Profile of a Bishop: John Shelby Spong
by Ellen Barrett
Reproduced from the September and October 1997 editions of The VOICE, the newspaper of the Diocese of Newark.
Sitting across the dinner table from this tall, distinguished man with the soft voice and courtly manner of his Southern heritage, one would hardly recognize the Jack Spong who gives the right wing of the Episcopal Church such nightmares. He seems downright mellow as he discusses winding up his term as Bishop of Newark; that is, until some challenge brings a glint of fire to his eye. On the subject of controversy, Jack Spong is clear about the high emotional price one pays for standing up for principle, but he says with equal clarity, "I would rather die in a confrontation than die running away from it. When I become convinced of something, I have to hit it head on; I cannot be diplomatic."
Bishop Spong has come a long way from Charlotte, North Carolina where he was born, June 16th, 1931. It is a distance more of spirit than geography, and the mileage is beginning to show on his finely carved face.
Charlotte was a good place to hatch a radical churchman. Lord Cornwallis, after a stopover during the American Revolution, christened the town "a nest of hornets," plaguing those who would retain the established order. Not much in the future bishop's early years except a love of basketball hinted at the future hornet. Nor would one have expected the Anglo- Catholic altar boy to grow up to be a bishop who rarely wears a miter. The South of Spong's youth was a place few people under fifty would recognize. He never shared a classroom, a restroom or a water fountain or lunch counter with a person of color. Even among people of good will and better manners, the color line was something as solid as the Great Wall of China. So too was the idea that women might be well educated and talented: such achievements were strictly ornamental, not practical.
Popular religious culture in the South was conservative, Bible-based and evangelical. At worst it was blindly Fundamentalist. At best it was serious and, within the limitations of the surrounding political milieu, thoughtful. White Southerners thought God was a Protestant gentleman, as was God's only begotten Son. A few hated Jews, most just didn't know any. Homosexuality was an abomination, but nobody connected it with the charming old bachelors who subscribed to the symphony and escorted widows to society parties.
Born into a middle-class family with an alcoholic father who died when his elder son was twelve, the young Jack became the man of the house, a role he still plays in looking after his ninety-year-old mother. He found a mentor in the local parish priest, Robert Crandall, and wanted to be just like this wonderful man, even serving at the 8:00 service on a regular basis when none of the other boys wanted to get up. The boy found not only a substitute father, but also the beginning of a call that would draw him to the priesthood. Crandall probably influenced Spong's brother William's decision to seek Orders as well.
Impatient to get on with his life's goal, he entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, living in the parish house at the Chapel of the Cross just beside the campus. Perennially hardstrapped for cash, Spong was the proverbial church mouse. The first member of his family to go to university, he finished his undergraduate work in three years. By marrying his classmate, Joan Ketner, Spong dodged the rule that would have postponed his marriage until after graduation from Virginia Seminary. Joan was the major breadwinner during this period, stopping work at the C.I.A. only shortly before the birth of their first daughter. He speaks fondly and sadly of his first wife, who died of cancer in 1988. A zoology major, Joan was perhaps the first woman Jack had met who rebelled against the claustrophobic nature of her expected role. The future supporter of women's issues was bewildered that the mother of his growing brood (eventually three daughters) was not content as a housewife and mother.
Joan's discontent, however, eventually deepened into a paranoia that the bishop still finds hard to discuss. Mentally ill for some fifteen years, in the last five years of her life she had all but cut herself off from outside contact. She refused treatment for cancer even in the final stages. During these years Spong grew ever closer to his teenagers, becoming a mother as well as a father to them, though he recalls that Joan was always sweet and loving to their daughters. He also turned more and more to study and writing as a solace and a way to put order into the chaos of his domestic life. He teases that writing has become a habit, one that has produced a book every year or two since 1973.
In that loneliness was also born the beginning of his conviction that God was right, "It is not good for a human being to be alone." Eventually, about the time of Joan's death, this would lead him to affirm the relationships of homosexuals as well as those of heterosexual people living in non-traditional arrangements.
