Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Was +David Jenkins good for Anglican theology?

Bishop David Jenkins, former Bishop of Durham, has died at the grand age of 91. It is now quite a long time since he made headlines around the church and the world about his questioning of the resurrection and the Virgin Birth. And his consecration as a bishop in York Minster was within a few days of a fire in that illustrious cathedral!

Not long after I arrive in Durham in 1990 to begin theological study there I met +David as he had come to St Nick's church to commission a new full-time lay worker. He preached one of the best sermons I have ever heard, on the text Ephesians 4:18-19 (the measureless love of God). Obviously he was a man of high ability even as he was also controversial. His doubting approach to dogma was, in those days, par for the Anglican course: most people believed the creeds but a few bishops and theological teachers here and there were permitted to express almost diametrically opposite views in public without being defrocked. The hoi polloi of Anglicanism had to take it. It was good for us, apparently. We needed to know that our simple, dogmatic faith was actually very, very complex, difficult and out of sorts with modernity.

But was that approach more damaging than helpful? In the end, can we say that +David Jenkins was good for Anglican theology? Commenting from a Catholic perspective, Alexander Lucie-Smith implies a negative answer to those questions:

"Long before the ordination of women, David Jenkins was one of the reasons why many people decided to abandon the Church of England. As one good man, who had spent decades as a Naval Chaplain, and who was later ordained a priest in the Catholic Church, put it to me: “The Bishop of Durham professes the historic Christian creeds, but he also believes he can interpret them as he pleases. This means that the profession of the Creed is now meaningless, because it can mean whatever we want it to mean.” This idea – the malleability of religious truth – is what drove Newman out of the Church of England too. 
Everyone agrees that the late bishop was a very pleasant man, and a kind and caring pastor. It is also frequently said that as an academic, he was more used to discussions in Senior Common Rooms, where grandiloquent phrases have their natural habitat. This is something that theologians need to be wary of: we need to talk about God remembering that there is little we can know about Him unless He tells us. We need to contemplate Divine Revelation, not dismiss it."

I largely agree with Lucie-Smith. I suggest historians of Anglicanism will judge the period from the Enlightenment onwards until comparatively recently as a poorly chosen pathway for Anglican theology and theological leadership. We allowed ourselves to emphasis doubt more than conviction, reason more than revelation, common room acceptance more than creedal proclamation.

My own sense - thinking about "a few bishops I have known" here in ACANZP, as well as what I read of bishops in the C of E - is that a +David Jenkins today is very unlikely to be made a bishop. Perhaps his theological controversies represent the end of a trend rather than its beginning.

Incidentally, I have this enduring memory of the (then) internal contradiction of the C of E. So +David Jenkins was this "enfant terrible" of theology, a man of radical questions and willingness to turn creedal conviction on its head. But one day I went to the ordination of a friend in Durham Cathedral. I happened to have a seat with a side on view of +David seated on his episcopal throne chair  with the ordinands seated near him. Everyone of the ordinands were in correct, common ecclesiastical robes (cassock, surplice, scarf) - despite clergy in parishes around me in their every Sunday practice wearing no robes or albs. I believe I was a participant in a scene that would have been exactly the same in (say) 1750. It struck me as absurd that the C of E could tolerate radical theology of the Jenkins kind while brooking no change to its customs and practices.


Brian Kelly said...

Jenkins bewildered me because he could speak orthodoxly enough (at times) about the meaning of Christian doctrine, while at the same time casting doubt on the historical foundations for those doctrines: running with the ecclesiastical hares and the historical hounds, perhaps? I wondered whether he saw things more profoundly than the rest of us or was just confused. In the end, I concluded that he was more probably confused and hadn't thought things through with sufficient rigour. This was and may still be not uncommon in the Church of England. Don Carson saw this in his Doktorvater Barnabas Lindars who was nurtured in Anglo-Catholicism before adopting radical biblical ideas. Jenkins may have done the same 'on the other foot'; I think he was brought up as an evangelical and kept some of those childhood emphases and convictions even as he became historically more sceptical and drank in Bultmannism with his BCP.
What is different today is that people no longer buy Bultmannism, and scholars like Wright in NT, Plantinga in philosophy and yes, Ratzinger in dogmatics have made a very robust case for traditional biblical orthodoxy - and historicity.
Against scholars of that calibre, Jenkins was hardly in the front rank. Can anyone even name one of his books today?

Father Ron said...

Just one more example of the fact, Brian, that great learning doesn't necessarily make one a better Christian. St. Francis was no intellectual giant, but he sure was a great evangelist and teacher

Glen Young said...

Hi Peter,

I would respectfully suggest that the "POORLY CHOSEN PATHWAY FOR ANGLICAN THEOLOGY AND THEOLOGICAL LEADERSHIP"is far from behind us.The Report of the Commission on Doctrine and Theological Questions,Chaired by + Jim White;has this to say at B.3.2.1.:"The second support for the stepping beyond current practice is that we would be inclined to believe their testimony (the gay community) because an epistemological preference for the poor.This is a deep point about theological method.We are acutely aware in this part of the world that we need to forge theology that is not born of the singular oppressive experience of patriarchal,white hetero-sexual males;we choose to privilege the experience of the 'other'-the outcast and the stranger".March 2014.

