Page 5, 17th July 1998

17th July 1998
Page 5
Page 5, 17th July 1998 — A believer in exile

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Locations: Newark, Canterbury


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A believer in exile

US Anglican Bishop Jack Spong is a thorn in the side of the Archbishop of Canterbury. LUKE COPPEN speaks to him as he prepares for the Lambeth Conference

am aware that I can

hardly be mentioned in the press without the adjective controversial being attached to my name. That word has almost become a part of my identity," writes Bishop John Selby Spong in the introduction to his latest book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die.

Bishop Spong has become synonymous with the Cword during a long, prolific career as a priest and theologian. It's a label that the American bishop has done much to encourage whether by challenging racial segregation, ordaining women and homosexuals or radically questioning basic Christian doctrines.

Like all handy labels, this one loses its power with repetition. The indomitable personality of the Episcopal (Anglican) Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, simply can't be conveyed with a single word. That said, it's not difficult to see how the label came about. Since his ordination at the tender age of 24, he has consistently challenged orthodoxies both social and theological.

Bishop Spong's latest book, his 16th, offers numerous examples of his iconoclastic theological views. It describes the doctrine of the fall as "offensive", the narrative of the resurrection as "an idolatrous literalisation", the Baptism liturgy as "repugnant" and the Virgin Birth as "a hopelessly sexist idea born in a totally patriarchal world". No doctrine is spared his ruthless scrutiny.

So is nothing sacred? On the contrary, Bishop Jack Spong claims to see the presence of God in every person. "I am first, last and always a believer," he emphasises, in the closing paragraph of his book. But what exactly does he believe in? Certainly not the "theistic" God of your average Sunday worshipper. His God is the boundless, God of the theologians Paul Tillich and John AT Robinson (both of whom have taught Spong).

Tillich and Robinson rejected the theology of God "up there" in heaven. They spoke of God as the "Ground of Being" the essence of life, rather than a personal being. "These ideas aren't new," intones Bishop Spong. "The only thing thees different is that I'm trying to communicate them to the person in the pew."

Spong, who is due for retirement on February 1, 2000, and will take up a Harvard professorship, has been expounding his radical ideas for almost four decades. Why Christianity Must Change or Die is an attempt to condense years of pastoral experience and theological reflection into a single manifesto for radical reform or, in his ambitious terms, "a new reformation."

At 67, Spong seems to have escaped the ageing process, except for a pair of crow's feet around his eyes. He sits in the bar of a plush Bloomsbury hotel, concentrating hard amid the chatter of voices and clink of glasses. His manner is courteous but businesslike ("I use every minute to do my work"). He is conscious of his own importance, taking me to task for calling him "priest", rather than bishop.

jACK SPONG was raised as an evangelical Episcopalian. "It was a happy home, until my ether died," he recalls. "He died when I was 12." He was unusually gifted at school and waltzed through university. But despite his academic prowess, his vocation was always clear. "I wanted nothing more than to be a priest." he says. His inspiration was his local rector. "He became a kind of surrogate father after my father died. He was clearly the most important man in my life."

The young Rev Spong's first appointment was at the prestigious Duke University. There he discovered his peerless contempt for fundamentalist Christianity. "The thing that marked those years was the number of former fundamentalists who crashed into that university and couldn't maintain their primitive childlike faith there. They were looking for a way to believe in a God that didn't compromise what they were learning at a great modern university."

This led Spong to believe that the age-old language of faith was irrelevant to modern people. The reconciliation of Christianity with modern rationality became his life-long project.But before he could develop his insight, he was posted to a traditional parish church. White America was seething as the civil rights movement gained pace and Spong firmly allied himself with desegregation, ministering to an all-black church. The Ku Klux Klan burned crosses in his yard and declared him public enemy number one. It wouldn't be the last time Spong suffered physical threats or vilification. From then on his outspoken views on every controverted topic from women's ordination to the divinity of Christ appeared in the public forum. A former editor and sportscaster, he became adept at using the media to propound his radical causes.

Spong's incendiary attacks on the literal reading of the Bible set him on collision

course with fundamentalist Christians. At the same time his loud support of women's ordination angered conservatives in his own church. In 1976, he became the Bishop of Newark, despite nationwide protests.

He then began to receive death threats couched in Biblical quotations. He collected 16 in all. "It's fascinating how people can

convince themselves that killing is OK because they are doing God's work," he reflects, with striking equanimity. "If anyone wants to kill me it's very easy. Someone could wire my car if they wanted to. When my time comes, I am ready."

This willingness to lay down his life for a cause is the essence of Spong's Christianity. "I see the Christian faith as calling me to such a fullness of my humanity that I would be willing to give away my life for another person," he explains. Controversy is simply a by-product of his passionate pursuit of truth: "I don't do it to be controversial. I do it because I think it's right."

His crusading personality will be on full display this Saturday at the Lambeth Conference. The bishops of the entire Anglican Communion are gathering for a month to discuss, among many other issues, the question of homosexuality.

Bishop Spong will lead the Anglican minority in favour of ordaining practising homosexuals. In 1989, he became the first Anglican bishop to ordain an openly gay man. The priest died, tragically, just two years later. "That's the price you pay for breaking new ground," Spong comments with shocking impassivity. You have to be prepared to sacrifice your life for progress, is his uncompromising message.

SPONG is convinced that homosexuality is "a given and not a chosen" and therefore that the Church is denying homosexual people their humanity. "I'm embarrassed that the Lambeth Conference is going to spend a lot of time heaping abuse upon homosexual people," he says caustically.

He warns that if the Conference condemns homosexuality he will produce a "minority report" in protest. He says 91 bishops from Scotland and the US will support him.

Whatever happens, Bishop Spong is guaranteed to add to his bundle of press cuttings and amplify his message that Christianity must reform or die.

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