‘Best known for expressing doubts about the virgin birth and the physical resurrection of Christ’ – The Guardian .
‘“Unbelieving bishop” Jenkins famed for his sceptical views… He shocked believers by expressing doubts about the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus’ – The Daily Mail.
‘An Anglican bishop who questioned some of the fundamental beliefs of Christianity… His views on the virgin birth and the resurrection caused a storm of protest’ The BBC.
These days of course we expect the media to get it completely wrong; but they got it wrong even in the days when he first attracted media attention, and then the newspapers still had religious correspondents on their staff.
Jenkins did not, as the accusation went, undermine people’s Christian faith. He undermined faithlessness. He undermined lazy assumptions that all Christians believe what they are told, or at least all clergy believe what they are told, or at least all clergy publicly pretend to believe what they are told. Instead of that, he offered a real living faith that thought things through.
Nor was he the maverick he now appears to have been. Today, in this frightened age, it is easy to forget that he wasn’t the only one. For centuries bishops had contributed to public debate on society’s values. Jenkins was just better at it than most.
Two memories of him stick in my mind. One was the ‘Conjuring trick with bones’ episode. I was a vicar in Ashton-U-Lyne. I took the Easter Day service. Over coffee afterwards, a group of anxiety-ridden women asked me why they hadn’t sacked this dreadful unbelieving bishop. He was destroying their faith. Their information will have come from the tabloids. Afterwards I crossed the road to the local pub. Their husbands were there. I was feted. ‘Tell us all about it…’ They were excited. In the four years I spent in that town, it was the only time they wanted to talk to me.
A few years later I was Chaplain to Sheffield University and invited him to give a talk. The room was packed. In the questions afterwards Merab, one of the students, asked him ‘What do you do when you lose your faith?’ Such a googly, and in a packed public meeting! Still, he gave an honest answer that I have never forgotten. In Durham, he told us, there was talk of electrifying the railway line. Objectors complained that, where the train goes over the bridge, electric wires would be installed above the line and this would ruin the view. In the ensuing controversy somebody suggested a compromise. The line could be electrified both sides of the bridge but not on it. As the trains went onto the bridge they would lose their electric power, but they could still carry on under their own momentum until they got reconnected on the other side. That, said the bishop, was how he felt at times when he lost his faith. I can’t remember his exact words, but they were something like ‘I tell myself that I did believe, and I will believe’.
Was that lack of faith? No. It was a faithful confession of the doubts that anyone can have. By accepting that he had them, he gave permission to the audience to be honest about their doubts too.
Faithlessness is the refusal to admit doubts; or, more faithless still, just assenting to whatever we are told to believe without seriously questioning whether it might be true.
Yet this is the direction in which the Church of England’s House of Bishops has moved since Jenkins’ retirement. No church leader now publicly admits to doubts about the Virgin Birth or the physical resurrection of Jesus. The pretence is that they all believe it. Perhaps they do; but if they do, it is only because they feel they better had believe it. After all, none of them were there at the time to see what happened.
The result? The rest of the population, to the extent that they think those church leaders really do believe those things, consider them irrelevant. And look elsewhere for moral and spiritual guidance.