Five revolutions in a lifetime
John Shelby Spong has changed his mind about a lot of things during his long ministry.
Episcopalians tend to be a staid and conservative lot. That explains why one of their retired bishops, the Rev. John Shelby Spong, controversial to the core, makes people sit up and take notice.
And some take swipes at him — verbally and physically.
The former Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, told a full house at the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint Mark in Minneapolis on October 13, “I was sitting in a pew with my family, at the memorial service for my recently deceased wife, in the church in Richmond, Virginia, where I once served. A woman marched up the center aisle, stopped next to me and whacked me viciously across the back and shoulders with her umbrella, declaring, ‘Take that, you [expletive]!’ Then she marched out a side door, a look of satisfaction in her eyes, past six pallbearers, waiting to carry my wife’s casket from the church. All of them were clergy. To them she declared defiantly, ‘I’ve wanted to do that to that [expletive] for about 30 years!”
What causes a pious Episcopalian to attack a bishop during a funeral? In Spong’s case, it’s doubtless his outspoken views on a variety of topics dear to the hearts of the conservative faithful.
For his part, Spong admits he was an unlikely candidate for change agent. “I grew up in North Caro-lina, to conservative Epis-copal parents. As a youngster, I believed everything the church and Southern culture told me to believe — about everything!”
But then his world changed. In his address at St. Mark Church, Spong said, “I’ve lived through five revolutions. They’re changing modern Christianity, and they’ve changed me.” He spent the next 90 minutes describing his pilgrimage, before an audience that included many Lutherans.
* Rethinking Racism.
The bishop described how Black people always used the back door of his family home. He was taught to address adults as “Sir” but when he used that term on a beloved Black handyman, his father told him, “We don’t call Black people ‘Sir.’” Said Spong, “That made no sense to me. I decided my father was wrong. I was only four years old at the time.”
He said he was 17 years old before he realized that the Episcopal Church in North Carolina was segregated.
Later, as a priest, he stood with Black people seeking their rights. “I learned how painful and frightening it was to ‘act right.’ I got hate mail and phone calls in the middle of the night.”
* Rethinking Sexism.
“In my home, growing up,” Spong said, “my father was king. My mother was his servant. I treated my first wife the same way. But then, thank God, I had four daughters. They educated me.” In the Diocese of Newark, he explained, the ratio of female/male clergy eventually became 40%/60% by the time he retired.
He added, “By the time I retired, 60% of the seminary students assigned to the Newark Diocese were fe-male. Next year , in Indianapolis,” he suggested, “the Episcopal Church may elect [its first] female presiding bishop — perhaps the Bishop of Indianapolis.”
* Rethinking Anti-semitism.
Spong described his journey from “darkness to light” where the Jewish people are concerned. “In Sunday school, nobody told me Jesus was a Jew. Judging from the pictures we got in our literature, you’d have thought he was a blond, blue-eyed Swede. Nobody told me, either, that except for Luke, who was probably a Gentile, Jews wrote the Bible”
Said Spong, “This ‘Jewish Jesus’ seemed to have had a lot of fun, given what the Bible said about him. I was intrigued. That led me to write a book with the title Liberating the Bible: Reading the Scriptures Through Jewish Eyes.”
* Rethinking Homosexuality.
Spong told his audience, “I didn’t know the word ‘homosexual’ until I was 18 because, as you can imagine, we didn’t have any homosexuals in the South.” He added, “And then, when we discovered we actually did have some, the liberals all said they were mentally unwell. Conservatives were less kind — they said they were all morally depraved.”
Spong became a bishop in 1976. He described himself as “still homophobic” at the time, and drew laughter when he added, “It’s very difficult to educate a bishop.” He explained, “The first time one of my priests admitted to me that he was gay, I gave him the approved ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ response.”
He asked a university researcher to help him “understand sexual orientation.” His discovery, he said, was that “people don’t choose sexual orientation; they awaken to it.” All the data, he said, supports this view.
Said Spong, “all the prejudice is on the side of those who claim sexual orientation is a choice. They are so visceral about this because they know their argument is dying.” That comment brought sustained applause from a clearly sympathetic crowd.
The bishop argued, “We now know the homosexual population is stable and constant in all societies. The percentages don’t change.”
Spong maintained, “A gay person can’t ‘recruit’ someone else. It’s not a choice, because it also occurs in animals, and they clearly don’t choose it. So, why should we call it ‘unnatural’ in human beings?”
Spong’s change of heart concerning homosexual persons led him to write a book on the topic, Living in Sin? He then decided it was time to demonstrate the courage of his convictions, so he presided at the ordination of a gay priest, whose partner was part of the ceremony.
“I got 14 death threats. They were so credible, I turned them over to the police. The threats came from people who described themselves as ‘Bible-loving Christians.’ There were no threats from self-identified atheists.”
He had words of scorn for the Roman Catholic hierarchy, which recently an-nounced a new program to purge men with homosexual tendencies from that church’s seminaries. Said Spong, “They should start with the Cardinals!”
* Rethinking Scripture.
The bishop was briefest in his remarks when discussing the way Christians read and interpret the Bible. He admitted this was probably the area that has gotten him in the most “hot water,” since rethinking Scripture strikes at the heart of cherished beliefs. But, he said, paraphrasing the title of one of his books on the subject, “When it comes to Scripture, and what we think it says, the church must change or else it will die a slow and painful death.”
To illustrate his disdain for reading Scripture with a literal and uncritical eye, Spong said, “The prophet Samuel preached to King Saul to destroy all his enemies. That’s tribal religion.”
Quoting Episcopal theologian Marcus Borg, Spong said, “I take the Bible seriously, but not literally.”