Spong aims to launch a ‘new reformation’

Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love and Equality

By John Shelby Spong
HarperSanFrancisco, 448 pages, $25 hardcover

Richard W. Kropf

Written by America's most controversial bishop, this autobiography should be required reading for any liberal Christian, especially if one's agenda includes any hope of reform in one's own church. Spong, recently retired from leadership of the Episcopal diocese of Newark, N.J., details all the struggles in which he has engaged throughout his clerical career, whether it be against racial, ethnic or sexual discrimination or against the kind of biblical fundamentalism or ecclesiastical traditionalism that he sees as the last gasp of a Christianity that, as the title of his previous 1998 book announced, either “must change or die.”

Raised in the “low church” Episcopalian tradition in Charlotte, N.C., Spong's seminary exposure to the thought of theologians like Tillich and Bonhoeffer soon steered him toward a more intellectual understanding of the faith, which he quickly began to promote in his first parish assignment near Duke University in Durham. This was followed by pastoral stints in Tarboro, N.C., Lynchburg, Va., and in Richmond, Va., all places where Spong deftly confronted racism, sexism, and, finally, as a by-product of his public dialogue with a local rabbi, found himself launched on a writing career that has resulted in 17 published books. Most of them reflect the profound influence exercised upon him by Anglican Bishop J.A.T. Robinson's 1963 book, Honest To God.

Spong, much like Robinson, became dedicated to carrying out Rudolph Bultmann's program of a radical regrounding of faith through “demythologization” of the Bible. All this, along with his innovative pastoral strategies, began to upset traditionalists of all stripes.

Nevertheless, such notoriety attracted enough attention that Spong was eventually elected to become bishop of Trenton. As a voting member of the House of Bishops, he not only lobbied for the ordination of women to the priesthood, but soon after, being convinced by a scientist that homosexuality is not chosen but is in a sense inherited, he became embroiled in the struggle for gay and lesbian rights within his church. His boldest move, and that which earned him the most grief, was his ordination of an openly gay man who, after pledging fidelity to his life-partner, soon repudiated monogamy as a Christian ideal that need not apply to gays. Not deterred by that unfortunate experience, even while weathering more personal grief in the loss of his first wife, Spong has continued to fight for full recognition of gays and lesbians and their right to an active sex life not only within Christianity, but even within the ranks of the clergy.

All this has brought him into open conflict with a major part of his own church, not just within the United States but even more with Anglican bishops from other countries, not to mention making him the target of denunciations by evangelicals, traditionalist Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox. But ecumenical concerns, which Spong considers all but hopeless due to most Christians' refusal to face up to the tough issues, do not seem to deter him much. Instead, as Spong is about to begin a new career as a lecturer at Harvard Divinity School, he seems more than ever determined to launch what he calls “A New Reformation” beginning with a new way of defining God “beyond theism” and ranging through all the other issues he has so provocatively addressed. No doubt we'll be hearing more from him soon. Meanwhile, we'd do well to draw some lessons from Spong's experience.

First: Implicit in Spong's book is the message that faith, as a loving or even bold trust in God, is not the same as the beliefs that may be associated with it. Nor does the commitment to the community of faith rule out strong criticism of those beliefs. In fact, such faith may demand it. Those who do not understand these fundamental differences are apt to be severely threatened by any challenge to their sense of security and will seek to drive those who question their beliefs from communion with the rest. As Spong makes clear, we must be prepared to stand and fight.

Second: Although those who seek to reform the church may attempt to pick their causes very carefully, such a strategy may not always work. As Spong discovered, the mixture of theology and sexuality is bound to grab the public's interest, outrage conservatives and alarm most liberals who habitually seek reconciliation rather than confrontation. Yet, the problem is unavoidable, for once theology becomes informed by science, how can we be liberal in our theology and yet still hold on to prejudices that ignore the facts of life?

Third: Although we Roman Catholics might consider all of this a tempest in a teapot when we compare the difference in the numbers between Spong's church and ours, still, what happens in this ecclesiastical heirloom of the British Empire, “on which the sun never set,” bears close watching. In some ways we may very well see in the internal struggles of the Anglican-Episcopal Communion a microcosm of and preview of our own future struggles, many of which have yet barely been addressed. Like the proverbial canary in the cage, if this worldwide communion of churches of the Anglican tradition can hold together despite these sharp differences, there may yet be hope for ecumenism and the realization of a much more comprehensive or truly Catholic church.

Fr. Richard W. Kropf writes from his cabin hermitage in northern Michigan.

National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2000

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