Page 5, 8th April 1994

8th April 1994
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Page 5, 8th April 1994 — Mad, bad, dangerous and a bishop
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Locations: Newark, New York, Durham

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Mad, bad, dangerous and a bishop

Which bishop calls the Catholic and Anglican Churches racist and describes the Resurrection as a "pious legend"? US Bishop John Spong, of course. Piers McGrandle met him.

IF A SATIRICAL MAGAZINE like Private Eye held a competition for the most politically correct bishop in the world, the Rt Rev John Shelby Spong, an American and the Anglican bishop for the diocese of Newark in New York would win hands down.

He believes both the Anglican and Catholic Church are havens of institutional racism. He campaigns vigorously for gay rights and has ordained three homosexual priests.

He was a rabid supporter of feminism when the title New Man was nothing more than a chain of shops. He even calls the dreaded Bishop of Durham "a close friend of mine".

Instead of churning out obscure New Testament commentaries, his books have titles like Beyond Moralism and A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality.

An ogre? Of course he isn't. In fact, Bishop Spong is a charming, avuncular 62year-old grandfather who "loves yer British scones" and looks and sounds like a nice Ross Perot.

And there is more.

It is an unwritten rule at university that radical theologians are painfully earnest academics who write books with startling titles that are so badly written that most give up after 30 pages.

But occasionally someone escapes this net. John Robinson was one in the 1960s and Bishop Spong is one today. The best known Anglican bishop in the world. his last book sold 100,000 copies and was printed all around the world; an extraordinary feat for someone whose books are neither simple nor dogmatic.

A clue to his radicalism lies in his background. Like many radicals, he had a conservative upbringing. His mother was a very rigid Scottish Presbyterian who only became an Anglican to persuade her lapsed husband to go to church.

It was a Deep South, fire and brimstone background in which Sunday was the most miserable day of the week.

The bishop takes up the story. "When I got to 1 S or 16 I began to raise some questions for which the tradition did not seem to have any answers".

He found many evangelicals "bitter and hostile" (plus ca change?).

Like many of his theological friends at that time, he swung from low Protestantism to Anglo-Catholicism.

Bishop Spong claims, however, that a thorough reading of the great philosophers at North Carolina University presented him with a more, shall we say, detached approach to Christian faith.

For him "theology became open-ended" and he began to realise that "I did not possess answers, I possessed questions".

According to taste, it would take a couple of minutes or several years to explain what Bishop Spong really believes in.

Perhaps a clue lies in his latest book, unsubtly titled Resurrection: Myth or Reality? Most of which is preoccupied with demonstrating why the traditional way of understanding Easter is completely wrong.

Spong, to put it mildly, rejects the conservative interpretation of the resur rection.

He believes that most of the biblical narratives which are supposed to describe the resurrection of Christ are "late-developing, pious legends".

By extension, the bishop also contends that most of the peripheral elements of the resurrection narrative empty tombs, angels falling from the clouds, thieves conversing from their crosses are "legends all, sacred legends, I might add, but legends nonetheless".

So how can this man remain in holy orders? The Bishop retorts that he has never doubted the existence of God or the "ultimate reality and truth of the Easter experience".

He holds that the Resurrection can be objectively validated through its power to transform lives and he strongly advocates the Christian conviction that there is life beyond human existence to which all humans are ultimately destined.

A fellow Anglican bishop has referred to Spong's "relentless, driving determination" to overturn everything ordinary Christians believe in.

I'm not so sure, but there is something rather strained about the Spongs of this world, rather like a child who breaks all the rules and then is surprised that he is left out on a limb because nobody else wants to play.

But let's hear it for the man.

He works tirelessly for the poor and unhappy in his parish, making his idiosyncratic brand of Christianity visible in areas that would otherwise remain spiritual barren.

He may be an incurable self-publicist, but, with more kindness and courage than most, he has tried to come to terms with that delicate interaction between mainstream Christianity and secular culture.

And anyone who drives those American fundamentalists mad with rage can't be entirely bad.




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