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Controversial former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, dies

Archbishop of Canterbury expresses sadness at death of "engaging, sympathetic, warm and... natural human being"

Former Bishop of Durham David Jenkins, who has died aged 91

By Mark Brolly

September 8 2016A former Bishop of Durham and one of the most controversial religious figures of his time, Dr David Jenkins, has died, aged 91. His family said he had been living with Alzheimer’s disease for several years.

Bishop Jenkins was in the tradition of scholar bishops appointed to the northern English See but it was his forays into the public sphere during his time there from 1984-94 that earned him notoriety, as well as popularity. Durham is one of only five English dioceses – Canterbury, York, London and Winchester being the others – that automatically entitle its bishop to sit in the House of Lords (the other 21 Lords Spiritual, as they are called, take up their seats in order of seniority).

Britain's Telegraph newspaper recalled in its obituary on 4 September that soon after the announcement of his appointment to Durham, Bishop-elect Jenkins appeared on a television program and, in response to a question from his interviewer, said that he did not believe in the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of Christ as historical events.

“I wouldn’t put it past God to arrange a virgin birth if He wanted,” said Jenkins, “but I very much doubt if He would,” the paper said.

“This created a considerable storm both inside and outside the Church and the Archbishop of York was called upon to refuse Jenkins consecration as a bishop,” it continued. “The consecration took place in York Minster as planned, but three days later the Minster was struck by lightning and a large section of its roof was destroyed by the consequent fire. Opponents declared this to be a clear sign of Divine disapproval.”

Church Times reported on 5 September that Archdeacon Stuart Bain of Sunderland recalled Bishop Jenkins’ “electrifying sermon” at his enthronement, during the Miners' Strike, and “his less than flattering” comments about Ian MacGregor, the head of the National Coal Board. “The first and only time I have ever heard spontaneous applause during a sermon in Durham Cathedral,” Archdeacon Bain recalled after the new bishop had described Mr MacGregor as “an elderly imported American”.

“(Bishop Jenkins) was also forthright in his criticism of policies pursued by the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and the Conservative government, and spoke out in the House of Lords against the decline of industry and rising poverty in the north-east of England,” Church Times said.

The Telegraph noted that “many a dinner party in London and the home counties was spoiled by an unwelcome reference to his existence”.

“In Durham diocese he was highly regarded as a deeply caring bishop who had pertinent things to say and, since the people of the North East were feeling some of the most painful effects of the economic policies of the 1980s, his attacks on the administration of Margaret Thatcher tended to be applauded rather than resented. Of his work in Durham he said in 1987: ‘I love preaching to ordinary congregations, and the whole business of Confirming people and trying to put them into the context of the love of God, and draw things out of them. I love teaching people to say their prayers. I’m not very good at it myself, that’s what makes me good at teaching it, I think.’

“Whether the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, knew quite what she was doing when she accepted the recommendation of Professor Jenkins to the See of Durham can only be a matter for conjecture. Whether Jenkins himself knew what he was doing when, to the surprise of many of his friends, he accepted a senior appointment in a church of which he had never ceased to be severely critical is beyond doubt. He once said that when he was offered the bishopric he asked himself: ‘Have I written off the CofE or not? On the whole not, so I accepted.’”

The Guardian obituary recalled that Bishop Jenkins had referred to the Resurrection as being “far more than a conjuring trick with bones”, which was widely misquoted.

“This was far from being a gaffe; on the contrary it was an act of great courage, for it was part of a deliberate policy of bringing into the open the problems besetting religion in the late 20th century,” the writer, the Revd Professor Dennis Nineham (who died earlier this year), wrote. “‘I want,’ he said, ‘to get them talking about religion in the pubs.’ He succeeded.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury expressed his deep sadness at Bishop Jenkins’ death.

“Those who knew him well found him extremely engaging, sympathetic, warm and a natural human being,” said Archbishop Justin Welby, who was Bishop of Durham briefly before his move to Lambeth Palace in 2013.