The social radical was not yet born when the young deacon was ordained just after his twenty-fourth birthday, nor when he was ordained priest six months later on Holy Innocents' Day, 1955. Seeds that were to develop into the main themes of his career were growing, however, when he was put in charge of St. Joseph's Church, Durham, North Carolina, just between the East and West Campuses of Duke University.
Listening to the bishop, it is clear that he loves being a pastor and a teacher. It was at St. Joseph's, with its mixed congregation including medical students and Duke faculty as well as the mill workers for whom the parish was originally founded, that he served his apprenticeship in both. One of his first discussion groups was a weekly session where his parishioners dissected his sermons--a daunting but extraordinarily fine lesson in the homiletic arts. Delighting in pastoral calling, hospital visits and youth work, he also attracted a large number of talented lay people to work with him. Between forty and sixty parishioners were presented for confirmation each year, mostly Duke students. It became a part of his vocation to minister to young people from fundamentalist backgrounds and teach them there was good news in the Good News of Christ, to show that religion is not incompatible with intellectual inquiry.
St. Joseph's thrived under the young priest's care, and he developed friendships which endure to this day. After a couple of years, however, ambition took him to be rector of Calvary Parish, Tarboro, North Carolina and its host of little missions. These were the years of controversy over school desegregation in the South, and Spong was in the forefront of the battle. The local sheriff was a member of his congregation, and Spong announced that he expected black school children to be protected, and that he was going to be there with them as they entered the previously all-white school. The sheriff was stuck; to protect his rector he had to protect the children. Supporting integration in North Carolina in 1959 was not a way to popularity. But the struggle was exhilarating, and Spong found others to fight alongside him for the equality of black people as children of God. It was his first serious foray into the arena of social controversy.
During this time his journalistic career took off, as he edited the North Carolina Churchman. He also served on the Executive Committee and chaired the Evangelism Committee of the Diocese. His love of teaching led him not only to a place on the Board of Directors at Kanuga, but to regular lectures at the famous conference center. This was the beginning of his growing reputation as an educator.
After eight years, he accepted the call to be rector of St. John's, Lynchburg, Virginia, returning to his beloved milieu of a college town, where he introduced serious textual criticism into his adult Bible study, to the horror of local fundamentalists. He also continued to serve in diocesan administration, being a member and then President of the Standing Committee of Southwest Virginia.
In 1969 Spong was called to be the rector of St. Paul's Church, Richmond, Virginia. The move helped his early promise develop and grow in startling ways. Not only was he elected to the Executive Council of the Diocese of Virginia and a Deputy to General Convention, he began to teach a televised Bible class as well. It was there that he began to explore the seminal relationship between Judaism and Christianity, especially in two books, This Hebrew Lord, and Dialogue: In Search of Jewish-Christian Understanding.
Before accepting the call to St. Paul's, Spong announced his intention to teach a Sunday adult Bible class and his expectation that the class would be well attended. St. Paul's is a downtown church, and the thought of coming an hour early struck his parishioners as silly, at least until the project got rolling. Soon some three hundred people a week were attending. Books grew out of the class, and Seabury Press literally hauled him off the beach to rework his book on the Lord's Prayer as Seabury's Book for Lent.
A local rabbi was so impressed with This Hebrew Lord, despite his disagreement with the premise, that the two of them debated the book three Friday nights at the synagogue and three Sunday mornings at St. Paul's to record-breaking crowds. Local radio picked up the debates, and the pair were offered a twenty-week cable TV contract to continue. The effort to explain Jesus in Jewish terms in this dialogue had many questioning Spong's orthodoxy, but a close look at his teaching reveals not heresy, but an attempt to tell the Christian story in words intelligible to the world at the end of the millennium. The Jewish roots of our faith are still a major teaching theme for Bishop Spong, combining the best of classic, Evangelical fervor with tough biblical scholarship. His first nomination for the episcopate came in the middle of this project, from Delaware, but he withdrew his name, convinced he was not yet called to leave Richmond. Soon after, however, the Diocese of Newark called, and this time he allowed his name to stand. Since he was almost certain that he stood no chance of winning, he went through the pre-election "dog and pony show" speaking his mind in a manner unusual among candidates. The Holy Spirit, who often has plans we cannot forecast, turned this unique candor to his favor, and in 1976 John Shelby Spong was consecrated Bishop Coadjutor of Newark, succeeding as Diocesan in 1978. Neither he nor the Episcopal Church has been the same since.
