THE Rt Revd Dr John Shelby Spong, a bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States known for his outspoken challenging of orthodox theology and championing of LGBT inclusion, has died at the age of 90.
As a parish priest in the South in the 1950s and 1960s, he had been strongly influenced by the civil-rights movement. Consecrated for the diocese of Newark in 1979, where he served until 2000, he ordained the first openly gay male priest in the US Episcopal Church, in 1989. He was the author of numerous books, including Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish eyes (HarperOne, 1997), in which he argued that the Gospels held no “literal truth in any primary way”.
In 1998, he published his “twelve theses”, arguing that: “People need to feel the dead weight of their traditional claims before they can develop the ability to open themselves and their ancient words to new possibilities”, and inviting the “Christian world” to debate them.
The theses included the assertion that God could “no longer be thought of in theistic terms”, that “conceiving of Jesus as ‘the incarnation of the theistic deity’” had become a “bankrupt concept”, and that “the virgin birth understood as literal biology is impossible.”
Among those who responded to the challenge was the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who wrote in the Church Times that the theses represented “a level of confusion and misinterpretation that I find astonishing” (Comment, 17 July 1998). Bishop Spong regarded it as an “intensely personal and overtly hostile attack”.
On his retirement, Bishop Spong told the Religious News Service: “All I’m saying is that the world the Christian Church was born in is not the world we live in, and if you confine it to the world it was born in, Christianity will die, because that world is dying. All I want to do is to get the essence of the Christian faith out of the context of antiquity and allow it to live in the world of the 20th century.”
Reflecting on his views about life after death, in 2009, he observed: “My study of life through biology, sub-atomic physics, astrophysics, and psychology has led me to see the bankruptcy of the traditional religious concepts of life beyond this life. . . I have come to a mystical awareness that in my relationship with God I participate in that which is eternal” (Interview, 30 October 2009).
Obituary to follow