Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Reflections on Bishop David Jenkins

28 Sep 2016

William Temple Foundation staff and trustees were very sad to hear of the passing of our former Director, then Chair of Trustees, Bishop David Jenkins, who died on 4th September. Malcolm Brown, who was Executive Secretary of the Foundation from 1991—2000, offers the following reflection.

David was Chair of the William Temple Foundation Council through most of his years as Bishop of Durham and thus guided the development of the Foundation at a time of intense pressure on his own wider role. The other side of this was that his name gave the Foundation a certain cachet in some circles – well beyond the Church of England.

He had been Director of the Foundation when it first moved from Rugby to the then-new Manchester Business School. To his immense credit, he never used his own period of leadership as a benchmark to judge the later shapes which the Foundation took or its changing programme priorities. Some of his work as Director of the Foundation can now be seen as prescient: for instance, under his guidance, the Foundation designed and ran the first organised training for Anglican bishops. This was, by all accounts, a great success but, when David (with typical generosity and ecumenical commitment) extended the programme to include church leaders of other denominations, the Church of England lost interest and the programme ended. Now, some forty years later, the Church of England has again started to commission serious and academically rigorous training for its senior clergy from Business Schools.

To some extent, David used meetings of the Foundation’s Council and, even more, the private meetings with the staff and Company Secretary John Atherton, as opportunities to articulate his own thinking and exercise his immensely fertile ability to connect disparate themes in theology, economics, politics and the social sciences. Meetings had the character of an Oxford tutorial or seminar and few who took part went away without feeling energised and enthused by David’s ability to help them see things more sharply.

One consequence was that Council members in particular came to value meetings mainly for the chance they offered to sit at David’s feet. Practical management and guidance to staff came low on the Council’s agenda in those days and it was noticeable (and somewhat disappointing to staff) that a number of Council members resigned when David retired because meetings had become less fun.

For the Foundation’s staff, David’s strength as Chair was that he always affirmed our work in ways that simultaneously challenged us to think more clearly and deeply. We felt trusted, affirmed and, in tough times, supported. True, his support could sometimes be of the cold comfort variety. At a period when the finances of the Foundation were looking bleak, he sent a handwritten card to the office assuring us that, even if the whole outfit should fold, we should know that it would not be because of our personal failings or lack of effort. And, whilst his managerial guidance was always deeply theological, it was not always especially practical. On one occasion, when the consequences of decisions taken years before were coming home to roost and the choice lay between retrenchment and redundancies or dipping heavily into reserves, Rachel Jenkins and I took the dilemma to David and John at a meeting in David’s study at Bishop Auckland. John’s advice epitomised his Niebuhrian Christian Realism. “There will always be a need for the Foundation this side of the eschaton. So we must hand on to our successors no less than we inherited from our predecessors and you must preserve your capital.” But David looked at us over his glasses and said, “There is nothing in the Bible to say you have to go on for ever, in fact rather the contrary. So if you do a jolly good piece of work and go out with a bang, you have done a good piece of work and God is pleased.” Both utterly theological, quite incompatible and not much help in showing us which way to turn. John loved the Foundation deeply – for David, it was a contingent instrument for changing the world.

In the 1990s, the House of Bishops often met for its annual gatherings at Manchester Business School. We tried to interest them in the work of the Foundation, but with little effect. We were even refused permission to put leaflets around the in the bishops’ meeting room. But David accosted me one evening in the bar. “Don’t bother with this lot” he said loudly, “All they want to do is put their arms around each other and say ‘It’s alright to cry even though you are a bishop!’”

On another occasion, he lamented the impossibility of episcopal office. “The trouble with the Church of England”, he said, in a very typical opening phrase, “is Archdeacons who want to be loved. Because they are so needy they duck hard decisions and leave them to me, so I can’t do my job of being loved properly!”

David was always buoyant but he did occasionally reveal the cost of being in the public eye. Soon after the first attacks on his enthronement sermon, and on his purported (lack of) beliefs, he gave a lecture at Southampton University. The largest lecture hall on the campus was full, people were standing in every aisle and even the Vice Chancellor had to sit on the floor just below the lectern. David was as scintillating as ever, relishing the way that people came to hear a bishop speak about God. But, in a small seminar the next day, he explained how hard it had been to walk into that lecture theatre – since the public controversies, he had found it almost impossible to enter a crowded space and could no longer cope with the Underground.

He retired as Chair of the Foundation when he left Durham. Knowing his penchant for coming up with ideas in triplets, usually beginning with the same letter, Rachel bought a card with a picture of three colourful parrots, and wrote inside that we thanked him for the Perception, Persistence and Personal commitment he had given to the William Temple Foundation over the years. David pulled the card from the envelope and gazed at the picture for a moment. “Oh how lovely!”, he said, “Macaws!”

As always, he was both right, and one step ahead of us!


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