Hero or heretic, Spong won't be forgotten

January 13, 1998

No, he's not riding into the sunset, and he will not go gentle into that good night.

John Shelby Spong is retiring as bishop of the Diocese of Newark at the end of January, but he's not likely to cease being a lightning rod for controversy.

Like everything else he says and does, that will elicit both gratitude and apoplexy from Episcopalians.

Spong, bishop of Newark since 1976, and the most senior diocesan bishop in the church, will begin a lectureship at Harvard University on Feb. 1. Just as his lectures in Newark have later been published as books challenging the Virgin Birth, Jesus' physical resurrection and other doctrines, so too will his work at Harvard.

As his tenure as diocesan bishop draws to a close, the spotlight focused on him is likely to dim. But it is difficult to imagine someone else taking his place as the most controversial bishop of the late 20th century.

Spong sees his most significant legacy as helping to develop "a theologically and biblically literate laity," by translating the work of academics into the language of the non-scholar. That work either brings Christian belief into the 21st century or denies it altogether, depending on who is reviewing it. "I would guess, though, that some of my theological suggestions and questions will not seem so radical in 10 years," says Spong.

His other legacy, that of leading the effort to bring gays and lesbians into the church's full sacramental life, is pretty much complete, he says, despite the controversy that still rages in the church and throughout the Anglican Communion.

"I think that's a battle that's won," says Spong, even though "it doesn't feel like it all the time."

Spong's 23 years as bishop has been marked by some of the most notorious events in the recent history of the Episcopal Church, including:

  • The ordination of the first openly gay priest in the church, Robert Williams, who later denounced monogamy and was fired by Spong from his post as director of The Oasis, a ministry to gays.



  • A shouting match in the House of Bishops at the 1991 General Convention, in which he called Bishop John MacNaughton of the Diocese of West Texas homophobic. MacNaughton had objected to homosexuals being named to a task force on sexuality. The argument led to then-Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning calling the bishops into executive session to try to heal the breach.



  • A statement of "personal privilege" at the 1994 convention that has become known as the Koinonia Statement, in which Spong asserted that he would recognize monogamous homosexual relationships and ordain gays and lesbians who are "wholesome examples." The statement is often cited as a litmus test by evangelicals against the 88 bishops who joined Spong in signing it.



  • The presentment in 1995-96 of Bishop Walter Righter, who, as assistant bishop in Newark, ordained the Rev. Barry Stopfel, another openly gay man, to the diaconate. Spong later ordained Stopfel a priest. (Last year, Stopfel resigned as rector of his parish, citing in part the stress brought on by the publicity of the hearings; the court ruled there was no "core doctrine" against the ordination and the case did not go to trial.)



  • A "Message to the Anglican Communion on the Subject of Homosexuality," issued in November 1997, which became the first shot across the bow of the 1998 Lambeth Conference on the subject of gays in the church. Archbishop of Canterbury George L. Carey called it "hectoring and intemperate."



  • An interview just before Lambeth with Carey's son, Andrew, an editor for the Church of England newspaper, in which Spong said African Christians had "moved out of animism into a very superstitious kind of Christianity. They've yet to face the intellectual revolution of Copernicus and Einstein that we've had to face in the developing world; that is just not on their radar screen."



  • His 1998 "Call for a New Reformation," with its 12 Theses, based on his book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die. In the book, Spong says theism, "God as a personal being with expanded supernatural, human and parental qualities," does not work for 21st-century Christians and his theses expand the idea to say that the idea of Jesus as the incarnation of God is "bankrupt" and that the biblical creation story is "pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense."

Protégé of Robinson, not Pike

Many consider Spong merely a publicity hound. Spong says he actually used to hate the limelight. Now, however, he welcomes it "because it helps me get my message out."

Certainly no other bishop ignites the flames of indignation and outrage that Spong does. Certainly no other figure could inspire a book with the personally pointed title, Can a Bishop Be Wrong? Ten Scholars Challenge John Shelby Spong. In it, writers such as Bishop James M. Stanton of the Diocese of Dallas and Bishop C. FitzSimons Allison, retired bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina, attempt to "correct an imbalance" of publicity given to Spong's theological views, as Dean Peter C. Moore of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, the book's editor, writes in the introduction.

Unfortunately for the authors, the imbalance in book sales still weighs heavily in Spong's favor.

"The fundamentalist has no better friend than John Shelby Spong," writes Stanton, who was unavailable for an interview. "No one demonstrates better the futility of liberal religion."

For some, Spong follows in the legacy of Bishop James Pike, the flamboyant bishop of the Diocese of California who was charged with heresy in 1966 and who died in the Israeli desert in 1969. Spong, however, considers himself a follower of English theologian John A.T. Robinson, whose book Honest to God Spong considers a life-changing book. Robinson also wrote about a non-theistic God, one that can be defined in Paul Tillich's words as the "ground of all being."

