Charles E. Jenkins III's life within the Episcopal Church began with the death of his father. When Don Green Jenkins reached the end of a long struggle with aggressive skin cancer, the family called on Paul Bigger, an Episcopal priest, to administer last rites.
By then, Charles Jenkins was a college student at Louisiana Tech University. He lived with his grandparents in the years of his father's terminal illness and had joined them at their Baptist church. "I found no comfort in my faith, and some of the clergy to whom I turned were less than comforting," Jenkins says.
That changed when Bigger arrived. "He made much more sense to me and was much more interested in me as a human being. He took me under his wing," Jenkins says. "I experienced through this priest, and later through Iveson B. Noland [Bishop of Louisiana from 1969 to 1975], unconditional love. The Episcopal Church found me, and I found a friend for life."
Jenkins, 54, did not have a "Damascus Road calling" to the priesthood, which he says prompted some of his seminary classmates at Nashotah House in Wisconsin to question his calling. After seminary, Jenkins embarked on a familiar path among future bishops, moving to ever-larger parishes and joining various diocesan committees. He began his ministry as an assistant at St. Alban's Chapel at Louisiana State University; assisted at Grace in Monroe, La.; became rector of St. Mark's in Arlington, Texas. Jenkins was rector of St. Luke's, Baton Rouge, when he was elected bishop coadjutor in 1997.
Jenkins was the first bishop consecrated by Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold and has been one of Griswold's more visible conservative allies. Of the Episcopal Church's six-member delegation to the Anglican Consultative Council in June 2005, Jenkins provided the one conservative voice on questions of homosexuality.
Jenkins stresses that he joined the ACC delegation because he trusts Griswold's leadership.
"I've had a wonderful relationship with Frank Griswold. I've known him and seen him in ways that most people do not," says Jenkins, who joined Griswold's Council of Advice in 2003 and became its president a year later. Both Griswold and Rowan Williams have, for the sake of the Anglican Communion, taken actions they normally would not have taken, Jenkins says.
Jenkins was in the minority of bishops who did not consent to the consecration of Gene Robinson as the bishop of New Hampshire. He expects ordinands in the Diocese of Louisiana to limit their sexual activity to heterosexual marriage, and he does not authorize clergy to offer blessing rites for same-sex couples. But he's also loyal to the Episcopal Church and urges Episcopalians who would divide from each other to stay at the same Eucharistic table. This is a consistent theme in Jenkins' ministry as a bishop, and it's one of the points that clergy and laity in Louisiana single out for praise.
"He has the ability to hold people with opposing views in tension with one another, in community with one another," says the Rev. Mark Holland, rector of St. James Church in Baton Rouge and chairman of the diocese's Commission on Ministry. "He calls people to accountability for their relationships. ... He's not the kind of bishop who's going to throw someone away. You don't throw away relationships."
Notes the Rev. Fred Devall, rector of St. Martin's Church in Metairie and president of the diocese's Standing Committee, "There's a satisfaction with his leadership because we didn't go to all-out war with each other. That's part of our identity as a church, to step into tension and to live with that."
Kathy Eastman, senior warden at Trinity Church in New Orleans, disagrees with Jenkins on sexuality issues but respects his leadership. "He's very down-to-earth and real. He's not hesitant to tell you his views. What I really admire about him, especially since the last General Convention, is his willingness to invite everybody to the table."
The Rev. Jean Meade, rector of Mt. Olivet Church in New Orleans, agrees with Jenkins on sexuality issues but also appreciates his ability to keep both sides in conversation. She recalls a recent service in which diocesan clergy renewed their ordination vows. Jenkins called on the clergy to look around and to reflect on how their colleagues had made sacrifices for the gospel.
"He says plainly what he believes to be right, and he says the same thing to every group of people," says Meade, who preceded Devall as president of the Standing Committee.
Mentors in ministry
Jenkins speaks frequently about the importance of clergy being a nonreactive presence amid conflict, and he credits the idea to the late Edwin Friedman, a Reform Judaism rabbi who developed a wide following among Christian clergy.
Jenkins describes his five years of studies with Friedman as a "soul-stretching time," saying they increased his appreciation of ambiguity, adventure and larger horizons. Friedman taught Jenkins about "family of origin" theory, which uses people's family histories to help explain their reactions to conflict.
Jenkins also gives frequent credit to a brother bishop, Claude Payne of the Diocese of Texas, for helping him focus on leading his diocese into a sense of unified mission rather than mere maintenance.
The legacy of Payne's teachings is evident in the Diocese of Louisiana, especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Jenkins says.
Before the hurricane, the diocese encompassed 20,000 members in 54 congregations. Jenkins says he believes the diocese's united post-Katrina mission includes confronting racism, helping people become homeowners, providing health care, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and sheltering the homeless.
"I also look for the moment when people ask, 'Why are you doing this?'" Jenkins says. "In that moment, I can talk about what Christ means in my life."
Payne's influence is evident again as Jenkins discusses his vision for the future of the Episcopal Church.
"I think the most pressing challenge we have is the transformation from maintenance to mission," he says. "The only way this church will ever diversify is by growing."
He considers reconciliation efforts crucial. "We need to be about the work of reconciliation in our church and in the Anglican Communion," he says. "We want to be Episcopalians, and we want to be Anglicans. We definitely don't want the two to become mutually exclusive."
Jenkins says some Episcopalians in the sexuality debate remind him of Star Trek's Borg collective, with its menacing greeting of "We are Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile."
Episcopalians who care deeply about the sexuality debate need to resist their Borg temptations, he says, if they want the church to thrive.
As clergy and laity in Louisiana discuss Jenkins' years of leadership, two themes emerge frequently: collegial leadership and good humor.
"He has a great gift of humor, and he uses that well - not to cut down the other, but to cut tension," Devall says. "He will be with you. If you're mad as all get-out with him and call him up, you may not get a meeting immediately, but you will get one. He's going to meet with you, and he's going to hear you."