The Daily Telegraph
The Right Reverend John Shelby Spong
Rebel bishop who infuriated ‘simple’ believers with his attempt to redefine Christianity by knocking down its central tenets
THE RIGHT REVEREND JOHN SHELBY SPONG, the former Episcopalian Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, who has died aged 90, became well known for his determination to ordain women and homosexuals; far more subversive, however, was his lofty abandonment of so many of the traditional pillars of Christian doctrine.
Indeed, Jack Spong’s career bore out the ancient Catholic objection to Protestantism, that those whose faith is moulded solely by their own interpretation of the Bible may end up believing almost anything – particularly if they have a high opinion of their own powers.
It was a grief to him, Spong claimed, to cause pain to “simple” believers; early in his life, however, he decided that he “could no longer sacrifice scholarship and truth to protect the weak and religiously insecure”. For him the Apostle’s Creed “had been fashioned inside a world-view that no longer exists”; indeed, he insisted on regarding Jesus himself as a man subject to the misapprehensions and prejudices of less enlightened times.
The idea of God as “a supernatural miracle-worker in the sky”, Spong asserted, could hardly appeal to a world which had absorbed the lessons of Newton, Darwin and Freud. He saw it as his mission, therefore, to redefine Christianity in terms more acceptable to the modern age. There could be no question of fixed dogma: the God he knew could only be pointed to, never “enclosed in propositional statements”.
The Bible, Spong observed, “never says in a simplistic way that Jesus is God. Jesus prays to God in the Gospels. He is not talking to himself. Jesus dies on the cross. It makes no sense to say that the holy God died. The Bible only says that what God is, Jesus is; that to see Jesus is in some sense to see God.” Alas, though, this proved “a theological distinction too subtle for the secular press to grasp”.
Nevertheless, Spong battled on. The Gospels? Not so much the memories of eyewitnesses, but “liturgical works organised against the background of the Jewish liturgical year”. The Nativity? An obscure, illegitimate birth, possibly the consequence of a rape, which early Christians disguised under the extraordinary notion that this was the Son of God. The marriage at Cana? Very likely Jesus’s own wedding to Mary Magdalene – why otherwise should Jesus’s mother be concerned that the wine had run out, and why should she be giving orders to the servants?
The Resurrection? In the physical sense, “a late tradition”, dating from the end of the first century. The afterlife? “I have no interest,” Spong proclaimed, “in a system of rewards and punishments.”
While atheists have advanced such opinions from the beginning of the Christian era, these were, to say the least, surprising views in a bishop. Yet Spong seemed to revel in shocking the orthodox. Redemption through the death of Christ, for example, he dismissed as “a barbarian idea – why doesn’t God just say, ‘I forgive the sin
of the world?’ Why does God insist that the murder of his Son be a part of the forgiveness?”
Spong was a skilled debater, and in thus tearing up the traditional roots of Christianity he adopted a slightly bored tone of sweet reasonableness, as one obliged to combat the ridiculously entrenched prejudices of the brainwashed. But while insisting that he himself was “a passionate believer” – albeit “a believer in exile” – he offered no alternative theology, beyond a few vague phrases about God “as the ground of being”. His ethical system consisted mainly of liberal pieties. “God beckons us out of our confining lives to a place where we are able to grow into more sensitive and open people, people capable of reflecting the infinite inclusiveness of God.”
Translated, that meant ordaining gay people with a maximum of publicity. It meant embracing the feminist cause so as to combat a morality that had been formed in the era of the dominant male: the words “Father Almighty” in the creed, Spong declared, “offend me deeply”.
It meant that, while Spong advocated fidelity within marriage, sex outside matrimony could be “holy and life-giving for older or single people or those divorced or widowed, provided it was within the context of a deep and exclusive relationship”. It meant that divorce “has some very positive values that must be isolated and supported, as well as destructive potential that needs to be minimised”; perhaps, then, there should be a church service to mark the end of a marriage. It meant that abortion was “a legal option for reproductive choice”.
While Spong could be charming and plausible in advancing such views to a
sympathetic audience, he did not take kindly to opposition. Academics who appeared to support him were adjudged to be outstanding scholars; those who presumed to dissent were dismissed as bigoted fundamentalists. When it was pointed out that Spong’s own scholarship was by no means flawless, he adopted a disdainful silence.
Dr Graham Leonard, Bishop of London from 1981 to 1991, who opposed the ordination of women, was admonished: “You have ceased to grow, to be open to the nudgings of the Holy Spirit in our time.”
Yet Spong’s arrogance and selfsatisfaction, and his apparent carelessness about the unsettling effect of his views on believing Christians, did not represent his whole character. He was also a man of extraordinary energy and generous impulses, who took a firm stand on civil rights at a crucial period of American history, and who conducted himself with dignity and fortitude in the face of tragedy in his personal life.
John Shelby Spong was born on June 16 1931 in Charlotte, North Carolina, the elder of two boys. His great-greatgrandfather had emigrated to America from Kent, though the family name may originally have derived from the marshy fenland of East Anglia.
There was little joy in the Spong home. His father, an alcoholic, died when Jack was 12, leaving his much younger mother, a fundamentalist
Presbyterian who inculcated the virtue of regular Bible reading, in hardship.