"That book really changed my life," said Spong of Honest to God. "He just said it in a way that you couldn't avoid it anymore; you had to face those theological issues."

Hero to gays, lesbians

Spong also considers former Presiding Bishop John M. Hines a mentor for his integrity and courage in standing up for civil rights.

Spong has taken on the mantle of champion of the oppressed, first for African-Americans and later for gays and lesbians. He is a hero in the gay community, especially in Newark.

The Rev. Canon Elizabeth Kaeton, director of The Oasis, a ministry for homosexuals and others in the diocese-the ministry founded by Robert Williams-nearly chokes up when talking about Spong, whom she calls "larger than life for many of us; he's a real hero in the classic sense of that word."

Kaeton and others, such as Louie Crew, founder of Integrity, the national gay and lesbian caucus, said Spong's respect in the gay community stems from his willingness to get in front of an issue, despite no personal stake in it.

"How do you talk about your founder?" said Kaeton. Spong is "the person who has stood in solidarity with you, especially when the winds of adversity were not only howling at your door but threatening to blow down the house? How do you express your gratitude for that?"

Bring God to the people

When asked what Spong's greatest legacy would be, however, Crew did not mention his advocacy for gays and lesbians. For Crew, Spong's ability to popularize theological thought is a bigger contribution to the church-"keeping the mind open to new possibilities, turning off the tremolo when we talk about Scripture."

Spong considers himself a "teaching bishop" and has often given two lecture series a year, which have been the basis for many of his books. Crew says those lectures have been packed with business people and others who are not necessarily Christians. Attracting people to studying the Bible who are not church folk-"clearing the clutter and getting people engaged with it"-is what Crew calls his great achievement.

Of course, Spong's theological opponents see no achievement in what they see as merely "pandering to the Zeitgeist," as Allison says, alluding to Reinhold Niebuhr.

"He has a real knack for appealing to the spirit of this age," says Allison. But Allison says Spong has denied the basic Christian beliefs he vowed to uphold as a bishop.

"He cannot hold the '12 Theses' and say the creeds without perjuring himself." The result of Spong's influence, he says, is that "there are no boundaries now that are enforceable about doctrine."

On one point Spong and his intellectual foes agree--it is more important to be forthright about belief than to stay quiet and violate those beliefs in actions such as blessing same-sex unions. But Allison says that if Spong were truly honest, he would resign as a bishop. "It's not only a question of theology, it's a question of honor."

Another observer, Douglas LeBlanc, an evangelical Episcopalian who is associate editor of Christianity Today, agrees that Spong has the courage of his convictions (the title of Spong's upcoming autobiography is "Here I Stand").

"Bishop Spong's willingness to take the heat for what he believes in is one of the things I most admire about him and I think the House of Bishops would be a healthier house if more bishops on the left were as candid as Bishop Spong about what they believe, or don't believe, in the Christian faith."

But LeBlanc also says that, when it comes to his denial of a supernatural God who performs miracles that cannot be explained by reason and science, Spong is "breathtakingly deluded on that point."

LeBlanc, former editor of United Voice, newspaper of the conservative group Episcopalians United, grants that there are "any number of people who are Episcopalians today who would not be if it were not for Jack Spong's books." But he wonders how many of those converts move beyond Spong to a true Trinitarian theology: "whether people will see that the Nicene Creed is a statement of objective reality. If the creed is a symbol system that we can interpret any way we please, then, as Flannery O'Connor says, 'The hell with it.' ...

"If Christianity is not supernatural and if what we are told in the gospels is not true, being part of the church is not worth the pain," continues LeBlanc. "But because it is true, it's worth every bit of the pain."

For his part, Spong says he does believe the creeds--he just interprets them through a post-modern lens. Citing the problem that for every person saved by a "miracle," others are not, Spong says, "The real issue for me is that there are far more theological problems in attributing to God miraculous powers than in not attributing them."

Through it all, though, Spong says he has not become an atheist. Asked his definition of God, he says, "I see God in Jesus and the reason I remain a Christian is that Jesus to me defines both God and human life uniquely. Jesus is for me the ultimate God-presence." Spong says that in him [Spong], God is fractured, but in Jesus he is unfractured. Spong continues, "I don't ever want to be apart from the church," which he calls a "purifying community."

He won't leave the church, but on the last day of January, Spong will walk out of his diocesan office and head for Harvard. His life will be different. But don't expect him to keep quiet.


-Ed Stannard is the news editor of Episcopal Life, the church's national monthly newspaper.