Yesterday the Right Reverend David Jenkins, former Bishop of Durham, died at the age of 91.
Theologically he was a modernist, interpreting doctrines like the virgin birth and the resurrection as symbolic rather than as literal history. Of the virgin birth he said, “I wouldn’t put it past God to arrange a virgin birth if he wanted, but I very much doubt if he would.” According to today’s Times, he believed passionately that much English religion was backward-looking and had not come to terms with modern scientific knowledge. He welcomed women who believed they had a vocation to ordination, homosexuals who did not regard their orientation as sinful and questioners who doubted that the whole Bible was literal history.
He was consecrated in 1984 during the miners’ strike and in his sermon he made a passionate plea for compromise in the process of closing down the mining industry. Miners’ families remember him as the only establishment figure willing to speak out in their defence. His sermon was interrupted by spontaneous applause.
A few days later York Minster was struck by lightning and part of its roof was destroyed by fire. Religious traditionalists declared this was how God expressed his disapproval. The Archbishop of York, Dr John Habgood in a letter to The Times declared that the Gospel came to rescue us from believing in a world where lightning strikes or illness are divine punishments.
According to today’s Times,
The speed and sophistication of his speaking could leave his hearers bemused but deeply moved by his emotional pleading: once at Christmas in the cathedral he cried as he spoke of God’s generosity in giving his son for humanity. He gave talks expounding faith for professions such as social or health workers in which no contemporary Christian speaker could equal him. At the York General Synod in July 1986 his mystical tour de force speech on the question “Is our God worth believing in?” received a standing ovation.
Those who shared his vision and those who opposed it will at least agree that his legacy will be felt for a long time.