When we questioned +Jim, as to whom the Report was referring; he replied by email stating:"The truth is the description fits most theologians standardly referred to and studied starting with,say Augustine we stop at Barth or Ratzinger".

So we blithely waltz down the path to Geering's BRAVE NEW World; intoxicated on the sweet poison of modern wisdom.

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter

In my (admittedly non-Anglican) experience the less the leaders believe, the more they like to dress up and have pomp and ceremony. It is almost like we have with weddings where the less the marriage has a chance of surviving, the bigger the day has to be.


Andrei said...

"In my (admittedly non-Anglican) experience the less the leaders believe, the more they like to dress up and have pomp and ceremony."

It is easy to relate to this comment and the later conflation of this with modern weddings.

On the other hand though it might be easy to confuse "reverence and decorum" with "pomp and ceremony"

Much of what passes for worship today could be confused with a marketing seminar for insurance salesmen

We live in an age of instant gratification and sound bites

I'm a traditionalist of course - special clothes reserved for wearing in Church only was a feature of my past, liturgical language the whole bit - to separate the profane things of everyday life from the worship of God.

To come back to that phrase from the Nicene Creed bought up before on another thread

"I believe in one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church..."

That first word "Holy" receives less attention than the other two

From the Cherubikon
"Let us now lay aside all earthly cares
that we may receive the King of all,
escorted invisibly by the angelic orders."

We could easily look into the later part of this comment about weddings as well and have a related fruitful discussion on that

Bryden Black said...

I sense Peter a key to understanding +Jenkins is found in his love of the stage and the theatrical as an undergraduate (so he himself once said). This love followed him into his 'performance' of the liturgy as only the likes of CoE Cathedrals may indulge. You explicitly mention this - not surprisingly. Of course within such notions of the dramatic much can become plastic, to be moulded according to criteria more to do with context than text per se. After all, it's the presentation that counts, not any literal servitude to an author's original script.

So; ideas of love and compassion supercede actual hard depictions of loving acts - and their opposite. Abstract principles of religious sensibility, which may be squeezed into supposed multiple contexts (read: stage performances) trump the concrete thick descriptions of an actual historical existence of God as a particular human being.

Just so, the details of Jesus' actual life among us, of his given death and its specific aftermath play second fiddle to whatever meaning we in our present world might want to pour into 'Performances of faithful existence' ... Existential Faith supercedes the Word made flesh, actually touched and seen and witnessed to by given, known individuals (Johannine corpus, 1 Cor 15:1-8).

The outcome? European culture, which sought to transpose any given text into supposed universals, even those of love and faith, as found from say 1750 to 1975, will subsequently itself be swept away anchorless when confronted by multiple storylines. For surely each and every story gets “dispersed in clouds of narrative elements” (Lyotard): none being able to command authority, everything deemed 'loving and/or faithful' becomes licit. Just so, the present plight of the ACANZ&P, whose recent Report of the Commission on Doctrine is respectfully far, far worse than Glen suggests, illustrating this outcome - with +Jenkins being a tragic step along the way. I have a full 15 page critique of that Report should anyone desire it ... Continuing and concluding with 1 Cor 15: we western Christians are “most to be pitied ...”

simon said...

It’s tempting for us to pass judgment from a distance of thousands of miles. It seems that Alexander Lucie Smith tends to have an axe to grind and a flag to fly - and in the UK media he’s often the ’go to’ conservative Roman Catholic commentator. I’d prefer to go to people more balanced for an assessment.
What's more, let’s hope that bishops with his intellect, pastoral heart and passion for social justice do continue to be appointed.
+David was deeply appreciated by his clergy and across the communities of his diocese.
Recently retired Dean of Durham Michael Sadgrove mentions that, and more, in his very good tribute:

Father Ron said...

Thankyou Simon, for the link - to the Dean of Durham's deeply moving tribute to a scholar and a pastoral Bishop of The Church. Everyone looking in on ADU, please read it, and gain insights from someone who actually knew and loved the former bishop of Durham, David Jenkins. May he rest in peace and rise with Christ in glory. Amen.

Anonymous said...

A commitment to Left Wing politics and cultural Marxism, which in reality is all "social justice" is in practice, does not excuse undermining the faith in Christ crucified and Risen.

We need leaders who believe that God was fully incaranate in a real human being, and that He died for our sins and rose again to conquer death.

We don't need more Leftists hiding behind the euphamism of "social justice" while they rip the Faith to shreds. We already have far too many of that sort in leadership positions.

Father Ron said...

I don't think Bishop David Jenkins was other than a true believer in Christ Crucified, Risen, and Glorified. Don't believe everything you read in the derogatory journals. His clergy loved him, that's a good sign, surely?