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Friday, September 07, 2007

An Open Letter from Jack Spong to Rowan Williams

After almost 20 years of knowing him, I am persuaded that church history will describe John Shelby Spong as one of the prophets of the church.

Yes, his writing has a bit of an edge.

Ever read one of the prophets?

I don't know anyone on any side of the church politics or at any point on the theological spectrum who hasn't been thoroughly disappointed if not completely exasperated with the leadership (or lack thereof) of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Jack Spong is no exception - except that he expresses his thoughts and feelings with a breathtaking clarity that is bound to anger those who disagree with him and delight those who have longed for the truth of this prophetic word.

Here's one of my favorite sentences: "Unity is surely a virtue, but it must be weighed against truth, the Church's primary virtue."

I, for one, am grateful for his courage and his continued witness.

Dear Rowan,

I am delighted that you have agreed to meet with the House of Bishops of the American Episcopal Church in September, even if you appear to be unwilling to come alone. It has seemed strange that you, who have had so much to say about the American Church, have not been willing to do so before now. Your office is still honored by Episcopalians in this country, so our bishops will welcome you warmly and politely. We have some amazingly competent men and women in that body, many of whom have not yet met you.

There is clearly an estrangement between that body and you in your role as the Archbishop of Canterbury. I want to share with you my understanding of the sources of that estrangement. First, I believe that most of our senior bishops, including me, were elated, at your appointment by Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Tony Blair. Most Americans are not aware that yours is an appointed, not an elected position. Those of us who knew you were keenly aware of your intellectual gifts, your openness on all of the great social debates of our generation and indeed of your personal warmth. We also believed that the Lambeth Conference of 1998, presided over by your predecessor, George Carey, had been a disaster that would haunt the Communion for at least a quarter of a century. An assembly of bishops hissing at and treating fellow bishops with whom they disagreed quite rudely, was anything but an example of Christian community. The unwillingness of that hostile majority to listen to the voices of invited gay Christians, their use of the Bible in debate as a weapon to justify prejudice, the almost totalitarian attempt made to manage the press and to prevent access to the wider audience and the dishonest denial of the obvious and blatant homophobia among the bishops made that Lambeth Conference the most disillusioning ecclesiastical gathering I have ever attended. The Church desperately needed new leadership and so many of us greeted your appointment with hope. Your detractors in the evangelical camp both in England and in the third world actively lobbied against your appointment. The hopes of those of us who welcomed your appointment were, however, short lived because in one decision after another you seemed incapable of functioning as the leader the Church wanted and needed.

It began at the moment of your appointment when you wrote a public letter to the other primates assuring them that you would not continue in your enlightened and open engagement with the moral issue of defining and welcoming those Christians who are gay and lesbian.

We all knew where you stood. Your ministry had not been secret. We knew you had been one of the voices that sought to temper the homophobia of your predecessor's rhetoric. We knew of your personal friendship with gay clergy and that you had even knowingly ordained a gay man to the priesthood. You, however, seemed to leap immediately to the conclusion that unity was more important than truth. Perhaps you did not realize that your appointment as the archbishop was because you had different values from those of your predecessor and that your values were exactly what the Church wanted and needed in its new archbishop.

In that letter, in a way that was to me a breathtaking display of ineptitude and moral weakness, you effectively abdicated your leadership role. The message you communicated was that in the service of unity you would surrender to whoever had the loudest public voice.

A leader gets only one chance to make a good first impression and you totally failed that chance. Unity is surely a virtue, but it must be weighed against truth, the Church's primary virtue.

Next came the bizarre episode of the appointment of the Rev. Dr. Jeffrey John, a known gay priest, to be the area bishop for Reading in the Diocese of Oxford. He was proposed by the Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries. The nomination was approved by all of the necessary authorities, including you, the Prime Minister and the Queen. The fundamentalists and the evangelicals were predictably severe and anything but charitable or Christian. They and their allies in the press assassinated Jeffrey John's character and made his life miserable. Once again you collapsed in the face of this pressure and, in a four-hour conversation, you forced your friend and mine, Jeffery John, who is not only a brilliant New Testament scholar, but also one who gave you his word that he was living a celibate life, to resign his appointment to that Episcopal office. The message went out for all to hear that if people are angry enough, the Archbishop will always back down. Your leadership, as well as our trust in your integrity, all but disappeared.