Profile of a Bishop: Part II - To Comfort the Afflicted and to Afflict the Comfortable
One doesnt think of long-serving bishops as being on the cutting edge of the church. A bitter joke says the reason three bishops lay their hands on a new one is not to pass on the Holy Spirit, but to remove the new bishops spine. If that were true, the operation was a singular failure in the case of John Shelby Spong.
When he came to the Diocese of Newark as Coadjutor in 1976, we knew we were getting a bishop with a strong record on civil rights who supported the ordination of women. His friend and mentor, the late Presiding Bishop John Hines, led the Episcopal Church through a time of controversy with grace and integrity, the model Bishop Spong has tried to follow. A measure of his success is that while there are many in the church who love him, and many who hate him, almost no active Episcopalian is indifferent to the man or his message. Newark attracted Spong because it was centered in a riot-torn city, a place where there would be ample opportunity to expand his work for social and economic justice. He also came determined to continue his teaching ministry, through the education series that has brought internationally respected scholars to the diocese, and through his column in The VOICE which he crafted into a special teaching forum.
His convention addresses are trenchant analyses of the social context from which the churchs mission is inseparable. Serious issues like available and affordable health care and equal access to high-quality education are raised not just for our prayers, but in a serious, hands-on commitment to Episcopalians working for the good of all Gods people.
It is a tribute to the Bishops intellectual integrity that his views on hot-button issues do not remain static even as he articulates them publicly. Almost inexorably he has been led into controversy after controversy, and the issues that have brought him the most notoriety have been those concerned with sexuality.
His involvement started quietly enough. General Convention resolved in 1982 that the church should begin serious study of changing patterns of family life. Three or four years later, the Bishop commissioned a diocesan task force to study what he considered to be three key points: The overwhelming increase in young people living together outside of marriage; unmarried older people living together for various economic reasons; and whether people living in homosexual relationships could be called into the churchs desire to consecrate human partnership. The underlying theme was the pastoral recognition that sex inside of marriage is not always holy, but can be abused. Might it then follow that sex not blessed by the sacrament of matrimony might sometimes be holy, or at least tend in that direction?
From this tentative beginning, the Bishop and the diocese went forth into uncharted territory. Spong took his usual route, educating first his head and then assimilating his findings to his heart. A nationwide storm broke in 1987 when the pressreported the committees findings as endorsing gay marriage. Out of that publicity came the book, Living in Sin, solicited by Abingdon Press, but cancelled at the last moment because of hostile reaction to pre-publication ads. The book was soon picked up by HarperCollins, and outsold all his previous volumes. A book tour and numerous radio and TV talk shows followed. The outspoken Bishop found himself the target of anger from all sides. Opposition from conservative extremists led to his next book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism.
Acting on his growing conviction that gay people should be fully included in the life of the church, Spong ordained Robert Williams in 1989. The wave of hostility Williams ordination generated even intruded upon the funeral service for Spongs wife, Joan. She was buried from their old parish church in Richmond, and as the Bishop and his daughters sat beside the coffin a woman approached him, struck him across the shoulders with her cane, called him a son of a bitch, and strode out triumphantly through the pallbearers. But not all reaction was negative. When the Bishop thanked the lay ministers for taking time off from their jobs for the service, it turned out that all were from the Richmond chapter of Integrity and had come to serve as a show of their support. The Bishop who had once dismissed a gay vicar was well on the way to becoming a hero of the gay community as well as a target of conservative wrath.
In the midst of all of this was a very vulnerable man, struggling with life as a widower. If Joans long illness had been agonizing for him, the loneliness that followed her death was intolerable. Long before he was ready, he began to be besieged by people who just happened to have an extra ticket to something fun. The attention repelled him, despite his unhappiness at being alone. He began to work even harder, scheduling meetings late into the night so as not to come home alone.
