glory of god

glory of god

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bishop Spong and his Manifesto

The Vicar of Wakefield hasn't been blogging lately, primarily because life in the parish has been very full. However, I recently received a message from a colleague in Toronto which made me think I should post again. He forwarded a year-old statement by the retired Bishop John Shelby Spong regarding the church's seemingly endless and increasingly tedious debate on the place of gay people in its common life.

As usual, Bishop Spong is strident. He is convinced that he is right. He doesn't provide room for debate. That's Bishop Spong's way. And in this case, I think he is right.

I don't read Bishop Spong much these days. I basically stopped reading him about 15 years ago. Although, I have heard him speak a few times since then and about 10 years ago I nervously preached a sermon at the MIT chapel when Bishop Spong was in the congregation. But although I am not attracted to his books today, there was a time when he was very important to me. In fact, I read everything he wrote that I could get my hands on. I was brought up with a very traditional faith, with which I was increasingly uncomfortable. So for me, Bishop Spong presented a fresh and open way of understanding the Bible, God, Jesus, and humanity. He presented it all in a way that made sense. When I look back on his books today I find that Bishop Spong's questions and concerns are no longer my questions or my concerns. But, as I reflect on it, it's probably because I read books like Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Living in Sin, and Born of a Woman that I was able to move beyond those questions of "fact" (how this or that miracle or fantastic story is possible which at one point were so challenging for me) that he spends so much time with, and into my current preference for trying to understand what the church or the Bible is trying to convey to its audience through a particular passage or story.

With regard to the place of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church, Bishop Spong has been a pioneer. There's no question about that. Admittedly, sometimes it seems as if he lead the way in part to draw attention to himself. He definitely seems to like attention. Nevertheless, I am grateful to him. In some part I am Episcopalian and a priest because of him--because of his writings and his challenging the status quo and his doing what he thought was right when others were more hesitant and his refusing to back down--and for that I am very thankful. The bishop's statement on GLBT issues follows. Perhaps others, reading his powerful words, will be likewise transformed by his insight and leadership as they learn who they are, whose they are, and how much God loves them. Bishop Spong is right. It shouldn't be up for debate.

A Manifesto! The Time Has Come!

by Bishop John Shelby Spong
Oct 15, 2009

I have made a decision. I will no longer debate the issue of homosexuality in the church with anyone. I will no longer engage the biblical ignorance that emanates from so many right-wing Christians about how the Bible condemns homosexuality, as if that point of view still has any credibility. I will no longer discuss with them or listen to them tell me how homosexuality is "an abomination to God," about how homosexuality is a "chosen lifestyle," or about how through prayer and "spiritual counseling" homosexual persons can be "cured." Those arguments are no longer worthy of my time or energy.

I will no longer dignify by listening to the thoughts of those who advocate "reparative therapy," as if homosexual persons are somehow broken and need to be repaired. I will no longer talk to those who believe that the unity of the church can or should be achieved by rejecting the presence of, or at least at the expense of, gay and lesbian people. I will no longer take the time to refute the unlearned and undocumentable claims of certain world religious leaders who call homosexuality "deviant."

I will no longer listen to that pious sentimentality that certain Christian leaders continue to employ, which suggests some version of that strange and overtly dishonest phrase that "we love the sinner but hate the sin." That statement is, I have concluded, nothing more than a self-serving lie designed to cover the fact that these people hate homosexual persons and fear homosexuality itself, but somehow know that hatred is incompatible with the Christ they claim to profess, so they adopt this face-saving and absolutely false statement.

I will no longer temper my understanding of truth in order to pretend that I have even a tiny smidgen of respect for the appalling negativity that continues to emanate from religious circles where the church has for centuries conveniently perfumed its ongoing prejudices against blacks, Jews, women and homosexual persons with what it assumes is "high-sounding, pious rhetoric." The day for that mentality has quite simply come to an end for me.

