David Jenkins: the bishop who didn’t believe in the Bible | Andrew Brown

A fire in York Minster days after his consecration made the then bishop of Durham a national figure. But it was the late clergyman’s attitude to faith that truly set him apart

I knew David Jenkins a bit, and liked him. I am friends with two of his children. But the point is that I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone whose public image was more at variance with their private self. What is interesting in this context is not the real man, but the unreal one – the Bishop Who Didn’t Believe a Word of It.

In the mid to late 1980s the bishop of Durham was a public figure in the way no church figure has quite managed since. He had been a wholly unknown theology lecturer when he went on a scarcely watched television programme to say that he didn’t believe in the literal truth of the virgin birth. He also said that the resurrection “was not just a conjuring trick with bones”. This was reported, with a dishonesty that is still astonishing, as “comparing the resurrection to a conjuring trick with bones”.

I should probably explain that “the resurrection” refers to the central Christian belief that Jesus was raised from the dead. A prime minister saying on the eve of the World Cup that football was extremely boring and they hoped England would lose quickly might carry the same emotional charge of treachery.

In Jenkins’ case, an Essex vicar raised £2,000 from his scandalised congregation to mount a campaign against Jenkins getting the job; the archbishop of York, John Habgood, went ahead and consecrated him a bishop anyway – and three days later York Minster was struck by lightning.

York Minster
York Minster: struck by lightning three days after Jenkins was consecrated there. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

The fire in the Minster turned the bishop into a national figure: he seemed the only bishop who would admit that it was all nonsense. This would not have been nearly so interesting had it been true. The heart of Jenkins’ mission was his demand that no one should believe in the kind of God who would care more about the opinions of academic theologians than the suffering of children in Auschwitz. Why should lightning strike York Minster when God conspicuously failed to stop the Holocaust?

Jenkins had brought to public attention the great shift in Bible reading that occurred among educated Christians in the 19th century, at first under the influence of geology and literary criticism. Since that great shift they no longer read the Bible as a collection of unambiguously historical facts and asked what these facts revealed about God. They read it as stories, and asked what those stories were trying to say. You may object that this is to read the Bible like a work of fiction. So it is. But it’s not just the Bible. If you believe in a personal God you are, I think, compelled to read the whole universe as a work of fiction – or at least as something with an author, who has arranged it to convey a meaning. So the Bible, if it is true, cannot just be a database of facts.

That’s one of the things Jenkins was trying to get across to a culture that basically regarded the Bible as a series of facts that no one today need care about because they are outmoded and untrue. He certainly made people talk about the question, and he was extremely proud of his success. It didn’t last. Jenkins’ successor as bishop of Durham was an evangelical who claimed at his opening press conference that the resurrection had been a historical event which could have been captured by a video camera, had one been handy at the time.

This seems to me a profound category mistake. If the truths of religion can in principle be established by historical enquiry, then it’s dead. Faith has to be concerned with the stuff that is radically unknowable and that the methods of empirical or scientific enquiry simply can’t touch. You can’t prove or disprove the existence of God, but Jenkins was trying, I think, to show what it might mean if it were true. That really isn’t something that can be captured by a video camera.


Andrew Brown

The GuardianTramp

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