David Jenkins’ support for the miners during the 1984-5 strike drew fire from both Church and State. But, as Mark Tallentire discovers, the former Bishop of Durham is as unrepentant as ever
"AN imported elderly American”.
Four words taken from a sermon delivered during late summer, 1984. Words which, for years to come, would shape the way many thought about David Jenkins: priest, theologian and, from that day on, enemy of the Conservative government.
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Dr Jenkins was referring to Ian MacGregor, Margaret Thatcher’s head of the National Coal Board (NCB), and the remark thrust the newly installed Bishop of Durham into the national spotlight, and the heart of the Miners’ Strike.
The setting – Dr Jenkins’ enthronement speech at Durham Cathedral – could hardly have been more dramatic. The timing – with thousands on the picket lines and violence in the air – explosive.
“That was my only mistake,” Dr Jenkins says, nodding and leaning forward in a kitchen chair in his home in Teesdale, County Durham.
“I’m still an Oxford don at heart. It’s the sort of thing you would say in the common room.”
The media concentration on those four words overshadowed the truly explosive content of the new Bishop’s speech – that “the miners must not be defeated” and asserted that the Government’s role was to heal, not divide society.
Dr Jenkins was already a controversial choice for the see of Durham. His views on the literal truth of the Virgin Birth and bodily resurrection of Jesus had earned the wrath of traditionalists.
It was even suggested that the fire which devastated York Minster that year was the act of a vengeful God.
But his comments at his enthronement in September provoked fury among Conservative politicians and press.
John Carlisle MP pondered whether: “The thunderbolt that struck York Minster might similarly strike Durham”, while colleague Nicholas Fairburn said that if the Bishop “wishes to worship earthly gods like Arthur Scargill, let him forsake the post to which he has just been wrongly appointed”. Even The Guardian described it as “a shocking sermon”.
But if the comments provoked outrage in Conservative circles, they opened doors at the National Union of Mineworkers and – more importantly to Dr Jenkins – in mining villages.
The miners’ long-held mistrust of the Church of England as “The Tory party at prayer”, was slow to shift. During the 1926 miners’ strike, angry pitmen attempted to throw a man they believed to be the Bishop of Durham into the River Wear.
The reception received by the new Bishop could hardly have been more different.
“People listened to me,” Dr Jenkins says, with a surprised smile. “I wasn’t an economist or a financier, but I was trying to bring the humanity back.
“They were all so friendly to me. Everyone seemed to treat me with the greatest respect and immense affection. It was very moving.”
Almost every day as long as the strike wore on, the dispute came across the Bishop’s desk.
For an academic who had been preparing for a quiet retirement, it came as something of a surprise to be plunged into the heart of the bitterest industrial dispute for a generation.
But inspired by a meeting with a group of miners’ wives who had been charged down by police during a demonstration in Birmingham, and seeing a young miner in tears at his prospects, he resolved to tackle the issue, headon, from the outset.
“I was conscious that I was coming to Durham at a time of great unrest,” he says.
‘I’D always been a fairly lively preacher and writer, so it was quite exciting to get into a position where you might have the chance to influence events. I thought it was my duty to say whatever came into my head – provided I thought about it.
“This seemed to me to be quite clearly the one issue which I could not avoid in my enthronement sermon. It would have been absolutely stupid to try anything else.”
Over the following months, Dr Jenkins met local union leaders, visited families and joined protest marches.
“I felt I had to go on marches with them. I was demonstrating solidarity. I didn’t see much point in the marches but, if they marched, I felt I had better march with them.
“Several local miners’ leaders were very clear they were not Scargill men. The ordinary miners and their wives were very hard-working and they were utterly bewildered by how quickly events occurred and how angry everybody got.
It was desperate – starvation loomed.”
Still tearful as he thinks back to those dark days, he said: “It was quite hellish. So many of them were good souls.
“It eventually became clear to me that Mrs Thatcher, Mr MacGregor and Arthur Scargill were equal bullies and one couldn’t expect anything but disaster.
“In the end I had to face the facts – there wasn’t a hope in hell of a compromise settlement.
Somebody had to win fully. The Right won fully and the misery was immense. What happened was an absolute tragedy.”
When the strike ended and pits closed, Dr Jenkins faced the challenge of keeping alive a sense of Christian hope in communities which were totally devastated.
“It revealed to me that all the theory I’d read wasn’t so easy when you’re in the middle and frightened people are fighting one another.
“I couldn’t make moral judgements about who was right or wrong, but it ought not to have been happening. I wanted to encourage people to keep lively churches going and working class clubs going, and not lose their nerve.
“I just had to care for people.”
Dr Jenkins remained Bishop of Durham until 1994. Now 84 and in semi-retirement as an assistant bishop in the Diocese of Ripon and Leeds, he often thinks of the strike. When asked to draw lessons from the period, he finds many.
“The market is both very ruthless and incompetent, as can be seen in the way bankers have made such a mess,” he says.
And for himself? Again, the answer comes fast.
“It caused me to pray more than I’d ever done before. Even though I’d believed ever since I was a boy that God had called me to do something, I was almost frightened.
“I was a friend of the miners and a champion of their families, but I was by no means an uncritical supporter of the NUM. I’d been landed with this, so I had to do something about it. I’m a simple believer and I think God is in favour of people.”
Finally, a pause. He looks up.
“I had a deeper experience of the presence of God. I just wish he had told me what he was up to.”