Jonathan B. Wight
Bishop John Shelby Spong was in Richmond a few weeks ago, giving five daily lectures to packed audiences at St. Paul's Church, where he had been the rector from 1969-1976. They were fascinating talks about the origins and history of Christianity and the "new" Christianity emerging in the coming Reformation. According to Spong, Reformations come every 500 years or so. Each reformation attempts to rectify anomalies, injustices, and mistakes of the past.
I was moved to read Spong's autobiography, Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love and Equality (2000). He's written, by my count, over twenty other books that have inflamed as well as educated, and sold perhaps a million copies around the word.
The "New Christianity" that Spong preaches attempts to bridge 21st century science and religion. The New Christianity embraces evolution and other sciences, including those that develop the biological origins of sexual orientation. The New Christianity emphasizes the equality of all people, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation. It is fundamentally a message about love, not judgment (see, Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile, 1999).
Spong's entrance to the priesthood was in North Carolina in the mid-1950s, where overt racism was rampant. The battles he went through are legion; I don't know how someone develops that stamina and tough skin, although it was surely needed given the harassment and death threats of the KKK.
By the late 1960s Spong was preaching in Lynchburg Virginia. A particularly vitriolic editorial writer named Carter Glass III, publisher of the Lynchburg News (and grandson of Sen. Carter Glass, who had helped create the Federal Reserve in 1913 as well as co-author the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933), was determined to fight the Supreme Court's desegregation ruling more than a decade after it had been delivered. When Spong asked what Glass's motivation was, it turned out Glass believed that integration was part of the international communist conspiracy to infiltrate educational systems and encourage the breakdown of law and order. This wasn't the last time paranoia and fear stood in the way of dialogue and progress.
After fighting for racial integration and reconciliation, Spong became involved with the ordination of women. From there, his was a slow, but inevitable rise to leadership in promoting the rights of gays in the Episcopal Church and beyond, especially after he left Richmond to become Bishop of Newark in 1976. Spong was the first bishop to ordain an openly gay priest (although many gay priests were in the Episcopal Church, operating under "don't ask, don't tell").
Spong's take on leadership is particularly interesting in this book. A leader is not someone who spouts pious ethical statements. A leader has to organize the political fights that are inevitable any time change is proposed. Churches, like other organizations, unfortunately get populated by people who want to win more than they want to search for truth. Spong notes:
The [Christian] creeds were more about power than they were about truth. That some came to be called "orthodox" and their version of Christianity designated "orthodoxy" was not necessarily a recognition of who was right, but a recognition of who had won. The primary purpose of the creeds was not to spell out the Christian faith, but to exclude competing groups and their competing versions of truth from the church's life (pp. 242-243).
Adam Smith would love this story about the attempted monopolization—for personal gain—of the victors. That is why Smith so adamantly insisted on religious competition—exactly the sort of competition that the early creeds attempted to snuff out in the third century C.E. But there is also a psychological element:
Something deeply destructive is unleashed in some threatened human beings when they cannot keep the world from changing and in the process diminishing their power. They inevitably seek to destroy what they can no longer control (p. 48).
That sounds to me a lot like what is happening politically today and of course in ages past. Spong's last big official act as bishop before he retired in 2000 was to engage the Lambeth Conference in 1998. This once-a-decade event brings together the Anglican Communion from around the world. Bible literalists, and those opposed to gay priests, had formed a plan to repudiate Spong's inclusiveness. To carry this out Spong was vilified to African priests as a racist. This is both ironic and deeply hurtful, given his decades of work against racism in America. Spong's sin was to speak clearly in saying that opposition to gays and women (which is very strong in the African church) was based on unscientific beliefs. Nevertheless, the conservative bishops won, and passed a resolution on "Human Sexuality" that allowed no safe place for gays. And since then, of course, there has been the break-away of congregations from the Virginia Episcopal Diocese to the conservative Convocation of Anglicans in North America, supported by the Anglican Church of Nigeria.
The Episcopal Church, which in 2004 appointed an openly gay regional bishop and in 2006 elected a woman as overall Presiding Bishop, has congregations that are dropping and aging. Spong's hope is that a new enlightened and enlivened church will be born out of these ashes. His final lesson for "real" leaders—as opposed to stand-in leaders who like to wear the fancy robes and hats and take on titles—is this:
… losing a battle in the cause of justice is never a loss... the most important issue in life is not winning; it is being faithful to your core values (p. 211).
But justice and equality have generally been winning in the long run. I'm sure of very few things in life, but one of them is that 50 years from now the opponents of gay priests and female bishops will be looked upon as bizarre relics, just the way we look today at segregated bathrooms from the 1950s. Let's move on.