Leading Article: The value of a Doubting David

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The Independent Online
IN AN odd way, the Bishop of Durham, Dr David Jenkins, is a good argument for an established church. Because he is a senior figure in the Church of England, whose bishops are appointed by the prime minister on the sovereign's behalf, everyone feels they have a right to comment on his sometimes controversial doctrinal views.

As a result, his apparent challenges to certain tenets of the faith are widely debated, and obscure fellow bishops are flushed out of the episcopal undergrowth by journalists anxious to discover how widely his views are shared. If the church in which Dr Jenkins has risen to such relative eminence were disestablished, fellow churchmen and lay believers would feel less challenged by his utterances.

There is a self-perpetuating element in Dr Jenkins's reputation as a controversialist. The former academic made his name by questioning the need for Christians to believe in the Virgin Birth, Christ's resurrection and miracles: when York Minister was struck by lightning three days after his consecration there in 1984, there was much talk of divine retribution. Since then anything he said or wrote has been liable to be sieved for nuggets of controversy: in itself no small task, given his verbosity and the often opaque nature of his prose.

Hence the flurry of interest in his musings, first to a group of lay readers and then yesterday on Radio 4, about eternal damnation and the second coming of Christ, about both of which he was sceptical. Few are likely to disagree with his view that there is something 'pretty pathological' in the doctrine of eternal torment; or that the Second Coming need not be taken literally. Raising such questions is, as the Archbishop of York, Dr John Habgood, said in a defence-cum-put-down, 'no more than every theological student is required to do'.

Therein lies the value of Dr Jenkins, irritating and insensitive though he can sometimes be: although approaching retirement next year, he still feels able to air the same sort of doubts that beset not only young theology students but believers and would-be believers of all ages.

But he should not protest too much about being oversimplified by the press. If journalists did not save him from his own prolixity, the impact and value of his contribution would be much reduced.