Bishop John Shelby Spong, unlike most of his ecclesiastical colleagues, cherishes a good scandal.
In his new book, "Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture," he suggests St. Paul was a self-loathing homosexual who found grace in Jesus.
Anticipating his critics, Bishop Spong writes:
"When people consider scandalous this idea that a homosexual male might have made the grace of God clear to the church, I reply, 'Yes, it is scandalous, but is that not precisely how the God of the Bible seems to work?' It is as scandalous as the idea that the Messiah could be crucified as a common criminal. It is as scandalous as the idea that a birth without acknowledged paternity could inaugurate the life that made known to us the love and grace of God."
The 59-year-old Episcopal Bishop of Newark, N.J., has made a career reveling in such scandals. He has championed the rights of blacks, women and gays. He has battled biblical fundamentalists. And he has called for a new reading of the Scripture that celebrates the concept of life-affirming love as more important than notions of the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection or the Trinity.
Bishop Spong, a tall, lanky North Carolinian, didn't start out as a rebel. He has said that his Presbyterian family revered John Calvin as "the fourth member of the Trinity," and his Sunday school teachers impressed him with the authenticity of the Bible.
He more than shared in the prejudices of his day.
"I was the racist to the core," BishopSpong told an audience in Ellicott City this week. "I was also homophobic. I remember running around the schoolyard yelling, 'You queer.' I didn't know what it meant, but I knew it wasn't nice."
For Bishop Spong change came slowly. In the early years of his ministry, he was touched by the civil rights movement. Later, raising three daughters changed his ideas about women. Then, when he went to Newark, he faced his bias against gays.
"As I confronted gays and lesbians who dared to love me, I had a conversion experience," he said. "I have come to see God's face in gay and lesbian people."
The bishop's critics contend the only face he sees is his own. They question his orthodoxy, criticize his biblical interpretation anddecry his support for a new sexual ethos.
Even friends find it difficult to maintain their support.
Last year, when a gay priest he ordained publicly denigrated monogamy and Mother Teresa, church leaders disassociated themselves from the ordination. Some also called for action against Bishop Spong.
Earlier this winter, when a report from his diocese said the Roman Catholic position toward women was "insulting" and "retrograde," Bishop A. Theodore Eastman of Maryland, acting as co-chair of the Anglican Roman Catholic Consultation in America, criticized Bishop Spong and the diocese for intemperate remarks.
Still, Bishop Eastman says the Newark bishop gets a bad rap in the press.
"People pick up from the press a lot of the more spectacular things," Bishop Eastman said. "That's why I have been telling people to go and hear him -- then see if they're scandalized."