I will personally neither tolerate it nor listen to it any longer. The world has moved on, leaving these elements of the Christian Church that cannot adjust to new knowledge or a new consciousness lost in a sea of their own irrelevance. They no longer talk to anyone but themselves. I will no longer seek to slow down the witness to inclusiveness by pretending that there is some middle ground between prejudice and oppression. There isn't. Justice postponed is justice denied. That can be a resting place no longer for anyone. An old civil rights song proclaimed that the only choice awaiting those who cannot adjust to a new understanding was to "Roll on over or we'll roll on over you!" Time waits for no one.

I will particularly ignore those members of my own Episcopal Church who seek to break away from this body to form a "new church," claiming that this new and bigoted instrument alone now represents the Anglican Communion. Such a new ecclesiastical body is designed to allow these pathetic human beings, who are so deeply locked into a world that no longer exists, to form a community in which they can continue to hate gay people, distort gay people with their hopeless rhetoric and to be part of a religious fellowship in which they can continue to feel justified in their homophobic prejudices for the rest of their tortured lives. Church unity can never be a virtue that is preserved by allowing injustice, oppression and psychological tyranny to go unchallenged.

In my personal life, I will no longer listen to televised debates conducted by "fair-minded" channels that seek to give "both sides" of this issue "equal time." I am aware that these stations no longer give equal time to the advocates of treating women as if they are the property of men or to the advocates of reinstating either segregation or slavery, despite the fact that when these evil institutions were coming to an end the Bible was still being quoted frequently on each of these subjects. It is time for the media to announce that there are no longer two sides to the issue of full humanity for gay and lesbian people. There is no way that justice for homosexual people can be compromised any longer.

I will no longer act as if the Papal office is to be respected if the present occupant of that office is either not willing or not able to inform and educate himself on public issues on which he dares to speak with embarrassing ineptitude. I will no longer be respectful of the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who seems to believe that rude behavior, intolerance and even killing prejudice is somehow acceptable, so long as it comes from third-world religious leaders, who more than anything else reveal in themselves the price that colonial oppression has required of the minds and hearts of so many of our world's population. I see no way that ignorance and truth can be placed side by side, nor do I believe that evil is somehow less evil if the Bible is quoted to justify it. I will dismiss as unworthy of any more of my attention the wild, false and uninformed opinions of such would-be religious leaders as Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, Albert Mohler, and Robert Duncan. My country and my church have both already spent too much time, energy and money trying to accommodate these backward points of view when they are no longer even tolerable.

I make these statements because it is time to move on. The battle is over. The victory has been won. There is no reasonable doubt as to what the final outcome of this struggle will be. Homosexual people will be accepted as equal, full human beings, who have a legitimate claim on every right that both church and society have to offer any of us. Homosexual marriages will become legal, recognized by the state and pronounced holy by the church. "Don't ask, don't tell" will be dismantled as the policy of our armed forces. We will and we must learn that equality of citizenship is not something that should ever be submitted to a referendum. Equality under and before the law is a solemn promise conveyed to all our citizens in the Constitution itself. Can any of us imagine having a public referendum on whether slavery should continue, whether segregation should be dismantled, whether voting privileges should be offered to women? The time has come for politicians to stop hiding behind unjust laws that they themselves helped to enact, and to abandon that convenient shield of demanding a vote on the rights of full citizenship because they do not understand the difference between a constitutional democracy, which this nation has, and a "mobocracy," which this nation rejected when it adopted its constitution. We do not put the civil rights of a minority to the vote of a plebiscite.

I will also no longer act as if I need a majority vote of some ecclesiastical body in order to bless, ordain, recognize and celebrate the lives and gifts of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church. No one should ever again be forced to submit the privilege of citizenship in this nation or membership in the Christian Church to the will of a majority vote.

