Tuesday, September 13, 2016



The Rt. Rev. John (Jack) Spong suffered a stroke last Saturday. Keep him and his family in your prayers. For more information, see the announcement in Episcopal Café here .
Bishop Spong, now 85 years old, was bishop of Newark from 1979 to 2000. He was born in Charlotte, North Carolina and was graduated from Chapel Hill.

Spong was arguably the most important "liberal" Episcopal Church theologian and writer in the late twentieth century. His prolific writings called on contemporary Christians to reinterpret the traditional religion in light of the realities and needs of modern civilization. (Conservatives on the other hand insisted that Christianity was an absolute religion of "received" unchanging truths that must be transmitted unchanged.)

In modern Church history, Spong is remembered as the most prominent bishop advocating for the cause of the full inclusion of homosexuals in the life of the Episcopal Church. In 1979, General Convention passed a resolution disapproving of the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Throughout the 1980's the understanding was that such ordination was "inappropriate." However, the Church did not make it a matter of canon law or even forbid it. The conservative/liberal split on this issue in the Episcopal Church was this: conservatives regarded homosexual behavior as innately sinful; liberals saw it as amoral, that is, inherently neither good nor bad. Conservatives insisted that non-celibate homosexuals not be allowed ordination. Liberals insisted that the Church should not bar open homosexuals from ordination. By around 1990, the division in the Episcopal Church was roughly into thirds, a third opposed to the ordination of homosexuals, a third favorable, and a third undecided. 

In 1988, Bishop Spong was the first bishop in the U.S. to establish the blessing of same-sex unions in his diocese. In 1989, Spong ordained an openly homosexual man. Presiding Bishop Browning, his council, and the House of Bishops all condemned Spong's action. However, they did not censure him. The 1990's turned out to be the time of the war between the anti and pro homosexual sides in the Episcopal Church. The issue rocked every General Convention of he decade. The highlight of the war, and its turning point, was the ecclesiastical trial of Spong's assistant, Bishop Righter, in 1996. What conservatives thought was going to be their Gettysburg turned into their Waterloo. Much to their chagrin, the court dismissed the charges and declared that there was no doctrine in the Episcopal Church forbidding the ordination of practicing homosexuals. After that, it was just a matter of time until homosexuals gained full inclusion into the Episcopal Church climaxing with the establishment of same-sex marriage in 2015. Spong had been the pioneer of it all.

In regards to the schism in South Carolina, Spong was the most important figure in the Episcopal Church outside of South Carolina except for Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori. In the 1980's, during the episcopate of the evangelical Bishop Allison (1982-90), the Diocese of South Carolina came to focus, virtually to obsession, on Spong as the symbol of all that was wrong in the Episcopal Church and on homosexuality as the cancer destroying true religion in the Church from within. Indeed, Allison perhaps saw himself as the anti-Spong in the Church turning out his own theological writings in defense of conservative religion. This was the start of the 30-year journey to the schism of 2012. Bishop Salmon continued rallying the diocese throughout the 1990's in its campaign gainst Spong and the pro-homosexual lobby. Spong was the necessary enemy to rally the diocese against the mother church. By the time Mark Lawrence arrived in South Carolina to become bishop, in January of 2008, the stage had long been set for the run-up to the schism. Indeed, there was evidence presented in the 2014 circuit court trial of a conspiracy of the anti-Church party in the diocese to bring in Lawrence and have him lead the diocese out of the Episcopal Church with property in hand. In a very real way, the schism of 2012 was the Diocese of South Carolina's answer to Bishop Spong.

Thus, whichever side one is on, one has to see Bishop Spong as one of the most important figures in modern Episcopal Church history. Personally, I see him as a towering hero for human rights, a pioneer who went against the odds to stand up for what was right, endured hateful denunciations, and was finally vindicated by the majority of the Episcopal Church. There is an old saying that you can't make an omelet until you crack eggs. Bishop Spong cracked many eggs and made a great omelet.
May all of us who stand for human rights for all people pray for a great champion of those rights, Bishop Spong.