At school in Charlotte, Jack became a fan of basketball. But the most important influence in his early life was Robert Cardwell, the priest at St Peter’s Episcopalian Church: he became a father-figure, and the church proved a far more agreeable resort for the boy than his own home. When, with barely a dollar to his name, Spong went on to the University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill, he lived in a church building alongside the campus.
He met a fellow student called Joan Ketner and in 1952 married her. For some time, while Spong attended a seminary in Virginia, Joan was the chief breadwinner in the family, through her job with the CIA. Inevitably such a division of labour, rare at the time, set Spong thinking about roles of the sexes.
By the time he was ordained a priest, on Holy Innocents’ Day 1955, he had abandoned the attempt to interpret the
Bible literally. At his first parish, St Joseph’s, Durham, North Carolina, his pastoral and expository gifts were immediately apparent. The students discovered that he was more eager to prise open their minds than reinforce their conservative religious prejudices.
After two years, Spong moved to be rector of Calvary Parish, Tarboro, North Carolina, where he found himself in the heat of the battle for civil rights. In 1959 he announced that black children should be protected by the police as they presented themselves for entry to a previously all-white school, and he put himself at their head to ensure that they were.
The local sheriff, a member of Spong’s flock, was shamed into acquiescence. As a result Spong gained the honour of being named Public Enemy Number One in Edgecombe County by the Ku Klux Klan.
At the same time he showed his enduring interest in theological debate through his editorship of The North Carolina Churchman and his chairmanship of the diocese’s Evangelism Committee. He also established a reputation as a lecturer.
In 1969, after a spell at St John’s, Lynchburg, Virginia, Spong was appointed rector of St Paul’s Church in Richmond, Virginia. Here his Bible classes attracted attention, confirmed in 1974 by the publication of his book The Hebrew Lord, an exploration of the influence of Judaism on Christianity. This led to a series of televised debates with a rabbi which brought Spong’s talent as a communicator to a still wider audience.
In 1976 his elevation to the episcopate as Bishop of New Jersey, while evoking fury from conservatives, seemed to set the seal on a wholly successful career. “I entered the House of Bishops,” Spong reflected, “better known than bishops who had been in that house for decades.”
Yet his public réclame covered
private unhappiness. His wife had never believed that her role should be confined to making a home and bringing up their three daughters. But from the early 1970s her independence lapsed into paranoia, and eventually into mental withdrawal. Spong looked after her, and did his best to be both father and mother to his children. For years, however, he was bereft of any close emotional tie.
This experience of loneliness within marriage, he thought, helped him to understand the suffering of homosexuals in the face of society’s hostility and misunderstanding. It also propelled him even more intensely into his work. Despite all the problems of Newark, a riot-torn city, he found time to expound his ideas in book after book.
Among these were The Easter Moment (1980); Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism (1991); Born of Woman
(1992); Resurrection: Myth or Reality
(1994); Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1998); Here I Stand (2000); The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic
(2014), and his most recent book,
Unbelievable, published in 2018. Spong proved a highly popular author, and many who took up his books to mock found themselves favourably impressed, if not by the answers that were given, then at least by the questions raised.
Critics, on the other hand, found his style meretricious. His flashy mode of argument is well caught in his oftenrepeated rebuttal to the stock Catholic case against women priests, that there were no women among the disciples. “Perhaps it has not yet occurred to the bishop of Rome,” Spong returned, “that Jesus did not choose any Polish males to be his disciples either.”
It might be true, as he held, that the low status of the women in Palestine around AD 30 would have made their selection extraordinary. At least, though, unlike Polish males, they were there to be considered.
Having for many years been an advocate of women priests, Spong made full use of his powers after the Episcopalian Church accepted their ordination in 1977. But he faced fiercer opposition in 1989, when he ordained a self-declared gay man called Robert Williams. For centuries, Spong pointed out, with typical insouciance, churches had ordained homosexual people – why should they now jib at doing so openly?
But the choice of Williams did not prove felicitous. The new priest observed that “Mother Teresa would be a better person if she got laid.” Spong was obliged to suspend him, and a year later Williams died of Aids.
In 1989, in the middle of this imbroglio, Spong’s wife died of cancer. As he and his daughters sat beside the coffin at the funeral, a woman came and struck him across the shoulders with her cane, hissing: “Son of a bitch”. His reinterpretation of Christianity, intended to appeal to the modern age, actually aroused so much hostility that congregations sharply declined in his diocese.
On New Year’s Day 1990, Spong made an extremely happy second marriage, to Christine Bridger, a friend of his first wife. She not only encouraged him in his work, but also helped to mend fences in the diocese. She survives him; he also had five children.
There was certainly relief among conservatives when Spong retired as bishop of Newark in 2000 (subsequently he lectured at Harvard), but by that time some of the edge had gone from the struggle. Even so, when he came to England for the Lambeth Conference of 1998, he made his disdain for what he considered the illiberality of the Anglican Church very clear.
As for eternity, Jack Spong inevitably produced his own version of Christian hope: “I do believe that life here is but a limited and finite image of full life, which is limitless and infinite. I do assert that one prepares for eternity not by being religious and keeping the rules, but by living fully, loving wastefully, and daring to be all that each of us has the capacity to be … To say it traditionally I do believe that there is life after death.”