Shortly thereafter, you concurred in a "guilt" appointment by naming Jeffrey Dean of St. Alban's Cathedral. It is a strange church and a strange hierarchy that proclaims that a gay man cannot be a bishop but can be a dean. Your credibility suffered once again.

When Gene Robinson in the United States was elected the Bishop of New Hampshire and, more particularly, when his election was confirmed by a concurrent majority of the bishops, priests and lay deputies at the General Convention (read General Synod), you appeared to panic. You called an urgent meeting of the primates of the entire Anglican Communion and allowed them to express enormous hostility. No one seemed to challenge either their use of scripture, which revealed an amazing ignorance of the last 250 years of biblical scholarship, or their understanding of homosexuality. By acting as if homosexuality is a choice made by evil people they violated everything that medical science has discovered about sexual orientation in the last century.

Just as the Church was historically wrong in its treatment of women, so now as a result of your leadership, we are espousing a position about homosexuality that is dated, uninformed, inhumane and frankly embarrassing. No learned person stands there today.

Then you appointed the group, under Robin Eames' chairmanship, that produced the Windsor Report. That report confirmed every mistake you had already made. It asked the American Church to apologize to other parts of the Anglican Communion for its "insensitivity." Can one apologize for trying to end prejudice and oppression? If the issue were slavery, would you ask for an apology to the slave holders? That report got the response it deserved. Our leaders were indeed sorry that others felt hurt, but they were not prepared to apologize for taking a giant step in removing one more killing prejudice from both the Church and the world. Those angry elements of the church were not satisfied by the Windsor report, inept as it was. They never will be until they have bent you and this communion into a pre-modern, hate filled, Bible quoting group of people incapable of embracing the world in which we live.

Next came threats issued by the primates of the excommunication of the American Episcopal Church from the Anglican Communion, as if they actually had that power. Ultimatums and deadlines for us to conform to their homophobia were treated by you as if that were appropriate behavior. When the American Church elected Katharine Jefferts-Schori to be its Presiding Bishop and thus the Primate of our Province, your response to that major achievement was pathetic. You did not rejoice that equality had finally been achieved in our struggle against sexism; your concern was about how much more difficult her election would make the life of the Anglican Communion. Once again, institutional peace was made primary to the rising consciousness that challenges what the Church has done to women for so long. When Katharine took her place among the other primates, she underwent with dignity, the refusal of some of those bishops to receive communion with her. Is that the mentality required to build unity?

Later you issued a statement saying that if homosexuals want to be received in the life of the Church, they will have to change their behavior. I found that statement incredible. If you mean they have to change from being homosexual then you are obviously not informed about homosexuality. It is not a choice or a sin, anymore than being left handed, or male or female, or black or even transgender is a choice or a sin. All of us simply awaken to these aspects of our identity. That truth is so elementary and so well documented that only prejudiced eyes can fail to recognize it. No one in intellectual circles today still gives that point of view credibility..

Next you declined to invite Gene Robinson to the Lambeth Conference of 2008. All of the closeted homosexual bishops are invited, the honest one is not invited. I can name the gay bishops who have, during my active career. served in both the Episcopal Church and in the Church of England? I bet you can too. Are you suggesting that dishonesty is a virtue?

You continue to act as if quoting the Bible to undergird a dying prejudice is a legitimate tactic. It is in fact the last resort that religious people always use to validate "tradition" over change. The Bible was quoted to support the Divine Right of Kings in 1215, to oppose Galileo in the 17th century, to oppose Darwin in the 19th century, to support slavery and apartheid in the 19th and 20th centuries, to keep women from being educated, voting and being ordained in the 20th and 21st century. Today it is quoted to continue the oppression and rejection of homosexual people. The Bible has lost each of those battles. It will lose the present battle and you, my friend, will end up on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of morality and the wrong side of truth. It is a genuine tragedy that you, the most intellectually-gifted Archbishop of Canterbury in almost a century, have become so miserable a failure in so short a period of time.

You were appointed to lead, Rowan, not to capitulate to the hysterical anger of those who are locked in the past. For the sake of God and this Church, the time has come for you to do so. I hope you still have that capability.

