He leads them beside stormy waters

CATCHING UP WITH... JOHN SHELBY SPONG

He's retired now, but the Episcopal bishop is still advocating positions some find liberating and others see as heretical.

March 05, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff

The recently retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, N.J., who begins work as a lecturer this month at Harvard University, has never backed down from a confrontation. In his 23 years as bishop, he has embraced some of the most liberal positions in theology and church doctrine. In Biblical studies, he has battled fundamentalists, and in his writings, rejected literal interpretations of doctrines like the virgin birth, physical resurrection and the Ascension. He wrote a book in which he declared St. Paul was likely gay.

He was an outspoken supporter of civil rights as a young priest in the South in the 1960s, earning him the enmity of the Ku Klux Klan. He was an early champion of the ordination of women and homosexuals. He has been condemned by many of his fellow bishops and was censured for ordaining a gay priest.

And Spong can't seem to help stating his beliefs in the most provocative fashion. Take his book titles. He is the author of "Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism," taking on the literal interpretation of the Scriptures favored by religious conservatives. His study of the central doctrine in Christianity is titled "Resurrection: Myth or Reality?" Two years ago, he wrote a manifesto, "Why Christianity Must Change or Die," that included 12 theses for church reform that he called "A Call for a New Reformation."

Coincident with his retirement as bishop, Spong, 68, has written his auto-biography. In its title, Spong casts himself as a latter-day Martin Luther, who uttered the words of the title as he stood before the Diet of Worms and accused the church of moral turpitude and corruption: "Here I Stand."

Spong is on the road these days telling his story. He was recently in Baltimore, where he participated in a seminar on biblical studies at the Johns Hopkins University and spoke at a book signing at the Bibelot bookstore in Timonium.

At Bibelot, where he spoke to a standing-room crowd in the back of the store, there were plenty of admirers, and a few critics. One man expressed discomfort at Spong's definition of God as "the ground of Being," concerned that it smacked of pantheism. Spong replied that he was trying to get beyond the concept "of God as an old man in the sky."

A young woman challenged Spong's dismissal of certain parts of the Bible as anachronistic and out of step with a post-modern world. "The Bible suggests the sun revolves around the Earth. We almost put Galileo to death because he said it wasn't so," Spong told the audience. "The Bible says women are property. Do any of you believe that?"

"Who determines when the Bible is right and when it is out of date?" the dismayed young woman replied.

Growing up fundamentalist

In fact, as he recounts in "Here I Stand," Spong grew up in a fundamentalist household, which might surprise some, and might account for some of his vehemence against contemporary practitioners. His mother grew up in what Spong calls a "sectarian Presbyterian church."

"It was so fundamentalist that they wouldn't sing hymns in church because only the word of God could be used in divine worship," Spong recalled in an interview. "She would punish us as children for saying cuss words like gosh and darn. Even the phrase 'for crying out loud' was forbidden, because it was a direct reference to the cross."

As a youth, he began to question what he felt were the pat answers the church provided. "I began to move beyond that because I couldn't put together things I was learning, even in eighth and ninth grade, with a fundamentalist view of God," he says. "It was hard for me to see that thunderstorms and hurricanes were God's punishment."

As a teen-ager, he found himself attracted to the Episcopal Church, with its vestments and high-church, Anglo-Catholic liturgy.

"Since Biblical fundamentalism wouldn't hold water in my developing mind, I left fundamentalism and became high-church Episcopalian," he says. "I stopped saying 'the Bible says' and I started saying 'the church teaches.' "

When he entered the University of North Carolina, where he was a philosophy major, Spong says, he went through a critical phase when he began questioning his religion, its doctrine and authority. He likes to compare this experience to the story in Genesis of Jacob wrestling an angel, refusing to quit unless the angel gives him a blessing.

"When that happens to a lot of people, they abandon organized religion," he says. "For reasons I can't fully explain, I didn't abandon organized religion. I became an inside critic of it, sort of wrestling with it. ... I was going to wrestle with it until I could make sense of it. I wasn't going to let go of it until I felt blessed by it."

First assignments

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