Remembering David Jenkins, the Bishop of Durham: Paul's Column

28 September 2016

The recent death of the former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, brought back some specific memories for me. As a theology student at Leeds University in the early 1980s, Professor Jenkins, as I knew him, was the head of my department.  

In our first term Jenkins was due to deliver a lecture a week for ten weeks that were to act as an introduction to church history, with each one due to cover a couple of centuries. Older students let us know these lectures were not to be missed despite being scheduled for 9am.

The first lecture set the pattern for the rest of the term. Jenkins laid out his notes on the lectern, put on his glasses and off he went. Being Welsh he had the ability to deliver exceedingly long sentences, often containing many sub-clauses.  

At somewhere between five and ten minutes into his stride what was to become the weekly pattern would then occur, usually prefaced with something along the lines of, “And this is similar to the problem we are currently encountering with this Conservative government today”. At this point our pens would be laid down, the note taking would end, Jenkin’s glasses would come off, he’d walk around in front of the lectern, his eyes would sparkle and off he’d go like an intellectual firework and we, and I’m sure he too, had no idea where the next forty minutes would take us but we all knew it was going to be informative, controversial and above all fun.

I remember saying to a fellow student as we left the packed lecture hall after our first encounter with the Welsh theological wizard, “I’d no idea so many people were on our course”.  “There aren’t”, came the reply, “People simply come because he gives the best lectures at the university”.

Jenkins was fascinated by the interface between Christianity and politics.  We never made it past the third century, instead he would digress off into talking about topical issues such as ‘Faith in the City’, ‘The Church and the Bomb’ or his favourite, “the problem with Mrs Thatcher is …”.  

At the end of the ten weeks he apologised for having made so little progress through the course, pointing out that we could find out all we needed to know by going to the library and reading the books.  

Without a doubt Jenkins’ enthusiasm for and belief in the need for Christians to be engaged in politics rubbed off on me.  It was he, more than anyone, who encouraged me to get involved in student politics.  

His appointment the following year as the Bishop of Durham was a big loss to Leeds University but a wonderful opportunity for the country at large to encounter one of the nation’s most energetic theologians at the height of his intellectual and oratorical powers.  Needless to say he wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea!  For many in political power, particularly in the upper echelons of the Conservative Party, he was a thorn in their side, a troublesome priest indeed.

It seems appropriate to end by giving the last word to Jenkins himself, with an observation as relevant today as when he wrote them ten years ago:

“I do not believe that the world is determined by the economic law of TINA (There Is No Alternative). 

“The market must not be allowed to determine us.

“As Christians we must confront this evident idolatry. We need to demonstrate how the resources which we believe exist in God, grace and the Gospel contribute to the shared human task of rescuing profits for people and for sustaining the Earth and our communities for a better shared and more shareable future.”

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