Unbeknownst to him, the woman who was to become his lifes partner was already a growing part of his world. Many of us cannot imagine Bishop Spong without Christine by his side, but it took Jack himself a while to realize how much she meant to him. Christine had been a family friend for years, one of the few whom Joan had continued to enjoy seeing. Finding herself in need of a job, Christine was hired to fill the position of diocesan administrator and Secretary of Convention (now held by Michael Francaviglia). Bishop Spong smiles recalling that he was not part of the hiring committee and says that Christine and his secretary, Wanda Hollenbeck, between them proceeded to turn the diocese upside down.
The two women positioned the diocesan staff to be more approachable, and in an effort to improve morale began to plan social events for groups of clergy and their spouses, co-hosted by the Bishop and a member of his staff. Christine began to call on clergy, drawing them out about their ministry and their concerns, convincing them that the diocese was their partner in ministry, not their adversary. She became an invaluable co-worker, and though the Bishop was still afraid of dating and blind to being a supremely eligible catch, Christine was someone he felt comfortable escorting to events.
In the summer of 1989 Christine shared with Jack a frightening concern with her own health that mercifully turned out to be a false alarm. The scare, however, convinced him how much he cared for her. By September they were talking marriage, and the Bishop characteristically revealed his plan to the diocese in his VOICE column.
The wedding was the calm before a storm, the last light moment for some time to come. Though the couple celebrated their wedding on January 1, 1990 with great joy, the hurricane over the Williams ordination whirled around them for the first six months of their marriage. Today the Bishop freely admits he couldnt have survived without Christines unwavering support. Only one of his fellow bishops voiced approval, and the Presiding Bishop caved in under pressure, condemning the ordination. The House of Bishops voted to dissociate themselves from the Bishop and the Diocese of Newark on the gay issue, but within a year they were split almost evenly. Bishop Spong addressed the House in a moving statement that changed a number of minds and inspired two married bishops to come out of the closet to him in the process. There is sadness in his eyes as he recounts his experience, but also a twinkle as he sums it all up with, Lifes been very exciting.
Part of that excitement has been the exploration of what it means to have a spouse who is truly an equal partner. The couple obviously adore each other. This experience of mutual respect and support in his marriage has deepened the Bishops conviction that those not especially called by God to a life of celibacy deserve the chance to sanctify their relationships with the churchs blessing. He remains determined to affirm the biblical teaching that it is not good for human beings to be alone.
He looks forward to retirement with mixed emotions. It is in many ways the end of one life for him, but he hopes that it will give him a chance to be a full-time teacher in some academic institution. He is growing more mellow and less combative, and tries not to make any commitments that his successor will have to carry out. He is concerned that the Church grow to meet the challenges of the coming century, and has called a commission to study new forms of ministry.
It is more than a little ironic that so many people still see Bishop Spong as a theological rebel and iconoclast. While repelled by the assertion that any style of churchmanship is the only right one, Spong is undeniably an old-fashioned Bible- centered, scholarly, low-church Evangelical with a social conscience somewhat in the mold of the equally controversial English theologian, J.A.T. Robinson. Spong's hope for the church is that it can learn to tell its old, old story in new ways the modern world can hear.
We must, he says, embrace the knowledge revolution that has reshaped our view of the cosmos and humankinds place in it. We must also embrace the social evolution that is recasting the roles of women and men in relation to each other. And we must replace the tribalism that has infected our religious life with keen awareness of our interdependence. The defeat of the Concordat with the Lutheran Church is obviously a great disappointment to a man who looks forward to the day when religious dialogue will take place among the great faiths of the world, not among the various denominations of Christianity. Old forms of Christianity, he asserts, are dying because they have not been flexible enough to carry the great and complacency-shattering message of Gods promiscuous goodness and love.
It is impossible to sum up so complex a career in a word. But honesty might come near. Jack Spong has certainly challenged us to live up to the mandate of the Gospel and to cast aside even the dearest of old ways in order to be honest to ourselves, honest to each other, and honest to God. Whatever anyone might think of Jack Spong, he has lived up to the old definition of Christian ministry: To comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.
Ellen Barrett is Associate Missioner of B.E.A.M.