Profile: The one true Bishop of Durham: Dr David Jenkins, retiring scourge of sacred cows

Saturday 05 February 1994 00:02 GMT

LAST Wednesday a curious press conference was held, at which there was only one question asked, in many different ways and voices: 'Promise you will never be another BISHOP OF DURHAM'. The victim of this treatment will, in fact, become Bishop of Durham in July. But he will be just another bishop. He won't be the Bishop of Durham - the bishop who doesn't believe.

That post will not be filled again in our lifetime. It was created by Dr David Jenkins, and nobody else could really follow his act.

What made him special in the role was his sincerity. Quite what he meant was almost always in doubt, but his passion could fill a cathedral. He talks the way he believes God acts: in a continuous powerful stream of ambiguity. When his meaning was clear, it was almost always perfectly orthodox; or if not orthodox, commonplace in academic theology. But the commonplaces of academic theology normally go unnoticed in the wider world. Dr Jenkins's great discovery was that they had the power to shock agnostics even more than they shocked Christians.

The discovery was made in 1984 while he was still professor of theology at Leeds, but already named as the next Bishop of Durham. He told Phillip Whitehead, a former Labour MP reduced to presenting religious television, that he doubted God would have arranged a Virgin Birth, or allowed Jesus to walk on the water. He also allowed that people who did not consider Jesus to be more than a divinely inspired human could consider themselves Christians.

The programme, Credo, followed this up with commendable speed and vulgarity: it arranged for every bishop in the Church of England to be asked whether or not they agreed with him. Nowadays, no bishop would dream of answering such a question openly. But about half of them then gave Credo replies, which suggested that they agreed with him. They probably did.

At once, Dr Jenkins became a symbol of everything modern and liberal in the Church of England. Some 12,000 people signed a petition against his consecration. The Archbishop of York, Dr John Habgood, who had been his predecessor at Durham, grasped the symbolic importance of the battle at once, and determined that Dr Jenkins must be consecrated.

On July 6 1984, he was consecrated in York Minster. Two protesters shouting about blasphemy had to be thrown out in the course of the service. The remaining congregation of 2,000 shouted in his favour. Two nights later, the Minster, one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world and a relic of a long-lost age of faith, was gutted by fire following a lightning strike.

The bishop had become a star in the west.

The experience did nothing to discourage him. After all, belief in a God who would burn down a cathedral to punish apostasy, yet fail to do anything about the country's more pressing ills, was something he had fought all his professional life, both as an academic theologian and as a bureaucrat in the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

Two months later, he consented to a recording in the library at Auckland Castle of a discussion about his beliefs. 'To believe in a Christian way, you don't necessarily have to have a belief that Jesus was born from literally a virgin mother, nor a precise belief that the risen Jesus had a literally physical body,' he said; and when this was attacked, he responded with a phrase that would continue to dog him: '(The Resurrection) is real. That's the point. All I said was 'literally physical'. I was very careful in the use of language. After all, a conjuring trick with bones proves only that somebody's very clever at a conjuring trick with bones.'

This was to call down lightning on his own head. From that moment, he was the Bishop who had called the Resurrection a conjuring trick with bones; or, in the more cautious press, the Bishop who had compared the Resurrection to a conjuring trick with bones. Two fellow bishops called for his resignation. Conservative politicians queued to denounce him, though none outdid in pompous absurdity Lord Hailsham, who said: 'I much prefer the word of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, because they were there, and David Jenkins wasn't'

No first-year theology student believes either that the Evangelists were eyewitnesses to the events they describe, or that they wrote before St Paul, whose first letter to the Corinthians Dr Jenkins had been trying to paraphrase. But little knowledge is demanded of the prominent theologians in the Conservative Party.

The evangelical backlash against him came to a head at the General Synod in the summer of 1986. His opponents had prepared long and carefully. They had forced the House of Bishops to produce a report on the legitimate boundaries of belief, and hoped to ambush him in the debate on this report. He routed them. His speech was a tour de force of passionate argument, studded with quotable insult and condescension. 'I realise it is stupid and foolish of me to attempt mystical theology in a debate in Synod,' he said. The view of miracles held by his opponents was 'implying, if not portraying, a God who is at best a cultic idol and at worst the very devil'. But it left listeners convinced that they had overheard a humble man wrestling with his God.

