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An aging maverick, Charlotte native Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong has no regrets

By David Gibson
Religion News Service
RNS-SPONG-PROFILE b
DAVID GIBSON - RELIGION NEWS SERVICE
Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong sits at his desk at his New Jersey home on Sept. 12. The liberal churchman writes longhand with a fountain pen on yellow legal pads.

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  • The Spong file

    Bishop John Shelby Spong was born and raised in Dilworth. As a child, he served as an altar boy and boys’ choir member at St. Peter’s Episcopal on the corner of Seventh and North Tryon streets. He attended Dilworth Elementary, Alexander Graham Junior High and Central High before heading off to UNC Chapel Hill, then seminary and pastorates in Durham and Tarboro.

    Before retiring in 2000, Spong led the 45,000-member Episcopal diocese in Newark, N.J., for 25 years. In more than a dozen books and hundreds of sermons, Spong made a name for himself by attacking fundamentalist views of homosexuality, conversion and theism.

    He is best known for questioning Christian tenets such as Jesus’ virgin birth and his physical resurrection. Spong’s Palm Sunday sermon focused on challenging those who believe the Bible is the literal word of God.



MORRIS PLAINS, N.J. At 82, retired and enjoying life, Bishop John Shelby Spong doesn’t have to be the liberal enfant terrible whose pronouncements for gay rights and against traditional dogmas once scandalized Christendom.

Indeed, many of the views that once turned the Charlotte native and former Episcopal bishop of Newark into a lightning rod are now regarded as so matter-of-fact that they barely occasion much notice: Ordaining gay clergy and blessing same-sex marriages, for example, or having a female presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman elected to lead a national church in the Anglican Communion.

“I can remember when getting a woman as a rector was the hardest thing you ever did,” Spong said with a gratified smile as he relaxed on a sofa in the suburban New Jersey home he shares with his wife, Christine.

On a range of issues, Spong can point to advancements that he helped push during a long and remarkable career – 20 years as a priest in North Carolina and Virginia and 24 years as a bishop in Newark. During that time, he became an unabashed provocateur in the fierce debates over sexuality that split many churches, including his own, both in the U.S. and abroad.

Through it all, Spong never retreated an inch. By the time he retired in 2000, his own diocese had 35 openly gay and lesbian clergy, and he also helped promote a new generation of church leaders who can carry his progressive torch: 11 clerics from his tenure are now bishops, more than from any other diocese, he says.

At the same time, Spong also became a best-selling author who routinely, and infamously, questioned long-held doctrines and literal interpretations of the Bible. The Virgin Birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the historical accuracy of Jesus’ sayings in the Gospels – all these and much more were targets of Spong’s pointed pen during his heyday.

“It was really a very exciting time,” he said of the fight for rights for gays and women. “That battle was very controversial. But that battle is so over today. That battle is won.”

‘I fell mellow’

Although he finds the victory deeply satisfying, he says he doesn’t take personal pride in this tectonic shift.

“I was simply interpreting a rising consciousness,” he said. “Whether it was race or women or homosexual people, the issue was always the same: fighting against anything that dehumanizes a child of God on the basis of an external characteristic.”

Now, he said, “I feel mellow,” his soft drawl burnishing the tone of reflection. “And I don’t think I’ve changed, particularly. I’m just not controversial in my church anymore.”

He still seems as vital and youthful as ever, tall and lanky with a shock of reddish hair that still falls insistently across his forehead. He does 4 miles every morning on the treadmill, and he and his wife travel about 60 percent of the year, mainly at the invitation of audiences who want to hear more from Spong.

And he has a new book out – his 24th. This latest one is a take on the Gospel of John called “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.” As the subtitle suggests, Spong reads the Gospel through a Jewish lens, as he has done in many of his works.

Yet this book is also an unusual one for Spong. Not only is John considered the least historically reliable of the four Gospels, but it is also the one most focused on the divinity of Jesus at what many would say is the expense of his humanity, which has been Spong’s chief interest.

Spong doesn’t think any of the Gospels are literal retellings of the life of Christ. “All of them were written 40 to 70 years after the Crucifixion, in a language that Jesus did not speak, and not by eyewitnesses,” he said. “I see them more as Jewish interpretive portraits painted by Jewish artists trying to capture the essence of this man’s life.”

Those are, of course, the kinds of statements that set many Christians – even many fellow Episcopalians – on edge, to say the least. “A lot of people hear me attacking their certainty. I don’t have any interest in doing that. I’m interested in penetrating the meaning of certainty. We have to get beyond the symbols. And John’s Gospel does that for me.”

Still, he concedes, “I wouldn’t have touched John’s Gospel even 10 years ago.”

But age has a way of shifting one’s focus. In 2010, Spong published a book on life after death (“Eternal Life: A New Vision”) that he had abandoned 25 years earlier because “I clearly wasn’t ready to write it.” Even in his late 70s, he found describing the afterlife a struggle.

“I had no vocabulary for it,” he said. “I don’t think much about my physical body going off into the long, green fairways of heaven to play golf.”

O’Reilly and Maher

He still relishes the memory of past battles with the likes of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly. “I really like him, strangely enough. Once you get him off camera, he’s a very decent man … I think he’s got a personal integrity. I’ve really enjoyed him.”

HBO’s Bill Maher, who comes from the other side of the spectrum from O’Reilly, has also had Spong on his cable show many times. “He’s violently anti-religious in his pronouncements, and yet he introduced me once as his favorite theologian in America,” Spong said.

Despite the labels that have stuck to him – maverick, reformer, revolutionary and, of course, heretic – Spong thinks of himself “as an old-fashioned religion man.”

“Plenty of people out there think of me as the Antichrist or the devil incarnate because I do not affirm the literal patterns of the Bible,” he said. “But the fact is I can no more abandon the literal patterns than I could fly to the moon. I just go beyond them.”

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