by Pastor Doug Kings
This past Sunday morning retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong died at age 90. Spong was a prolific writer, authoring dozens of books, several of which were New York Times bestsellers. He was a frequent speaker around the country and internationally, so was widely known.
Though born and raised in the Bible Belt, and initially serving parishes there, Spong regularly called out the church for its racism and sexism. After becoming bishop of the Newark, New Jersey diocese, he became a strong advocate of GLBTQ inclusion and performed some of the first gay marriages in the Episcopal church. He was an active participant in Jewish-Christian dialog.
What Spong will be most remembered for, however, will be his tireless efforts to bring church teaching and practice into the modern world. In doing so, he had a major impact on me personally and on ministry. His book Why Christianity Must Change or Die was a turning point in my life and for a number of people I know.
When the book was published in 1998, I was serving a traditional but vibrant congregation in Kokomo, Indiana. When I read it, I was stunned. Many of his ideas I had heard before, but he put them together in such a powerful way that it was now obvious to me how much the church failing millions of people.
When I finished the book, I wanted to have a conversation about Spong’s ideas but realized not everyone would be open to them. I knew, however, that there were a number of people in the congregation open to new ideas who might be interested in such a discussion (curiously, several were electrical engineers at the nearby Delco plant). So, for the first (and only) time, I did a “by invitation only” book group.
I emailed about fifteen people, thinking perhaps half would respond favorably. I was stunned (again) when every one of them said, “I’m in.” What followed was the most remarkable and rewarding two months of my ministry. Each week as we gathered in our living room, there was palpable excitement anticipating the lively conversation we knew would follow.
While to many the ideas in Spong’s book might seem radical or even heretical, to this group they were a breath of fresh air. One of the most common reactions was, “I’ve had these thoughts for years but didn’t know anyone else did!” In finding each other, they became like a support group where they could freely and safely express their ideas, questions, doubts, and struggles. (It wasn’t long before they dubbed themselves “the Sponges.”)
The book’s subtitle identities Spong’s intended audience: “A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile.” He was profoundly aware of the countless people who identified themselves as Christians but who for various reasons had pulled away from the church and were only minimally involved. He also spoke of the “church alumni association”, i.e. people who had “graduated” from church and moved on.
Thus, Spong’s concern was for all those, within and outside the church’s walls, who identified themselves as people of faith but who could no longer accept parts of the church’s traditional teachings and practice. (The more recent category “spiritual, not religious” would include some in this group but SNRs also include many who never had a connection with Christianity or any other religion.) In writing to and for them, Spong’s goal was to articulate a Christian faith which did not require them to, as he often said, “check their brains at the church door.”
Spong’s ideas and actions stirred controversy, of course, which he did not hide from. He directly challenged fundamentalism’s claim to be “true Christianity.” Rather he said, as have many others, it is a fearful and defensive distortion in response to the Enlightenment and the rise of both science and democracy. This has been the essence of the progressive Christian movement: the belief that one can have a modern worldview and still be a person of faith, and that Christianity’s only future is to be a fully engaged part of the contemporary world.
The real frustration of Spong and others like him was not with fundamentalist opposition, however, but with mainline church indifference. Without challenging him on the merits of his ideas, many church leaders wanted him to stop rocking the boat and getting people upset. They saw only a threat to their institutions rather than opportunity for new faith and commitment.
Spong got plenty of hate mail (literally), but he got far more messages of appreciation and thanks. Many expressed frustrations with their past church experience (“why haven’t I heard this before?” was a frequent question). But that was only part of a larger response of people expressing appreciation for his enabling them to remain in a church they had felt increasingly alienated from.
Many of Spong’s opponents missed that his motivation was truly evangelical. His goal was to clear away any obstacle that kept people from hearing the good news of God’s love for the world in Christ. Spong’s insight was that many of today’s obstacles are not fundamentals of the faith as some claim, but merely human traditions accumulated over the centuries. By removing those obstacles for them, Spong enabled countless people to retain Christ and the church as the dynamic center of their lives. Not much more can be expected of a servant of the church.
Blessings in your life and ministry.