Interview with a heretic

The Bible is wrong about slavery, demon-possession, and the role of women. Bishop Spong wants to know why we should take the Gospels' line on homosexuality.
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The Independent Culture
Jack Spong, episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, is in a relaxed mood. He is so genial, in fact, that one could forget that he has been accused of heresy, called upon to resign and, in a vicious Internet debate, described as an evil hypocrite. Not many bishops find themselves quite so vilified. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury has described Spong as "hectoring and intemperate".

Spong has been annoying traditionalists in the Church for many years. His book Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality caused upset 10 years ago. The evangelist Jerry Falwell declined to appear with Spong in a series of televised debates. In a further book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Spong was critical of a literal approach to scripture, and his most recent work, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, seems to many to abandon the very heart of the Christian faith, dismissing the idea that God should give his Son to die on the cross as "barbaric".

These are side issues, however, to the debate about homosexuality on which Spong, himself a married man with three grown-up daughters, has become so outspoken as to attract the ire of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Homosexuality is a highly divisive issue at the Lambeth Conference, putting a barrier between those in the Church who believe that the Bible clearly describes homosexuality as a sin, and those more liberal Christians who see civilisation as having moved ahead of the Church and want homosexuals to be fully integrated into it.

Spong, although not participating directly at the conference, has been in the thick of the dispute. Welcoming openly gay clergy, living with their partners, to minister in his diocese and declaring support for the blessing of gay relationships does not endear him to a Church whose dispute on the issue has been uncomfortably public, no matter how popular it may make him among the lesbian and gay Christian community.

Rev Richard Kirker, the general secretary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, credits Spong with bringing up the issue years before it hit the mainstream of Church concern. "History," Kirker states, "will judge him to have been among the first to see that lesbian and gay people had every right to expect churches to receive them unreservedly in all ways."

Spong himself is indifferent to the judgement of history, and he rejects suggestions that his outbursts may be counter-productive. "I do what I do," he says, "because I believe I have to bear witness to truth as God has led me to see truth."

Spong's liberal attitude on homosexuality grows out of a view of the Bible which has added to his disfavour among traditionalists. "Our reason," he states, "has increased to the place where some of the prescriptions in the Bible are simply wrong." Among these Spong includes slavery, demon- possession, the role of women and homosexuality. Spong's support for gays has already resulted in a heresy trial which rocked not only the Diocese of Newark but the whole of the American Episcopal Church.

The subject of the trial was not Spong himself but his assistant, the retired Bishop of Iowa, Walter Righter who, at Spong's request, ordained to the diaconate a practising homosexual, Barry Stopfel, who was living openly with his partner. Spong later ordained Stopfel to the priesthood. Ten bishops made a charge of heresy against Righter and mustered enough support to have him tried by an ecclesiastical court.

Righter, with Spong's backing, argued that no doctrine of the Church forbade the ordination of practising homosexuals. The court agreed and Righter was cleared. Later that year he was rapturously cheered at the 20th anniversary celebrations of Britain's Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, an event which generated almost as much controversy in the UK as the Righter trial had in America.

The Righter trial was the most spectacular airing of this particular piece of theological dirty laundry, which may be causing the Anglican Church even more heartache than did the ordination of women. The dust had barely settled on the affair before a meeting of the Anglican Church in Kuala Lumpur issued a statement on human sexuality deploring the ordination of practising homosexuals and the blessing of same sex unions.

Incensed, Bishop Spong issued his own searing denunciation of the statement, circulated to all the bishops of the Anglican Communion. It was at this point that Archbishop Carey stepped in and publicly rebuked Spong.

Spong makes no pretence to care what Dr Carey says on the issue. He is, he says, a titular head only, appointed by Margaret Thatcher and with no significance to the Episcopal Church in the US. After their public exchange of letters on the Kuala Lumpur statement, Spong was asked by Archbishop Carey to produce a summary of the issues for the consideration of the Lambeth Conference. But the truce soon came to an end. "He asked us to do one thing which I could not do," Spong relates. "He wanted us to say that Lambeth has the authority to suggest to all the Provinces that none of them should move on the gay issue until we were ready to move together."

The suggestion that the whole Anglican Communion should wait upon top- down deliberations annoyed Spong as it seemed to ignore the trauma which his own church had already been through. The Episcopal Church had already come to what he calls "a living way" to deal with the problem. "We have come to a new place. We have now decided there is no prohibition to ordaining a homosexual who lives in a committed relationship. That didn't mean we said we favour it - we said there's no prohibition against it, so each diocese can manage that as they wish." Each Province of the Communion is entitled to make its own decisions, Spong declares, and neither the Lambeth Conference nor the Archbishop of Canterbury has any jurisdiction at all.

Spong supports the idea, floated by the Archbishop of Canterbury at last year's General Synod in York, that a commission should be established to investigate the whole area of human sexuality. However, if a vote goes the way of the traditionalists Spong has no intention of taking it lying down. "If that were to happen, it would be important to issue a minority report, so that the gay and lesbian population would know that negativity toward them is not the totality of the Communion's opinion. But I would hope that we don't get to that."