The Calling of a Cuckoo: Not Quite an Autobiography

Ronald Pearse reviews The Calling of a Cuckoo, by David E Jenkins; Continuum, 2002; pp.192; hb. £18.99, ISBN 0 8264 4991 3

This is a lively book in which the author gives his version of the ten years when, as Bishop-designate, and then Bishop, of Durham, the fourth most senior bishopric in the Church of England, he was continually in the public eye. It is far from being an autobiography, more like volume 2 or 3 of such a work. As such, it omits all but the briefest references to his background and childhood, key areas for anyone to trying to gain a meaningful picture of the subject of any (auto)biography.

The main purpose of the book, he writes, is to say, ‘Oh, come on all ye faithful!’ and he tries to do this by giving his own account of the controversies and public issues he has been engaged in. Inseparable from this and interwoven with it is something that has dominated his life since the age of ten, when he was told that Jesus showed that God was for him, because God is for all, because God is love. So, ever since then, he has simply believed in God.

But who told him, and how? And, despite his insistence that Christians now should take note that we live in a totally different world from that inhabited by Christians of the first sixteen centuries AD, what does that mean, without interpretation, to third millennium humanity? He seems to understand ‘God’ in terms of a far-sighted, busily eager beaver gradually seeing his dam, the Kingdom, being built by his active encouragement, from time to time giving a nudge to direct the builders, and patiently supervising the correction of faults and disasters.

Jenkins’ episcopate at Durham was a glorious encouragement to many, within and without the churches, who were frustrated by the fears and foibles of many Christian leaders who do not see the Church as a pilgrim body, adventurously experimenting and taking risks, but preferred hiding within its castle walls.

Increasingly, however, during that decade he feared that because so many were frustrating his missionary endeavours he might have to reconsider whether the atheists, the agnostics and the generally indifferent were right after all. Although resolutely continuing his determination that “even the Church cannot keep a good God down”, that fear seems not to have disappeared totally.

So, what may have gone wrong? Perhaps his use of traditional language about God, however freshened and lively, and his self-assessment as an informed preacher of ‘balanced and orthodox views’, were not enough to satisfy many twentieth century people’s deeper questionings, while some of his lively ways of talking were too easily misunderstood by others of conservative views?

Could he have been another John Robinson and taken up that bishop’s banner with the Observer’s headline about Honest to God that ‘Our Image of God must Go’ and carried it further? Sadly, it seems that that was not possible, given David Jenkins’ fixed and scarcely explained position from the age of ten. In the present book there seems to be little attempt to investigate the image, but only to talk about the activity, of God.

I am personally grateful for the book, even at this point. At the age of fourteen I was sent, unenthusiastically, to confirmation classes. Shortly after my confirmation I became a believer. I believed in the Church. God was pointed to by the Church, which indeed claimed its authority from that source, but what mattered passionately to me was the Church.

At an impressionable age I was attracted by its magisterium, its sense of mystery and beauty and peace. The Church as an historic institution offered a great perspective of continuity in time, as well as a warm sense of community and pastoral kindness.

I see now that it was understandable and right that I should believe in the Church. I think I still do, despite its many failures and shortcomings.

Belief in God was part of the Church’s package and I accepted it as such. As a theological student, however, I was attracted more by lectures on pastoralia, spirituality, psychology, church history and liturgy than by those on the doctrine of God or the complications of Christology. I am not now ashamed of this. It leaves me now more able to cope in a relaxed way with questions about God in the modern world. ‘God’ is still important to me, but I would turn one of David Jenkins’ favourite sayings around by saying that love is God.

There is a different alternative to his form of belief in God from the atheism he strives to avoid. It is a matter of interpretation, perhaps with God as a powerful symbol, inspiring reverence and capable of being variably and flexibly understood.

God as the sum of our values and aspirations? God as the symbol of love, which works effectively but patiently? God as the ideal of our creativity? God as a symbol that constrains our behaviour?

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