“Throughout his career he was a convinced ecumenist and strongly supported the work of the Student Christian Movement. On occasions his quick thinking made him sound more controversial than he meant to be but he wanted to engage people in conversation. No one ever doubted his integrity and courage and basked in his humility. As his successor as Bishop of Durham I had the great privilege of meeting him and was very grateful for his kindness and encouragement, as well as struck by the depth of his love for Christ. My thoughts and prayers are with him and his family.”

Retired Melbourne priest and school chaplain, the Revd Dr Brian Porter, was a student of Dr Jenkins, whom he described as “one the great theological luminaries of my generation”, at Cuddesdon Theological College in Oxford 50 years ago.

Dr Porter said he and his fellow students were singularly fortunate to sit at the feet of some of the outstanding lecturers of their generation introducing them to modern “God Talk”: Michael Ramsey (who became Bishop of Durham and Archbishop of Canterbury), Maurice Wiles, Don Cupitt, John Robinson (later a bishop and author of Honest to God) and Lady Helen Oppenheimer, the Oxford ethicist who lectured on marriage.

“The most memorable for me, however, was Dr David Jenkins, then Chaplain of Queen’s College Oxford, and eventually to be appointed – most controversially – as Bishop of Durham... I have most of Jenkins’ tantalising books on my bookshelf: Guide to the Debate about God, 1966; The Glory of Man, 1967; Living with Questions, 1969; What is Man? 1970; Still Living with Questions, 1990; The Calling of a Cuckoo, memoirs, 2003; Bampton Lecturer 1966; and Moorhouse Lecturer Melbourne, 1972, when I met up with him again and he autographed copies of his books in my collection.

“On reading of his death at the age of 91, I cut out the Daily Telegraph obituary at once and as I often do, inserted it inside one of his books. On opening my copy of Living with Questions, a sample of Dr Jenkins’ ‘God Talk’ fell out and all at once his provocative lecture style came back to me from my notes from one of his additional less formal Melbourne lectures at the time of his Moorhouse Lectures in 1972. Here is a sampler: ‘The main challenge facing any theological lecturer on the concept of God is to hold in balance God’s Transcendence and God’s immanence’; ‘The Trinity is God encountered in three realities: as Love, Lover and Loving’; ‘Irenaeus taught us that God is up to (His) elbows in the Creation’; ‘The godness of God is bound up with the goodness of God’; ‘The model of the Trinity says that God is out of our grasp yet closer than close’; ‘If anyone has killed the believable God, it is the church, yet as Mark Twain commented of himself, “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated”’; and ‘The only believable God is the God who has been crucified’.”

David Jenkins was born on 26 January 1925 in Bromley, Kent, in a Methodist family, though was confirmed in the Church of England as a teenager. His education was put on hold in 1943, aged 18, when he was called to serve in World War II. He was commissioned in the Royal Artillery. When the war ended, he was a staff officer at the General Headquarters in India, and did not return to the UK until 1947, when he was a Captain in the Royal Indian Artillery.

On his return home he took up a scholarship to The Queen’s College, Oxford, where he fostered some of his more liberal views.

Dr Jenkins graduated in 1954, and was ordained priest by the Bishop of Birmingham after studying at Lincoln Theological College. He served his curacy at St Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham, but returned to his College as chaplain and a Fellow. In 1969, he took up posts at the World Council of Churches and the William Temple Foundation. Ten years later, he was appointed Professor of Theology at the University of Leeds.

Church Times reported: “Mrs Thatcher allowed his name to go forward as Bishop of Durham after his predecessor, Dr John Habgood, became the Archbishop of York. The decision was met with widespread criticism, however. A petition of more than 12,000 signatures was delivered to the Archbishop of York, denouncing his suitability.”

On his retirement from Durham, Jenkins became an assistant bishop in the diocese of Ripon and Leeds.

Bishop Jenkins' wife, Stella Mary Peet (known as Mollie), whom he married in 1949, died in 2008. He is survived by their two sons and two daughters.

His funeral is expected to be held at Durham Cathedral.