John Shelby Spong died on Sept. 12th of this year, peacefully, in his sleep. He was 90 years old. I shared in church on the following Sunday how much the retired Episcopal bishop has impacted my life. I’ve read a dozen or so of his 26 books on Christianity. Vilified by many who felt he threatened their faith, Bishop Spong provided a much-needed space for those who didn’t connect with traditional theology. His passion was for those he termed the “Church Alumnae Association.” He was an advocate for justice, racial reconciliation, and full inclusion. As a bishop, he ordained the first openly gay priest in the Episcopal church in 1989. He was my mentor, teacher, and friend. Janice and I had the pleasure of hosting Jack and Christine in our home, as he spoke in the Valley on many occasions over the years. He encouraged my colleague Rev. David Felten and I in creating Living the Questions, and is prominently featured throughout our video series and book of the same name.
In Living the Questions, Bishop Spong tells of growing up in the segregated South:
I was taught that segregation was the will of God. And no Black people were ever welcomed into my church – and when they finally came, they came over the protest of our members. And I grew up in a church that taught me that women were not equal to men and when women finally said, “We are no longer willing to accept that definition,” the church was thrown into enormous turmoil. And, of course, the Bible was quoted to prove that those women were wrong, just like it was quoted to prove that Black people that wanted to integrate were wrong. I grew up thinking that homosexuals were evil or mentally sick, by definition. And I grew up in a church that taught me there is only one way to God and anybody that didn’t follow the Christian way was evil; so, it was okay to hate Jews or Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists or anybody else.
In one of his best-known books, “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism,” Spong writes about “taking the Bible seriously without taking it literally.” That means, in part, recognizing that the Bible is a collection of writings by many authors, across many centuries, and coming to view the books in the contexts in which they were written, and bringing to bear archeological, anthropological, linguistic and other social sciences to help open our eyes to the depths and nuisances of a text. So, we rely on specialists who have devoted their lives to the study of the Bible, the better to understand it ourselves. Can one simply read the text and allow the Spirit to speak? Of course! But, in order to guard against its misuse and not blindly accept as God’s will ingrained prejudices – rather than see them as the cultural morays of bygone days – that requires reading the Bible with care in community and with the benefit of others’ wisdom.
As good Methodists – who share our Anglican roots with Episcopalians – we read the Good Book with heart and mind. In spite of its shortcomings, the Bible is, after all, the bedrock of our faith tradition and the primary way of learning about Jesus Christ. I celebrate Bishop Spong and all who invite us to take the Bible seriously without taking it literally.