, he said: 'We were told a year ago that 2,000 would leave. Now even the people making the claims say it will be 250; and nationally, only 35 have said they will go.'

Dr Jenkins gave a valedictory talk yesterday in Durham in his traditional style. 'It's a vast mistake to use the resources of the state to suppress blasphemy,' he said.

'God was quite prepared to risk his own death, so defending him from blasphemy is a waste of time. God is the surprise of the universe, not its answer.'

(Photographs omitted)