John Shelby Spong, 8th Bishop of Newark, Retired


David said...

oywalThank-you Elizabeth!
Thank-you and God Bless you Bishop Spong!
Who doesn't have a difference or two with brother Jack, but once again he has acted on the grace he is given to speak to what I truly believe is a larger understanding of Christ's call to each one of us.
And those differences- they're only another proof of what a wondrous work of grace the Holy Spirit is working in blessing the ongoing transformation of our blessed Communion as it striggles to cast off the patriarchy, it's fearful dualistic thinking and its need for an 'other' to shore up its virtue.
Thank-you once again brother Jack

Bateau Master said...

As a rant, this piece must be satisfying to its author and his followers. As a persuasive article for Anglicans, it fails to practically address scripture, tradition, and reason; and relies solely on experience. As a letter to a peer, it is arrogant, condescending, and insulting at such a level that it will be ignored and generate resistance to the author’s point of view.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Dear BM,

Everyone has an opinion, and you are certainly entitled to yours.

You don't ever disappoint. Perhaps, neither do I.

Want to understand Jack Spong and why he says what he says? Hang out with some of the prophets.

Everything you say about Jack can be said about . . . well, name a prophet, any prophet.

Indeed, I'm quite certain that people of their day said the same things you are saying about Jack.

History will, as always, be the best (if not unforgiving) judge.

I certainly am glad I won't be around to read what history has to say about the other Jack - the one from Ft. Worth.

Rowan The Dog said...

I don't know why people don't like this letter. I am just left thinking, Whew... somebody finally said it.

Thanks Bishop Spong!


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Lindy - it could be that we are more invested in "being nice" and "living in unity" - no matter how phoney or false that may be - than in telling the truth in love.

God Bless Jack Spong.

Anonymous said...

"The Bible has lost each of those battles. It will lose the present battle and you, my friend,"

This, I think, is a very unfortunate turn of phrase. I don't even think filing him under the heading "prophet" can make up for the damage he did with that one sentence and a half.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I'm so weary of this task.

Anyone want to take on Anastasia and explain the obvious?

Bill said...

Anastasia comments:

"The Bible has lost each of those battles. It will lose the present battle and you, my friend,"

“This, I think, is a very unfortunate turn of phrase.”

It may be an “unfortunate turn of phrase” for you, but it is perfectly true. All the battles sited by Bishop Spong (The Bible was quoted to support the Divine Right of Kings in 1215, to oppose Galileo in the 17th century, to oppose Darwin in the 19th century, to support slavery and apartheid in the 19th and 20th centuries, to keep women from being educated, voting and being ordained in the 20th and 21st century. Today it is quoted to continue the oppression and rejection of homosexual people.), were defended time and time again by quotations from the Bible. Those battles were indeed lost over time as people looked deeply into these institutions and found them to be archaic and not in step with the overall march of humanity towards an enlightened view of people and governments and gender and sex. The positions fought for in these battles were no more than attempts to consolidate power and control portions of society through selective quotations from early biblical writings. Weather we are talking about women’s rights or slavery, those people in power used the bible to retain power. Biblical scholars no longer even consider these positions worthy of debate. Even the “Scopes Monkey Trial”, so famous because of the names involved, “Darwin, Clarence Darrow, William Jennings Bryan”, was ludicrous because later investigations reveal that the town involved was just trying to get itself on the map and that the confrontation was contrived. Even so, no modern scholar would site the Bible over Darwin.

Going back to your “unfortunate turn of phrase”, Jack Spong comes out and says what many of us would love to say but for one reason or another can’t. Maybe we are not well versed enough in the Bible, or maybe we fear taking a stand in public, or possibly we are just afraid to speak truth no matter how harsh it may sound. I believe that Bishop Spong is dedicated to the truth and has the courage of his convictions to speak out.

Rowan The Dog said...

Dear Anastasia,

We have a hymn in Christianity called Once To Every Man and Nation. It was written by a man named James Russell Lowell and contains quite a lot of my favorite lyrical lines. One of them is: "Time Makes ancient truths uncouth."

Slavery is only one example of that. We no longer stone adulterers or treat women as mere economic units, for example. Those are beyond uncouth! Yet a Plain Sense reading of the Bible approves of slavery, proscribes stoning for adultery, and keeps women in their place. I don't know about you but I'm glad the Bible "lost" on all those questions.

If we are serious about following Jesus and living into his Great Commandment to love God and to love one another then we have to acknowledge it when the Bible, however much we revere it, contradicts the Great Commandment.