The battle in both our culture and our church to rid our souls of this dying prejudice is finished. A new consciousness has arisen. A decision has quite clearly been made. Inequality for gay and lesbian people is no longer a debatable issue in either church or state. Therefore, I will from this moment on refuse to dignify the continued public expression of ignorant prejudice by engaging it. I do not tolerate racism or sexism any longer. From this moment on, I will no longer tolerate our culture's various forms of homophobia. I do not care who it is who articulates these attitudes or who tries to make them sound holy with religious jargon.

I have been part of this debate for years, but things do get settled and this issue is now settled for me. I do not debate any longer with members of the "Flat Earth Society" either. I do not debate with people who think we should treat epilepsy by casting demons out of the epileptic person; I do not waste time engaging those medical opinions that suggest that bleeding the patient might release the infection. I do not converse with people who think that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans as punishment for the sin of being the birthplace of Ellen DeGeneres or that the terrorists hit the United Sates on 9/11 because we tolerated homosexual people, abortions, feminism or the American Civil Liberties Union. I am tired of being embarrassed by so much of my church's participation in causes that are quite unworthy of the Christ I serve or the God whose mystery and wonder I appreciate more each day. Indeed I feel the Christian Church should not only apologize, but do public penance for the way we have treated people of color, women, adherents of other religions and those we designated heretics, as well as gay and lesbian people.

Life moves on. As the poet James Russell Lowell once put it more than a century ago: "New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth." I am ready now to claim the victory. I will from now on assume it and live into it. I am unwilling to argue about it or to discuss it as if there are two equally valid, competing positions any longer. The day for that mentality has simply gone forever.

This is my manifesto and my creed. I proclaim it today. I invite others to join me in this public declaration. I believe that such a public outpouring will help cleanse both the church and this nation of its own distorting past. It will restore integrity and honor to both church and state. It will signal that a new day has dawned and we are ready not just to embrace it, but also to rejoice in it and to celebrate it.


  1. I share your reaction to/relationship with +John Spong's work. Without Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, I wouldn't be a Christian, let alone a priest. Yet now, re-reading his books, I would argue myself blue in the face disputing his views (heretical, in my opinion) on the virgin birth and, it would seem, the divinity of Christ. He does help open room for skeptics to enter the faith, but he's one of those friends who looks suspiciously like an enemy, especially when equally strident voices from the other end of the spectrum try to paint all liberals as Spongians. He really is the poster child for the conservative fear of liberalism. Sometimes I just want to say, "OK, OK John. Thanks for the new perspective. Now shut the hell up!"

    So I love him and loathe him.

  2. I would never say that I loathe him. He played too important a role in my own faith development. But I do find that he is far too strident for my liking when it comes to his biblical criticism. He always just seems like he's arguing with an evil fundamentalist bad guy. I'm a Scandinavian Minnesotan. We don't argue. So, that always rubs me the wrong way.

    I also, in my more mature faith, find that he seems to want to take all the mystery out of the Christian faith and make it all completely reasonable. But I'm not sure that it's really possibly to have a living, thriving faith, if it's all just reasonable and fact-based. If we can prove something, is it really faith?

    That said, with regard to issues of justice and inclusiveness Bishop Spong is a pioneer. And I seriously believe that we would not have the open and inclusive church in the U.S. and Canada that we enjoy and that we all benefit from were it not for Bishop Spong's trailblazing approach. We are who we are because of Bishop Spong. And for that I am grateful.

  3. My re-entry into Christianity as an adult was through the writings of Marcus Borg. While Borg entertains some of the same theological views as Spong, he seems less strident, less bridge burning, and less derisive of competing points of view.

    When I was still in the process of transitioning from the evangelicism and fundamentalism of my youth to the more progressive, mystical version of Christianity I adhere to today, Spong really rubbed me the wrong way. He seemed abrasive and insulting.

    When I read him today I can appreciate the strong, consistent stand for GLBT civil rights and inclusiveness and set aside the things that I still find abrasive about his style.

    The body of Christ needs all different kinds of people, and I'm glad that we have Spong. But I'm also glad that we only have one of him! :-)