Peter Mullen recalls his emphatic friend and mentor
It is said that the late David Jenkins, former Bishop of Durham, was the model for Peter Simple’s caricature “The go-ahead Bishop of Bevingdon”. He was certainly left-wing, a theological modernist, and a fast talker. I got to know him in the early 1980s, when I was a Yorkshire vicar and David was Professor of Theology at Leeds. I was in the habit of working a couple of days a week in the university library. David came up one morning, introduced himself, and asked me what I was writing. He took an interest, and over the following months we enjoyed many good conversations about the thorny topic of God and Evil. I remember his startlingly white hair, and the way he constantly flung his arms about as he emphasised a point. No point escaped emphasis, and no ornament was safe. He came over to the vicarage one evening for supper and we gathered for drinks. I had emptied four packets of crisps into a large bowl, and David scoffed the lot.
Miraculously – though surely David would have contested the miracle – the locals ran a very successful literary society in The Chequers, the pub in Bilton-in-Ainsty. David agreed to come and talk to us. He charmed and dazzled all evening – and nobody understood a word. He splattered the occasion with un-agricultural terms, among them: “eschatological”, “prevenient”, and “dysteleological surd”. Tom Pick, a local farmer, summed up: “A grand feller. I just couldn’t mek ‘ead nor tail of a word ‘e sed.”
David was excited that night, manic even, and at the bar afterwards he announced breathlessly, “Guess what’s happened to me. You’ll never guess – they’ve made me Bishop of Durham. You must come and stay – there’s plenty of space. Auckland Castle has a hundred bedrooms!”
Of course, he was renowned for his vivacious scepticism about the miracle stories in the New Testament, the Virgin Birth, and the Resurrection. But I should like to correct one common misapprehension. David did not say that Christ’s resurrection was “a conjuring trick with bones.” Quite the opposite: he said it was not a conjuring trick with bones. What was it, then? David answered: “Some short time after the crucifixion, it dawned on Jesus’ disciples what his life had meant, and they experienced this meaning in the form of a new quality of life within themselves; and, being men of their time, they said, ‘He is risen!’ – because that’s how it felt to them.”
I had the temerity to wonder aloud: first how the disciples could experience “new life” if Jesus remained dead, and secondly to query their willingness to endure persecution and death for a cock-and-bull story they knew they had themselves made up. David parried my challenge with a sagacious nod and a flash of that charming smile. “But you know”, he said “the demythologisation of the gospel is a fact that has been prominent in theological circles for decades. Angels don’t have wings, you know.” Demythologising wasn’t prominent in The Chequers among the Bilton farmers. And the following Christmas I penned a carol in honour of David’s sceptical theology: “Hark the herald angels sing: Jenkins is the latest thing.”
One Sunday evening towards the end of June 1984, I went into York for a look around the Minster. It was awful. They were getting the place ready for some noisy, happy-clappy gallivanting. There was hammering and clattering, and gaudy posters of the evangelical sort with Christ pointing the finger as if he had been Lord Kitchener. Tourists scrambled all over the place. There was a discarded ice cream on a fourteenth-century vestment chest. I was due to go on holiday the next day but, before I went, I wrote an article for The Guardian which concluded, “Provide the Minster with a bit of decency – or else, for God’s sake, burn it down!”
The following week, David Jenkins was consecrated bishop there, and the Minster was struck by lightning. Many traditional Christians opined that this was God’s judgement on all that scepticism and demythologising; and fun and games followed. In answer to the traditionalists, Dr John Habgood, the Archbishop of York, had a letter printed in The Guardian, saying, “God does not send down fire from heaven.” I couldn’t resist replying with a one-liner: “Tell that to Elijah!”
The lightning strike happened in the night while Ronald Jasper, the Dean of York, was in bed asleep. He later recalled that he had learned his church was ablaze only when he was telephoned by a relative from Australia who had seen the news on TV. My happiest recollection of the events of that time was a picture postcard I received from the playwright John Osborne: “So God reads The Guardian. How awful!”
I remember the eccentric David Jenkins with bemused affection. Well, he has gone to his reward; where doubtless the winged angels will be putting him right.
The Revd Dr Peter Mullen has retired to Eastbourne.