Leading Article: The church's loss, the congregation's gain

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The Independent Online
IT IS much too early to start saying goodbye to the Bishop of Durham, Dr David Jenkins. For one thing, he does not step down until July next year. For another, he is likely to make as many waves from the back pews as from the pulpit of Durham - probably more, as he has promised to write a book about 'the dark night of our institutions'.

Yet the announcement of his premature retirement is bound to spark off another round of controversy over what he stands for and whether he is a good or bad influence on the Church of England. The central dilemma confronting the church is that its steadily declining authority demands a degree of self- examination that it cannot risk embarking on without spreading even more confusion among the faithful and further undermining those few certainties to which it clings. Dr Jenkins wants to revive it through debate, and many support him, yet congregations drift away to secularism or to the false but reassuring certainties of the new evangelists.

Contrary to popular belief, Dr Jenkins does not deny the Virgin Birth or the resurrection of Christ. He merely argues that belief in them is not essential to being Christian. He wants to separate the message from the stories used to convey it, dogma from meaning. He thinks religion as practised, especially in its institutional forms, is 'more about our security than about the mystery of God's creative and redeeming enterprise'. Too much energy, be believes, is expended on internal quarrels, on who should submit to whom, and too little on relating religion to the 'miseries of this planet'.

His search for political relevance has got him into as much trouble as his search for truth. He has attacked socialism almost as vigorously, not to say verbosely, as free-market economics, and castigated the media for their crude simplifications. Truth, for him, is complex, elusive and accessible, if at all, only through doubt and debate. Here again, he confronts the church's dilemma. If it sticks to theology, it is dismissed as irrelevant and isolated. If it pronounces on politics, it is resented as meddlesome or accused of squandering its authority on issues it is unqualified to judge.

It would be a pity, however, if Dr Jenkins's political views were seen only as an expression of his religious belief and discussed only in the context of the church's role in politics. He himself would never claim divine authority for them, so they can be examined on their own merits in the secular market place without reference to his position. His restless mind questions orthodox politics as sharply as orthodox belief. He is appalled by the sterility of so much political debate and the fragmentation of opposition among single-issue pressure groups. 'We have outgrown our present political style,' he says. He is also worried by the way the media 'encourage us to think less and less while inviting us simply to react and adopt sloganised convictions'.

These are central issues of our time to which he will not offer simple answers but to which he can contribute ideas as well as anyone. If his resignation gives him greater freedom from ecclesiastic politics, the church's loss could be the country's gain.