Are we ready to recognize that ‘they’ are actually ‘us?’

Published May 1, 2003

“Even the church cannot keep a good God down.” Ever the master of the apt phrase the former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, has published, in what is described as “not quite an autobiography,” reflections and reactions to his experience of being a bishop in the Church of England. The Calling of a Cuckoo tells his side of the controversies which surrounded him, until his retirement, from the day of the announcement in 1984 that he would become the fourth senior bishop of England. In it he reveals his struggles and an increasing disillusionment. As he states in the preface, “I found myself more and more forced to the conclusion that the Church of England, in its present quarrelsome and institutionally obsolescent state, is just not fit or able to share, spread and serve the Christian gospel of the future which is offered to humanity by the God of the Bible, who is the God known in and through Jesus Christ and the God active in the Holy Spirit.”

His main problems stemmed from seeking to proclaim a faith to meet the demands of an indeterminate future rather than acting as palace guard for perceived traditional certainties. He was aware that a paradox exists in that, “…belief in God depends for its initiation and sustenance on people who are already conscious of their belief in God – and yet, as a collective class, are the principal obstacles to believing in God.” It was his desire to break out of this paradox that brought a downpour of abuse from all those self appointed avenging angels of the Lord who found ready outlets for their invective in the infamous British tabloid press. He gained attention quickly also at the highest levels when in a 1985 speech prime minister Margaret Thatcher said, “You may have noticed that recently the voices of some reverend and right-reverend prelates have been heard in the land. I make no complaint about that. After all, it wouldn’t be spring, would it, without the voice of the occasional cuckoo!” Hence the book’s title and the comment, “there are always the interesting implications of being a cuckoo in the nest.”

[pullquote]So what was David Jenkins’ great sin? From personal experience I know that his orthodoxy enabled him to confess the Apostles’ Creed with conviction. But it was in the interpretation of those truths. He is not a biblical literalist and therefore he sought understandings that would enable modern, ordinary people to relate to the Gospel. In so doing he offended those whose certainties are engraved in the stone of a dated past. He threatened all those Anglicans who glory in the "us" and "them" understanding of their faith. His desire was to share a gospel in which God’s purposes are still being worked out, particularly in a world of new and exciting global possibilities. Perhaps nothing illustrated his aim to communicate a lively gospel more than the following story. Peter Baelz, then Dean of Durham, reports a telephone encounter just before the bishop’s first Easter there: "A male Scots voice asked him how one should address a bishop. That, replied Peter characteristically, depends on how rude you want to be. "Och no!," responded the caller, "I dunna want to be rude. I only want to tell the bishop that they’re discussing the resurrection in all the pubs in Rosyth." May God call more cuckoos to grace the nest of the church’s rebirth.

It is not only Anglicans who get into trouble. There have also been calls for the resignation of Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Britain and the Commonwealth, following the publication of his The Dignity of Difference. This is a thoughtful and timely study about, “How to avoid the clash of civilizations.”

This is a radical challenge to the monotheistic faiths to alter their fundamental paradigms. There is no suggestion that individually their faiths should be watered down, but that they should reconsider how they perceive God as Creator. “It is that the one God, creator of diversity, commands us to honour his creation by respecting diversity.” This is something more than mere tolerance or pluralism. He fears that, “fundamentalism, like imperialism, is the attempt to impose a single truth on a plural world.”

He proposes a test of faith: “Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideals, are different from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing him to remake me in his.”

These books are for those who are ready to recognize that the “them” are “us” and that dignity should be inherent in whatever God has wrought. It is Spring and the voices of the cuckoos are calling.


Keep on reading

Skip to content