Following the death of David Jenkins on September 4th, I want to bear witness in my own small way to his great stature as a man and true priest.
The first obituaries I read gave prominence to his Virgin Birth and Resurrection “denials.” And of course, in his time, he was called “The Red Bishop” by our tabloid press.
All caricature and falsification.
He was a far larger, more potent and more significant figure than those cheap and dismissive labels and caricatures imply. (If Christ began talking now, they’d hang “Red” on Him too, of course. And they’d attack and sneer at Him for consorting with “Immigrants” and “Benefit Scroungers”, wouldn’t they ? We all know how the story would play out).
Here is a link to a truer portrait of David Jenkins, made during the time he was Bishop of Durham, up to the day of his retirement. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Yb6wuX81UQ
And what I think he meant in speaking of the issues of Virgin Birth and Resurrection was that his faith and stance in life were not based on the superstitions, opiate sops, fairy stories for the children, those bits of (possibly super-imposed) magic at both ends of Christ’s life. The truth doesn’t need magic tricks. And Jenkins had a burning truth to tell and reality to bear witness to and – as the tabloids’ puerile attacks on him demonstrated – “humankind cannot bear very much reality.” That’s why we crucified Him.
Under Thatcher’s stewardship, the false and fearsome gods Mè n’ Mine and Thè Marr Kett were busily at work all round him, destroying communities and human heart. In the middle of all that, from his base in the city of Durham, Jenkins did his work of witness with immense honesty, courage, charm, wit, warmth, intelligence and generous passion. For a while, he seemed in his own solitary person to be acting as Her Majesty’s Opposition. And he provided a rather more appealing and talented and human voice of opposition than most others we hear in parliament, especially at our present time of bewilderment and fragmentation and robot slogan.
The passage below comes from a speech he gave to a social work conference in the late 1980’s. But I think his insight does not just apply to social workers. It applies just as much to anyone who works to nurture and keep our community together in a state of health, including teachers, doctors, nurses, prison officers, counsellors, priests, even police …
“Social workers are a group of people who are being called upon to live dangerously at many of the pressure points in our present confused, confusing and increasingly divided society. As such you are the objects of, and therefore presumably in your own persons and reflections the subjects of, a great deal of confusion, anxiety and uncertainty. Your position is highly ambivalent and ambiguous and therefore both actually painful now and potentially promising with regard to the future of our society and, indeed, of human beings on this earth.”
I have tried to track down the rest of that speech, without success. Apparently he did not read from prepared script, or record his words. Out they came, straight from where he stood, reliably valid and brilliant.
We talked together at a conference, having corresponded earlier. He was one of the invited speakers, amongst various MP’s and other significant movers and shakers of the time. He was by far and away the most impressive speaker and participant there, his mind racing, his words flowing and tumbling out, his ego absent.
Among all the pretenders and juvenalia, the egos, all that fruitless posturing, the well intentioned as well as the ill, I said to him, in frustration and disappointment : “I just can’t get into this.” I was appalled. The conference was being held in St James’ Church, Piccadilly. I had thought its subject was of central importance and could take us somewhere new and desperately needed. I had expected to feel at home and afire here. In hindsight, I think that the problem I could not solve was mostly in me myself.
He answered reassuringly, in his slightly fastidious way : “You are loitering with intent…” Even in the middle of all this, filling a very crowded public space with his urgency, eloquence and vision, making all these waves, he could attend to me and my inarticulacy and turn that common judicial phrase upside down, and make a brilliant joke of it, with a serious point. Soon afterwards, I wrote a poem from that joke, making the same point. See below.
But first, another and shorter poem. This one too came from his words. These are difficult times, he said. You must endure. Don’t allow yourselves to be reduced or cast down in isolation. Help each other. Form “communities of endurance”. To be always ready in case of better times. And seek to help bring those times about, as and in all ways you can.
I think David Jenkins was one of the great Englishmen of his era. His faith, his church and his nation all have cause to be proud of him, grateful to him, and presently and properly attentive to what in his life he was saying.
The Late “Red Bishop” proposed to several congregations
a new and active strategy for hope and creation
in the 3rd millennium. He called it
“Communities of Endurance.”
He meant (I believe) that people who keep heart open
in times of frenzy
are likely to know themselves outcasts –
a debilitating experience the human race can ill afford.
The keeping station
the holding on
go better when you’re not alone.
Rogan Wolf, 1998 (revised 2016)
Here I loiter
with kindly intent
tip-toeing from fragment to fragment
stray world to stray world.
I believe today I almost met someone.
For just a few moments, possibly,
the whirring edge of me
disturbed some surface of attention.
Perhaps in time I’ll risk being still enough
actually to meet a whole person.
I wonder would either of us survive
the awe and enormity of true encounter.
I loiter here between lines of thunder
poised for the sudden break
the momentary opening
my own hushed moment of interruption.
I must learn to do without lines.
As soon as a line is drawn
defeat there becomes possible
and even perhaps significant.
There is no excuse for defeat
and significance is wasted there.
To be invincible
you need do nothing
but dance at all times.
I must learn to loiter
lightly and with precision,
poised for flight.
If I am light enough
you cannot throw me down.
If I laugh with sufficient joy
you cannot shame or break me
halt or silence me.
I loiter here in my fragility
quick to respond to stray invitations
to meet, just for a moment,
in some carefully scouted side street cafe.
What need for secret police
when fear seeps
like a poisonous cloud
through every door ?
How can we plan the way to save ourselves
when we cannot even place in words
the value of our distress ?
I loiter here
with love’s intent
tip-toeing from fragment to
world to stray world.
Rogan Wolf, 1995