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Bishop Helen-Ann pays tribute to the Bishop who confirmed her, who has died.

With thanksgiving for the life of the Rt Rev'd Dr David Jenkins, former Bishop of Durham

Bishop Helen-Ann pays a personal tribute and thanksgiving for the life of the Rt Rev'd Dr David Jenkins, former Bishop of Durham, who confirmed her in 1986.  In the photograph, Bishop Helen-Ann is pictured in the cloisters of Durham Cathedral.

One of the most enjoyable things that I do as a Bishop is to confirm people.  On Sunday, in St Mark’s, Nawton I confirmed Sheryl, a remarkable older lady whose journey through grief has brought hope in unexpected ways.  She chose to be confirmed as a way of declaring publicly her commitment to her faith, and to her walk of discipleship.  Next Sunday, I will baptise and confirm 20 young people at St Paul’s Collegiate.  These young women and men have chosen to declare their faith before their whole school, a remarkable and inspiring act.  Reflecting on all of this, I recognise that part of the reason why I value confirmation so highly (and I why I spoke against the discussion to consider removing it from our Liturgies at General Synod in May), is because of my own confirmation, and more particularly the Bishop who confirmed me.

May 8th, Ascension Day, 1986 was indeed a significant day in my Christian journey.  I was 13, and on this day I was confirmed in St Matthew’s church, Silksworth, Sunderland in the North-East of England.  Today, I recall that occasion upon receiving the news that the Bishop who confirmed me, The Rt Rev’d Dr David Jenkins has died, aged 91.  I celebrate the length of his years, whilst acknowledging his more recent journey with Alzheimer’s.

The BBC news website reports: ‘‘Unbelieving’ former Durham Bishop Dr David Jenkins dies.’  Yes, he was a controversial figure, yet let it not be unsaid that he was a man who had a tremendously positive influence on the lives of many people, not least my own.  Media reports that seek to focus solely on what a person said, usually out of context, are aimed solely at heightening controversy.  So let’s just pause for a moment, and give thanks for his life and ministry.

My parents and I moved to Sunderland when I was 2.  I had lived the first two years of my life in the Scottish borders, where my father was Minister of Coldingham Priory.  The move south of the border led us to become part of a worshipping community in the United Reformed church.  We were Presbyterians, and happily so.  Our journey into Anglicanism is a personal story, and it affected each of us in different ways.  For my father, it led him to be ordained deacon and priest, and a move away from his ordination in the Presbyterian denomination.  And the Bishop who supported and counseled him in that journey was Bishop David Jenkins.  By the time my father was ordained, I was already confirmed.  I had begun my primary school education in a Church of England school, Benedict Biscop in Sunderland.  So arguably I had been formed quite gently in Anglicanism for several years.  I recall the first Sunday service I attended in our parish church, St Chad’s in Sunderland.  The Bishop was visiting, and I marveled at what Bishop David was wearing!  I have an exceptionally vivid memory of that.  Being someone who now wears a cope and mitre, I smile at the thought of this memory, whilst remembering the need to explain (if appropriate) why Bishops wear the vestments we wear!  

But let me get to the point.  I became a teenager in Sunderland in the 1980s, a decade that saw Government policies remove the ship-building and coal mining industries.  I remember driving past picket lines, and I remember how often Bishop David was present right in the midst of the pain and hurt of the miners.  Whatever you make of the strikes, and the politics of the day, he represented exactly what priestly ministry is about: to be incarnationally present where people are hurting; to be an advocate for those who seek justice; to be a voice for the welfare of all people in their time of need.  This has remained a great influence on me today, and while I often struggle to live up to those attributes, I have and now had a role model in Bishop David.

It was profoundly moving for me to be invited by the present Bishop of Durham, Bishop Paul Butler to assist him in the blessing of the banners at the Miners’ Gala service in Durham Cathedral on July 11th, 2015.  During that service I prayed a prayer that linked the mining communities of my own heritage, with those of my present episcopacy: 

Lord God, as we remember before you the Durham miners,
we give thanks that we are bound together by our common heritage.
With them, we remember mining communities throughout the world,
and all who face danger and adversity. 

There is much more that I could say, but at this point I simply want to pay tribute to a Bishop who has so influenced my Christian journey, giving thanks for his life and witness.  Indeed, we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, that our lives are always inter-twined with those who have gone before us.

Thanks be to God for Bishop David.  May he rest in peace, and rise in glory.

Story Published: 5th of September - 2016

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