From that moment, his position was secure, and he was able to perfect the role of Bishop of Durham unthreatened.

He had few main themes. He loathed the Conservative Party. Much of his life had been spent as a don at Queen's College, Oxford, and he fully shared the sentiments which led that university to refuse Margaret Thatcher an honorary degree. He worried about the poor, about ecology, and about the wretched of the earth. He remained in almost all respects a don, at a time when the Church of England's bench of bishops provided a far more agreeable retreat for dons than did the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge through which more than half of them had passed.

His manner is that of a theology don addressing his first-year students. If their ideas are not up to scratch, he will tell them, unforgettably. Some will dislike the treatment and leave. So much the worse for them, one hears him snorting.

There is a ruthlessness about this attitude that seems un-Anglican. But it exposes the real Anglican difficulties about truth and authority that Dr Jenkins's career has highlighted. The customary appeal of Anglicans has been

to Tradition, Scripture and Reason - if not in that order. But the modern Church of England is in some danger of substituting for reason mere


It may seem that the liberal Anglican has accepted the truths of science. But it is arguable that traditionalists have a more scientific model of truth: they accept dogma as data - something given - and then try to find theories that fit their experience around it. The liberals, on the other hand, tend to see dogma, or theology, as a set of theories, which must be judged against experience and reasonable common sense.

This approach is very humanising, but there is no guarantee that the truth, when found, would be agreeable to a majority in General Synod. The atheist Lewis Wolpert once wrote a book called The Unnatural Nature of Science, in which he argued that all the power of modern Western science derives from its rigorous eschewal of common sense. Newton's laws of motion, for example, run exactly counter to the way things seem to work.

There is a similar book to be written called The Unnatural Nature of Theology. David Jenkins might well be the man to write it. But it would have to explain the fact that common sense, though it may be utterly wrong about why or how things happen, is usually right about what does in fact happen. That is why it lasts. The common-sense explanation of an apple falling to the earth may be quite wrong. But it does tell you that an apple, dropped, will fall.

The popular belief that Jesus was born to a virgin in a manger and then adored by shepherds and wise men may also be quite wrong. But it does tell believers that God so loved the world that he gave his only son for it. By knocking down the common-sense view, because he thinks it an inadequate expression of the truth, Dr Jenkins appears to be denying the truth that it conceals.

Both the scientist and the theologian have good reasons for attacking common sense. But in the case of a bishop, such attacks are not merely rash, but pointless. Dr Jenkins is hardly alone among Anglican bishops in seeing common sense as a hydra-headed monster that must be slain 10,000 times a day.

Dr Jenkins's arguments about miracles do not start with the assumption that they are impossible. God can, by definition. A miracle is something God does in order to reveal Himself. It is not enough that it should be inexplicable; it should also express the inexpressible love and purposes of God. But if it is to do this, divine action must be consonant with the definitive expression of God's nature: it must be Christlike.

This argument can then be used to sift the Bible and decide which improbable stories are truth and which are credulity or wish-fulfilment. The miraculous healings remain true and potent expressions of God's purpose, but genocide, no matter how highly commended in the Old Testament, is a historical accident. The Resurrection is true, even if we cannot define the nature of the resurrected body, any more than St Paul could do; but the apocalyptic visions of hell in the Book of Revelation are no more than 'pathological', to use the bishop's phrase.

This method is not unique to Dr Jenkins. It is absolutely bang in the mainstream of modern Christianity. But he brought it into the mainstream of national consciousness as well. Though derided as a rationalist, he managed more successfully than any of his traditionalist opponents to assert that there was a mystery at the heart of faith.

In July he will retire. He wants to write a book about the failure of British institutions. No passer-by would imagine that this small, devout, bustling don, retired quietly near Oxford with his wife of 35 years, had once been THE BISHOP OF DURHAM.

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