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Interview: John Shelby Spong former Bishop of Newark

27 October 2009

by Terence Handley MacMath


My study of life through biology, sub­atomic physics, astrophysics, and psychology has led me to see the bankruptcy of the traditional reli­gious concepts of life beyond this life.

These same studies, however, also led me to open new doors. Now, I do not see “reward and punishment” as having any place in concepts of life after death, and thus neither do the promises of heaven and the fears of hell. The traditional church concepts say more about human self-centredness than they say about eternity.


When I think about life after death, I do not envision a place, but more of a relationship. I have come to a mystical awareness that in my relationship with God I participate in that which is eternal.


Death is real, a fact of life that needs to be embraced. Without death, life has no depth, no passion. Believing in life beyond this life is not for the purpose of consolation: it is for the purpose of living fully now. Other­wise it is an “opiate for the people”.


I know no faith except Christianity. I walk the Christ-path into the mystery of God, but I do not believe that God is a Christian. Christianity is a noble human system whereby millions of people have journeyed into the mystery of God and trans­cendence. The goal of faith is not to become Christian: it is to become whole.


I do not think Christianity is an opiate for the people, but I do think much religion is. Christianity does not give me “peace of mind”. It gives me the courage to live in the midst of radical insecurity without comprom­ising.


I loved my episcopal career. I also love my post-episcopal career. I do not regard church politics as evil. The political process is the act of contending for the values our faith has taught us to hold.


I grew up in a segregated world, and lived to see North Carolina Epis­copalians elect an African-American to be their bishop. I grew up in a male-dominated and sexist Church, and lived to see women ordained and become 40 per cent of our clergy — and the election of an incredible woman to be our Primate.


I grew up in a homophobic Church, and lived to see an openly gay man in a publicly acknowledged partnership be elected, confirmed, and consecrated to be Bishop of New Hampshire, and to see my Church remove all barriers to gay people. None of those things could have been accomplished without “politics”. I am glad I was part of the fight, and I am extremely proud of my Church today.


The idea that there is a split in the Episcopal Church in the United States is little more than conserv­ative propaganda. We had far fewer defections over the homosexual issue than the Church of England had over the ordination of women. The press loves a church fight, and creates a “split” even if it is describing a splinter.


Ecclesiastical unity is not a proper goal for the Church. The Anglican Church was a political compromise at its birth. There never has been a time where agreement among An­glicans was total. The relentless search for truth is. There is no com­mandment to reconcile An­glicans to each other. There is a com­mandment to reconcile the world to God. The two are not the same.


The high point of my career as Bishop of Newark came when I lived to see eight of my clergy elected bishops, and six more called to serve as cathedral deans. The diocese of Newark has provided enormous leadership to the entire Church. I cannot recall a low point profession­ally, but my personal low point came when my wife died of cancer during the 1988 meeting of the Lambeth Conference.


I have affection for Rowan per­sonally, but I do not respect his leadership. One cannot unify the Church by rejecting, or allowing others in the Church, to victimise any child of God. I really don’t expect leadership from representatives of the institutional Church. . . They are too busy preserving the institution. I do not believe the Church can be united in homophobia, and I do not respect the judgement of those who presume that it can be or should be.


Christian theology has been based on bad anthropology. The cultural image of what constitutes the Chris­tian religion is the primary reason the Christian Church is declining throughout the developed world. Human beings are not fallen, lost, victimised by original sin, or needing to be saved, as we have for so long taught. Human life was never perfect, and thus could never have fallen. We have always been evolving into what we can be, and the Christ life and Christ message is to empower us to become deeply and fully human. That is the message I would offer to a “religious enquirer”.


Retirement, for me, meant that I simply got out of administration and returned to ministry. I study the scriptures and theology daily. I write a weekly column on the web that goes around the world, and is opened by up to 100,000 people a week. I lec­ture in churches, universities, and conference centres throughout the English-speaking world, and spend more than 60 per cent of my life travelling for that purpose. I keep up an enormous correspondence that my lectures, books, and weekly columns create.


I do these things with the love and support of my wife, Christine. It is a wonderful life, and everything I did as a bishop for 24 years prepared me for these years, which are the most growth-filled, the deepest, and the most satisfying years that I have ever experienced.


My family now consists of one person, my beloved wife Christine, and together we form a family of two. Our extended family includes four daughters, one son, four spouses, and six grandchildren. My life centres first in Christine, and secondly in our extended family. I love them all deeply.


I never wanted to be anything but a priest of the Church.


All of my choices led me to where I am today. My decision to marry Christine, in 1990, is the choice in which I rejoice most today. My biggest regret was something deeper than mere regret. My first wife’s sick­ness and ultimate death was the source of my deepest pain.


My future plans are to do what I now do — to study, write, travel, and lecture until I am no longer physically or mentally cap­able of doing it at a high level of creativity.


I would like to be remembered for helping to make the Church whole, by overcoming racist separation, gender distinctions, and homosexual prejudices, and to assist in forcing Christianity to engage modern forms of thought and breakthrough scien­tific insights.


I am anything but tough, but I am a survivor. I am quite vulnerable, but unwilling to seek comfort at the price of truth or integrity.


My two greatest mentors were John A. T. Robinson, and John Elbridge Hines. Robinson showed me that one could be a bishop and a scholar-au­thor simultaneously. Bishop Hines, the Primate of the Episcopal Church from 1964 to 1973, showed me that a bishop must use the power of this office to contend with evil wherever it appears, either in Church or in society, and never hesitate because the price of contending is too high.


The sermon I remember most was when I preached at the funeral of a gay priest who died of AIDS, and fulfilled his request that he be able to be honest in his death in a way he had never been in his life.


I enjoy the whole Bible. I despise the way parts of the Bible are used to validate ongoing prejudices. I take it all seriously; I take nothing literally. To call the Bible the “word of God” in any literal sense is to attribute to God very un-God-like be­haviour.


Christine and I hike regularly. We have walked the Milford Track in New Zealand, and we have hiked across England from the Irish Sea at St Bees to the North Sea at Robin Hood’s Bay. When on vacation, we seek to hike a mountain a day in western North Carolina.


I think the last time I got angry was when I fell on the ice and broke my arm early this year.


I am happiest when I am with Christine, first, studying, second, and watching the New York Yankees play baseball, third.


I pray daily, but the way you pose the question assumes a definition of prayer that I do not hold. Prayer is communion with God, not asking for favours; it is an expression of one’s whole life.


I’m not interested in being locked in a church with anyone. If I have to be confined I would want to share that with Christine first, and my children second. If you are asking who I would like to engage in significant conversa­tion with, it would be Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, or the most creative bishop I know, Richard Holloway.


The Rt Revd John Shelby Spong's latest book, Eternal Life: A new vision, is published by HarperCollins at £16.99 (£15.30); 978-0-06076-206-3. Order it through CT Bookshop

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