Sunday, 4 September 2016

Bishop David Jenkins: in memoriam with great affection

Bishop David Jenkins' death has been announced today. I want to begin by sending my condolences and prayers to his family. 

David was, I believe, one of the great bishops of modern times. There will be many obituaries and public eulogies that survey his career more formally as a theologian and especially as Bishop of Durham where his influence was deep and lasting. I simply want in this blog to pay my own personal tribute to him as someone I got to know late in his life, long after his retirement.

I was one of the great crowd in Durham Cathedral at his enthronement in 1984. To my surprise, the Church Times had asked me to cover it: as a Northumberland parish priest I was relatively local. Proudly armed with my press pass, I took up position in the crossing with a grandstand view. Next to me, I remember, the artist in residence was sketching the occasion. 

None of us could have foreseen the impact the sermon was going to make. The service was already newsworthy because of the lightning strike on York Minster where he had been consecrated not long before. (What a lot of theological nonsense was talked about that disastrous fire!) But when David spoke about the bitter miners' dispute from a pulpit positioned at the heart of the great northern coalfield, the effect was electrifying. I can't recall any other sermon quite like it. It wasn't just the unforgettable phrase about the "elderly imported American". It was the conviction with which he preached, the passion with which he was ready to "speak truth to power" as we say now. If I didn't write in my report that we had a prophet among us, I certainly felt it. We all did. And as we know, as he started, so he continued. The voltage never faltered.

I didn't know then what, as a superannuated preacher I know now, which is that preaching in this way takes a lot of effort and real courage. I don't know what it cost him. But I do remember, working as I did then at the northern tip of the coalfield, how much this sermon was talked about. And not just in church. The working people of the North East loved the thought that once again they had a "miners' bishop" as Westcott had been at the turn of the century, whose prophetic fire burned for social justice. 

But as we know, this was just as true of the way David did theology. As a former professor at Leeds, he knew what he was talking about. In this he was one of a long line of scholar-bishops of Durham. And like them, he knew that theology needed to be done in and by the whole church as a community of faith, not just by academics in their libraries. He looked for a church that was not afraid of asking theological questions, of finding a language that would articulate and celebrate its own inheritance of faith in an intelligent and contemporary way. 

He was much maligned for this, and it was cruelly unfair. I remember at the time that I met up with a well known conservative evangelical theologian. "All this slanderous nonsense being put around about David Jenkins" he said. "It's quite clear to me that the man is a thorough incarnationalist who firmly believes in the resurrection." These controversies can't have been enjoyable for him and his family. But they did serve the church well, if only because they got people taking about theology in the unlikeliest of places. I think David saw this as an aspect of mission. I got into trouble when I preached about his latest contribution about Easter. But the (then) Duke of Northumberland rang me up shortly afterwards and said: "Sadgrove, I want to know more about this new Bishop of Durham. Come across to the Castle for a malt and tell me all about it." I obeyed, as you do. After two hours of discussion he said: "Well, it all seems very sensible to me. What on earth is all the fuss about?" I've often wondered why the search for a genuinely contemporary language in which to express faith was, and still is, so threatening to so many. 

I came back to the North East in 2003 which was when I first met David personally. He was always up for theological discussion and I wish I'd responded more readily to his invitations to come down to Teesdale to see him. But I treasure the memories of the times I did. And I also relish a story told me by Martyn Percy, now Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. Martyn wanted to send a gift to mark my installation. David had published his book The Calling of a Cuckoo - Not Quite an Autobiography not long before. An ideal present, Martyn thought. He want to a book launch, bought the book, explained to David that it was gift for the new Dean of Durham, and would he like to write a message in it? Martyn says that David thought for a few moments, then said: "all I can think to write is: God help him! But I'd better not. He might take it amiss." So he simply signed his name. Very understated. Very Durham. Very David too, I think. 

As I got to know the parish clergy of Durham, I was seriously impressed by the reputation David had built up in the diocese. Many of these middle-aged and elderly clergy could not speak highly enough of him. "You knew you were cared for and loved by him" some of them said. "You knew he would listen carefully to you, take an interest, support you if you got into difficulties." That is high praise indeed. And unusually, it was also coming from more than a few clergy of a very different theological or political stamp. It's not too much to say that he was very much admired, respected and loved across the diocese.

One more charming reminiscence. Once, we found ourselves standing robed next to each other at a big service. He was always well-behaved in public as behoves a retired bishop, but he never lost his wicked sense of fun. We turned over a page in the service sheet and saw that a worship song was coming next. He looked at me and grimaced. "Terrible theology" he remarked. "What is one to do with this jejune kind of stuff?" And then he said, "I won't if you won't." So we maintained a dignified silence and thought our own theological thoughts. 

The last time I saw him was when he summoned a colleague and me to talk about his funeral wishes. It was a lovely conversation in his flat in Barnard Castle. He had aged considerably but his acuity and good humour had not left him. He had chosen readings and hymns but, with typical humility, wanted to know what we thought. He changed his mind about one or two things. Above all he wanted nothing pompous or grand, just an act of worship that would be true to the values he'd tried to live by. Above all it must be true to God's love as we see it in the face of Jesus Christ.

As Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins stood in the succession of Cuthbert the Bishop of Lindisfarne who is interred in Durham Cathedral. I write this on his feast day. David might have smiled at the timing of his death. But I am one of very many who are profoundly thankful to have known him a little and to have seen the spirit of Cuthbert and of Cuthbert's Lord alive in him. May he rest in peace. 

11 comments:

  1. Beautifully put Michael - a fitting tribute to a much loved Bishop and deeply, deeply Christian man.

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  2. Many thanks, Michael, for speaking of Davvid with love and truth. His contribution to the women's ordination debate was one of its great turning points - passion, intelligence and an awareness of history that went beyond mere nostalgia or pomposity.

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  3. Thank you for this. I too have many fond memories of Bishop David. I have written down a few of his succinct summaries of faith and pop them into sermons.

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  4. Thank you for this. I too have many fond memories of Bishop David. I have written down a few of his succinct summaries of faith and pop them into sermons.

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  5. Thank you, Michael. I still recall with excitement that wonderful Holy Week in the 1980s when, as a parish priest, I was constantly approached by parishioners, acquaintances and strangers: "So then, Father, what's all this fuss about the Bishop of Durham and the resurrection, then?" What a gift from God!

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  6. Lovely memories, Michael.
    I had the pleasure of hearing two of his ordination charges. Electrifying.

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  7. Thank you Michael for your beautiful prose. Its so good to hear of your continued contact David in his later years. He was sublimely patient with me.

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  8. The father of one of our congregation was a Priest in the Diocese of Durham. he died 'in harness'. His daughter would never hear anything against Jenkins who the the soul of kindness to her mother.

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  9. My dad's comment about the notorious 'conjuring trick with bones sermon' says it all, really - "Well I'll say one thing for the Bishop of Durham, that's the first time I've been to the pub on Easter Sunday and ended up talking about the Resurrection".

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  10. I met Bishop David on a number of occasions in the 1980's and he was always full of his love of God and enthusiasm to preach the message of Jesus. He once told me that the CofE must learn as he put it 'to preach Jesus'.
    Terry Drummond

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  11. Thank you for this lovely piece on a wonderful and inspiring man.

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