The Right Rev John Shelby Spong, a liberal theologian and former bishop who shook up the modern Episcopal Church, championing the inclusion of women and LGBTQ+ people in the clergy while promoting a nonliteral interpretation of scripture, has died aged 90.
Spong was an outspoken leader of the church’s liberal wing, known for his efforts to open the faith to marginalised groups and preach a message of love and justice that would resonate in an increasingly secular age. He acquired an international profile while writing more than two dozen books, appearing on TV shows such as Oprah and Larry King Live, and serving as bishop of Newark, where he was the spiritual leader of some 40,000 northern New Jersey Episcopalians from 1979 to 2000.
As a theologian, he was known for questioning some of Christianity’s fundamental doctrines, including the virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus and the existence of miracles. Those views infuriated Christian leaders who labelled him a heretic, although he was part of a long tradition of theologians who argued that taking the Bible literally was to miss the truth behind its teachings.
“He was trying to find the kernel and sweep away the husk of what it meant to follow Jesus. He was always seeking after that truth,” says the Rev Canon Kelly Brown Douglas, the canon theologian at Washington National Cathedral and dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary. “What he truly came to understand is doctrine, dogma, doesn’t make us Christian. Doctrine, dogma, doesn’t make us church. What makes us church is respecting the sacredness of every single human being and creating a world that does that and making sure the church is leading the world in doing that.”
Raised with fundamentalist Christian values in Jim Crow-era North Carolina, Spong was taught as a young man that gay people were sinful, women were subordinate to men and African Americans were inferior to whites. He should always say “Sir” and “Ma’am” to his elders, his father told him, so long as they were not black.
But as the civil rights movement took hold, Spong preached to black and white congregations alike, working to shed what he described as the “residual racism” of his upbringing.
“I happen to believe that God's image is in every human being, and that every human being must [be treated] with ultimate respect … And the black people in America were the first people who made this very clear to me,” he said in a 2001 interview with the ABC, Australia's national broadcaster.
Spong later expanded his ministry to encompass the fights for gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights. Soon after he arrived at the Diocese of Newark in 1976 as bishop coadjutor, a steppingstone to bishop, the diocese became one of the first to ordain women to the priesthood. In 1989, he ordained the first openly gay man to the Episcopal priesthood, the Rev Robert Williams, who had written to Spong after reading his book Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality.
An out lesbian, the Rev Ellen Barrett, had been ordained to the priesthood more than a decade earlier. But the Williams ordination made national headlines – Spong had sent letters to all the church’s bishops, inviting them to attend – and thrust the issue of openly gay clergy members to the fore, threatening to divide the denomination.
The church's House of Bishops voted to censure Spong in 1990. But over the next two decades, the tide turned in favour of LGBTQ+ rights: an Episcopal Church court ruled in 1996 that there was no “core doctrine” barring the ordination of gay men and lesbians, and in 2003, the Rev V Gene Robinson was consecrated as the church’s first openly gay bishop. The church voted in 2015 to allow religious weddings for same-sex couples.
Spong was “a prophet”, Robinson said in a phone interview, using the term in the sense of “someone who speaks truth to power, who says those things that people don’t want to hear because it calls their morality and their lives into question”.
“I stand on his shoulders,” he added. “Were it not for the work that he did and the ministry that he did and the advocacy on behalf of LGBTQ+ people that he did, I wouldn’t be a bishop. He did it long before it was popular or politically correct – he did it because he believed it was the gospel.”
John Shelby Spong was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, on 16 June 1931. His father was a salesman who struggled with alcoholism and died when Spong was 12. A cousin, William Spong Jr, later went into politics as a Virginia Democrat, serving in the US Senate from 1966 to 1973.
Spong said that the greatest influence on his upbringing was his mother, who was part of a strict Presbyterian sect that refused to play hymns because the lyrics were not “God's words”. He later targeted that kind of biblical literalism in his books and sermons, telling The New York Times in 1996 that he sought “to find a way that people who are despairing of fundamentalism can have a home in this church”.
After graduating from the University of North Carolina in 1952, he received a master of divinity from Virginia Theological Seminary in 1955. That same year, he was ordained to the priesthood and married Joan Lydia Ketner, who died in 1988.
He married Christine Mary Bridger, an administrator in the Newark archdiocese who went on to edit his work, in 1990. In addition to his wife, survivors include five children, a sister and six grandchildren.
Before he was consecrated bishop coadjutor, Spong served for 20 years as a priest in North Carolina and Virginia. As rector of St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond – also known as the Cathedral of the Confederacy because it was where Robert E Lee and Jefferson Davis once worshipped – he took down the Confederate flag that flew above the building. In the mid-1970s, he invited a rabbi to speak, leading to a picket line of fundamentalist Christians who insisted he try to baptise his Jewish visitors.
Spong was accused at times of being a self-promoter, more interested in making news than in ministering to his flock. But he embraced his role as a firebrand of his faith, telling the Bergen Record in 1987, “The Episcopal Church has always had somebody who raised the questions that forced the church's agenda. There's no question that I am that person now.”
After retiring as bishop in 2000, he maintained a steady stream of public appearances, delivering more than 175 speeches a year at colleges, seminaries and churches, according to a statement from the Virginia diocese.
“The older I get, the more deeply I believe but the fewer beliefs I have,” he told Religion News Service in 2013, citing a maxim he had learned from an older bishop. “And I think that’s probably where I am. I have a sort of mystical awareness [of God] that’s indescribable, but I can’t avoid it. When I’m asked to define God I’m almost wordless.”
John Shelby Spong, born 16 June 1931, died 12 September 2021
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