Sermon preached at Evensong Sunday 6 November by The Very Reverend Dr John Arnold, OBE, Dean Emeritus of Durham, in memory of Bishop David Jenkins
The Very Reverend John Arnold considers the life of Bishop David Jenkins, who said "God is, as he is in Jesus; so there is hope".
Psalm 40,11f. I have declared thy righteousness in the great congregation: lo, I will not refrain my lips, O Lord, and that thou knowest. I have not hid thy righteousness within my heart: my talk hath been of thy truth and of thy salvation.
These words from today’s Psalm might have been written for David Jenkins, whom we commemorate today. Born into a Methodist family, he spent his life talking of God’s truth and salvation, which like the Wesleys before him, he could not keep within his heart but had to share with others out of a burning passion for souls. Some only wished he would refrain his lips; many more loved to hear him speak of the righteousness of God, made flesh as social justice on earth.
His studies at the Queen’s College, Oxford, were interrupted by three years’ war service. He was a good soldier and he rose to the rank of Captain in the Indian Army. He might have had a military career, but his calling was to follow the Prince of Peace; and, after Ordination and a curacy at Birmingham Cathedral, which served him well in later relations with us at Durham, he returned to academic life as Fellow and Chaplain of Queen’s. There, blest with the gift of ‘an understanding mind’ such as King Solomon asked for, he deepened his knowledge of the Greek Fathers, especially Irenaeus.
He was a stimulating and popular teacher and preacher, and a good college man, though his spell as Bursar may have led him to overestimate his gifts as an administrator. His brilliant Bampton lectures on “The Glory of Man’ led to his being called to the World of Churches in Geneva to head up the Humanum studies, relating Christian faith to the political and economic issues of the day. He was an ecumenist and an internationalist through and through, and a Good European, too. He returned to England to serve, first as Director of the William Temple Institute, and then as Professor of Theology at Leeds University.
Between his nomination to the See of Durham and his Consecration in York Minster, he made in a radio broadcast some remarks about the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, which would have been unexceptionable in a seminar or lecture room, but which in the public forum led to allegations of heresy. His accusers felt justified when, three days after his consecration, York Minster was struck by lightning.
He delighted to point out the difference between Thor, the pagan God of thunder and lightning on the one hand, and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ on the other. And he charged his critics with believing that God was a bad shot; a few feet to the left and He could have hit the central tower instead of just clipping the South Transept. (Bit like the Luftwaffe here, though that was the North Transept.)
Bishops of Durham have a triple inauguration. They are first enthroned upon the highest throne in Christendom, which is inconvenient for daily use, so they are installed in the Quire as well and finally, because it was a Benedictine house, placed in the seat (in sedem) of the Abbot in the Chapter House. My predecessor was looking for a synonym, and someone suggested ‘sedation’. The Enthronement, Installation and Sedation of David Jenkins.
What a good idea, particularly as his sermon, which referred in passing to the Miners’ strike, upset the Government and caused a furore in the
national press. However, it made him very popular in the North-East, where the people came to regard him with affection, not only as their
bishop but also as their champion.
Then something very medieval happened. In order to deal with this troublesome priest, the accusations of heresy re-doubled. David showed immense courage in standing by his convictions; but it came at great personal cost, and he felt isolated at times. He was sustained by his constant faith in Christ, crucified for our salvation, by the community in Durham, by the knowledge that ‘the common people heard him gladly’ and by his loving family, the incomparable Molly and their children.
He relished all the more his eventual vindication with a unique standing ovation after his masterly and deeply moving apologia before the General
While some of the misunderstanding was willful and politically motivated, some of it was based on genuine bewilderment. First, there was the nature of that ‘understanding mind’, Quixotic, quicksilver, never at rest. However fast he spoke, his tongue could never quite catch up with his brain, as insight followed insight, and mischievous metaphors and vivid similes tumbled over one another in brisk confusion.
Then there was the fact that his theology was not only orthodox with a small ‘o’, but also Orthodox with a capital ‘O’, more Greek than Latin, characterized by complexity and subtlety, compared with the solidity and apparent clarity of Western thought, which our culture takes for granted, even if it does not realise it. However, David was also a post-Enlightenment, Protestant liberal, (though not a liberal Protestant), in thought and deed.
This unusual mixture of East and West, Ancient and Modern, traditional and liberal, meant that he was always full of surprises, an enchanting conversationalist but difficult to pin down.
Challenged to produce a simple summary of what he really believed, he came up with: ‘God is, as he is in Jesus; so there is hope’. Let his detractors improve on that, just eleven words, all monosyllables except for the name of Jesus, which he couldn’t do anything about.
As Diocesan Bishop, he discharged the duties of his office with dignity and with diligence. He also kept the rules. He realised that it was
because of his own happy family life that his view of marriage was conventional, even conservative; and when it came to the manners and morals of
the clergy, he simply said, “I stop at the bedroom door”, rather like Queen Elizabeth I, who did not make windows into men’s souls. In
retirement, though, his liberal and tolerant spirit overcame caution on at least one occasion and possibly more.
It was as a preacher, though, that he was at his best and most typical. Some of my happiest memories are of sitting in Durham Cathedral, entranced along with 3,000 others, as he expounded passages from St Paul, like the one we have just heard, explaining difficult concepts in Greek. He was a real wizard with words, able to cast the net of attention over congregations, which listened to him spellbound, not that they understood every word, but because the messenger was so evidently one with the message.
They believed it, because he believed it; and they believed him because they first believed that he was on their side, that he was one of them.
But what was it that he and they believed? It was the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, made authentic by its genuineness and applicability to contemporary life rather than by simplification. David never spoke or preached down to anyone. Rather he raised up the lowly to his own level of understanding on the pattern of that wonderful verse about the Incarnation in the Athanasian Creed, ‘not by the conversion of Godhead into flesh: but by taking the Manhood into God.’
He had the rare gift of enabling congregations to co-create with him moments when, as St Paul says a few verses earlier than our Second Lesson, ‘the Holy Spirit meets our spirit and assures us that we are children of God.’
Paul goes on, ‘If God is with us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for us all, will he not with him give us everything else?’ David’s life and love, his liveliness and loveability, his preaching and teaching, were one big ‘Yes’ to that question, for he was as convinced as was St Paul that ‘neither death nor life, … nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of Christ Jesus our Lord.’