Back to James Russell Lowell, it is TIME that makes these ancient truths uncouth. Culture, humanism, liberals, and even homosexuals often get blamed for it. But, that's not where the blame lies. Blame time.

In a different day, and in different times, the words of the Bible did fulfill the Great Commandment to love God and to love one another. Really. But, times have changed. And, the good laws and proscriptions of the Bible have become uncouth. They no longer help us love God or our neighbor.

We are less than honest if we pretend that we are loving God by stoning to death his loved children. Failure to acknowledge the vast cultural, historical, and social differences between then and now -- failure to take TIME into account -- is what makes the Bible irrelevant, not homos or humanism.

Part of following Jesus is to discern the real ancient truths of the Bible and work to incarnate them here in the twenty-first century... couthly.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you both Lindy and Bill. You've done a wonderful, kind, inteligent job.

joel said...

It is reading things that have been attributed to Mr. Spong that I have been convinced that I have more in common with “conservative” Anglicans than I have with “liberal” Anglicans. I find this strange because I’ve considered myself to be of a liberal, progressive, humanitarian nature since I can remember understanding what that might mean. I also believe that this stance is the only reasonable stance for anyone who wishes to participate in Christianity as inaugurated by Christ Himself and preached by the Apostles. This shift in understanding makes me sad and confused.

Not only have I been involved in the pursuit of economic justice locally and globally for years, but I’m queer. You’d think I’d like what Mr. Spong has to say. I’m certainly appreciative of Mr. Spong’s endeavours to defend the humanity and dignity of gay and lesbian people, and by extension bisexual and transgendered people. However, when Mr. Spong writes about God, about any or all persons of the Holy Trinity, or about the Church and her vocation past, present, and future, I feel like the great, cosmic logic that makes my life make sense and me feel like I belong in this universe has been reduced to an opinion held only by the deluded. The alternative that Mr. Spong and others in accord with him have put forward seem to reduce the faith to some man-made invention that only serves the purpose to reduce a few people’s emotional discomfort. Maybe I missed something. This letter is no exception. The world-view that it expresses and the assumptions that it makes strike me as insulting to the witness of the saints and martyrs of the past. It’s hard to think that intelligent, educated, and ordained clergy would trade such a good thing for something so cheap. I realize that Elizabeth may yet be tired of explaining things, but I’m really tired of not understanding. if someone else could step up to the plate and help me learn what’s going on, I’d be very appreciative.

Your little brother in Christ,

Bill said...

Hi Joel, I'm not sure what you are asking. Is it the letter being referred to in this thread or is it Bishop Spong's views on theology in general. In the letter he's taking the ABC to task about his leadership or lack thereof. His theology is an entirely different matter. In most of his books he opens with a frank statement that not all will agree with him and that many may find it offensive. He goes on to say that if you are open to a critical look at the Hebrew scripture and the New Testament writings then please continue. If not, he advises that you put the book down. His views are not for everybody and he plainly warns of this. Even his admirers admit to being only able to agree with a small percent of what he says. Belief is a very personal thing. Each person will believe what he or she will. He's only asking that you approach the subject with an open mind, listen to his analysis and then decide.

joel said...

I guess I have done exactly what Spong asks. I’ve read his work with an open mind, listened to his analysis, and found it to attack the best of Christianity in the name of eradicating the worst. I agree that belief is a very personal thing. Even if we decide to keep our beliefs to ourselves, we must be honest about our beliefs. To associate with a group that claims to believe certain things and then to do things that contradict the beliefs of that group is to be hypocritical. This is especially true here in North America where we pride ourselves on freedom of association.

I was asking about Spong’s theology, which is hinted at in this letter by the accusations that he makes of those other bishops who disagree with him. Because I find it difficult to think that someone can take Spong’s theology seriously and still identify as an Anglican, I find the credibility of Spong’s critique of the Archbishop of Canterbury to be undermined. While I don’t think anyone can say that the Archbishop of Canterbury has been decisive, Spong uses this letter as cover to attack any ideology that is not his. Not only does he put the Archbishop of Canterbury on the same “side of history” as slavery, apartheid, and the non-education of women, but attacks the academic acumen of the bishops that disagree with him. And this from a man who believes that the Hundred-Years War was precipitated by the Reformation!

In my initial post, I was, I guess, asking if someone could try to give some credibility to the author of the letter.

Thanks for your response.