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Book Review

David Jenkins

The Calling of a Cuckoo: not quite an autobiography

ISBN 0 8264 4991 3 

Continuum, London and New York, 2002  £18.99

(price at publication of review)


Reviewed September 2003; © Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 2003

This absorbing, honest book is essentially about the present feuding in the Church of England, the author’s unwitting involvement in it, and his public and personal reactions then and since.  As an apologia it deserves to be read by anyone puzzled and frustrated by the quarrels.  I also commend it to onlookers whose view of the bishop, like mine, has largely been based on media reports and interviews.

David Jenkins has a vision of the Church - not so much of what it should believe but how it should behave under  the nation’s gaze: about how its members ought to treat each other, how it should relate to thoughtful outsiders and to those whose lives are damaged by change, and the way it is being called on to interact with other faiths.  He is saddened at the spectacle the Church makes of itself in public, and the ridicule its divisions attract, with the tabloids lining up like expectant children at a seaside Punch and Judy show.  It is a shock for him to discover how the love at the heart of the Gospel is the first casualty as conservatives on both extremes ride into battle with fellow Christians who they perceive (with little effort to find out) as insidious middle-of-the-road revisionists.  Are those of us who have espoused the Franciscan way of life escaping the issues?  In his dealings with the media and with politicians the bishop reminds me of the brave, gregarious birds you encounter on busy roads, deftly dodging the roaring traffic.  I begin to wonder if it is those of us who take refuge in private devotion, music and art who resemble the elusive cuckoo.

For Bishop Jenkins God is a mystery at the heart of creation and human relationships whose existence, nature and engagement with the world call for open and ongoing debate.  He is nonplussed after his consecration to find that an approach taken for granted for decades in  theological colleges is vociferously attacked by Christians who consider enquiry closed, its subject embalmed in biblical formulae for all time.  The bishop longs for the development, as he puts it, of “sustainable ways of living together” - a hope born, surely, out of over 50 years of marriage and the companionship of four “very varied” children.

The savagery of the quarrel over gay clergy and women bishops, the Virgin Birth and Resurrection, suggests that we should not expect too much progress in our lifetime.  If it is something we have to live with an in-depth study of the causes of religious paranoia would be helpful.  This book has a few clues.

Andrew Anderson


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