David Jenkins, RIP

From the Archbishop of Canterbury’s website

By John Martin

When Professor David Jenkins was appointed Bishop of Durham in 1984, few commentators discerned anything particularly unusual. He was not especially well known. His only published work to even skirt controversy was Guide to the Debate about God (1966). What reporting there was gave the appointment a nod; it seemed in line with the custom of appointing scholars to the See of Durham.

Then everything changed.

In a recorded interview for BBC Radio shortly after becoming bishop, Jenkins said: “I am bothered about what I call God and conjuring tricks. I am not clear that God manoeuvres physical things. I am clear that he works miracles through personal responses and faith.”

About 12,000 people signed a petition for his dismissal. Conservatives pointed out the new bishop doubted the resurrection as a historical physical event in space and time. When lightning struck, three days after his consecration in York Minster, critics said it signalled the judgment of God. Later Jenkins would joke the Almighty had missed the target: “God was probably aiming at the General Synod, but he missed even that.”

For the media Jenkins was gold dust. In the years that followed he took opportunities to apply his mind to themes and events in the church calendar that troubled ordinary people or were not well understood, such as the Virgin Birth. He always described himself as a passionate believer.

Asked how he differed from Don Cupitt, voice of the Sea of Faith movement, Jenkins instantly replied, “I believe in God.”

Jenkins did not confine his attention to church matters. He identified with opponents of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, not least because of their policies on coal mining, the main industry in his diocese. Later he was a critic of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s New Labour, because of its commitment to market-driven economic theory. It was a pointer to the bishop’s Methodist childhood.

David Edward Jenkins was confirmed into the Church of England in his teens, and his education was disrupted by World War II. He won a commission in the Royal Artillery and concluded his war service in India.

Returning to civilian life, he took up a scholarship to Queen’s College, Oxford. He studied for ordination at Lincoln Theological College and briefly was curate at Birmingham Cathedral. After that he worked in a series of academic and administrative posts, including work with the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

He returned to his old college in Oxford to lecture in theology, ran the William Temple Foundation, and was a professor of theology at Leeds. Critics often pointed out he had never run a parish.

But he prompted much discussion in the United Kingdom about Christian faith. A delegate from his diocese once told the Anglican Evangelical Assembly: “Go into any pub in Durham and you’ll hear people talking theology over the beer.”

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