Bishop David Jenkins

Should bishops publicly state their religious beliefs, even when they differ from church teachings?

Rowan Williams, when he became Archbishop of Canterbury in 2003, as an Anglican Catholic took the view that his duty was to represent the faith of the whole Anglican Communion. However he was faced with intense and well-organised opposition to his support for gay and lesbian relationships. To make matters worse they knew his views and were quite happy to manipulate his commitment to church unity by threatening schism.

Williams’ view is a common feature of religious discourse today. Many lay people, and even non-believers, expect their clergy to believe all the doctrines which public stereotypes attribute to them. Often this is strongly held: ‘It is your duty to believe in the Virgin Birth; whereas I believe it is a load of nonsense, how can you be a vicar if you don’t?’

This notion has a long history. Ever since the Oxford Movement many Anglicans have loved to quote the fifth century Vincent of Lerins on the subject. After listing a variety of heresies, Vincent contrasted them with the Catholic Church:

Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. That is truly and properly ‘Catholic,’ as is shown by the very force and meaning of the word, which comprehends everything almost universally. We shall hold to this rule if we follow universality, antiquity, and consent.

The corollary is that church leaders should avoid public expression of their own personal views. To question traditional doctrines publicly, as the archbishop did when he was a professor of theology, is a different role, and the difference allows him to distance himself from views he previously expressed.

A different theologian-turned-bishop, David Jenkins, had taken a very different view. In his God, Miracle and the Church of England (1987) Jenkins wrote:

People have told me that questions which I can ask as a professor I cannot ask as a bishop, or at least I should not ask them openly. Such a suggestion appals me, and in my view comes strikingly close to blasphemy. How dare people suggest that what has to be asked about God cannot be asked in public by an authority of the church? What do they think of the church?… There seems to be a suggestion that the faith cannot face truth. Surely, theology is something which has to be pursued with the utmost academic vigour and the utmost academic devotion. No questions can be barred.

There is no doubt that David Jenkins’ witness had a major effect. Did it help people’s faith, or hinder it? It depends who you ask. Those who liked to feel they knew the answers, and did not need to question them, felt he was undermining their faith; those who were dissatisfied with what they had been taught, and tempted to reject it, were encouraged by his openness to stay within the church.

Which of the two is a better model for church leaders? It is worth noting that outside the realm of religion only one of them is to be found. Try to imagine the following dialogue:

Doctor, I keep coughing.
You smoke a lot.
I don’t believe my smoking has any effect on my health.
I agree.
What do you mean you agree? I believe smoking doesn’t have an effect on my health but as a doctor you have a duty to believe it does. How can you be a doctor without believing that?

It wouldn’t happen. The doctor’s duty to believe smoking damages health is a conditional duty. It applies only if smoking really does damage people’s health. The prior commitment is to truth.

The same is true of all professionals whose role involves specialist knowledge: their job is to know what is true, not simply to maintain unchanged what has been believed so far by the tradition - even if it was believed ‘everywhere, always and by all’. Only in the realm of religion is it widely believed that the task of publicly expressing the tradition should be separated from the task of searching for truth. To return to the medical analogy, there is an endless stream of new research indicating that some food which was previously considered good for us is bad for us, or vice versa. We do not conclude that therefore all medical theory is uncertain and there is no point in consulting doctors. Nor do we condemn our doctors for keeping abreast of the latest research on the ground that it undermines our confidence in the medical profession. On the contrary, we expect them to keep abreast of it.

Why then is it that in religion - and only in religion - public discussion of different points of view is treated as a threat to the maintenance of the tradition? What is distinctive about religion that makes it a problem?

One cannot help suspecting that the difference lies in our commitment to truth. When we take our bodies to our doctors and our cars to our mechanics, something is wrong and we want it put right. Putting it right involves knowing what is wrong and how to correct it. There is an immediate practical need to get to the truth.

In matters of religion, we would do the same if we were equally concerned about truth. To say ‘When I was a professor it was my job to ask truth questions, but now that I am a bishop it is my job to uphold the tradition’ is to imply that the tradition is determined to propound a particular set of doctrines regardless of whether or not they are true. Nobody would trust a car mechanic or a doctor who understood their job in that way.

This is to say that David Jenkins was right. When critics claim that church leaders ought to affirm traditional doctrines without raising questions about whether they are true, what is being revealed is that the critics have a stronger commitment to stereotypes than to truth.

If our society is once again to be characterized by a commitment to Christianity, the church’s spokespeople will need to convince it that Christianity is true. In order to do this, they will need to present versions of Christianity which they themselves honestly believe to be true and can defend against the sharpest criticism, without being put off by those who cannot cope with public disagreement.