By The Living Church staff
One of the best-known and most controversial Episcopal bishops in the last half century, the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, died in his sleep September 12 at the age of 90. He served as the VIII Bishop of Newark from 1979 to 2000.
Bishop Spong’s assertively liberal perspective of Christianity, and his rejection of the literal truth of the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, attracted both a passionate following and repeated accusations of heresy. For many conservatives, he became a symbol of everything that has gone wrong with the Episcopal Church. For many progressives, he provided a safe space for skepticism and for experiencing Christianity through a filter of contemporary society.
Of his two dozen books, perhaps the best known is Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. In the preface of that 1999 book he described how the word “controversial” became “almost a part of my identity.”
As a priest in Richmond, Virginia, in 1974, after publishing a book titled This Hebrew Lord, Spong held a series of public dialogues with a Jewish rabbi on the nature of God and Jesus. In response to a question from the rabbi, Spong said: “The Bible never says in a simplistic way that Jesus is God. Jesus prays to God in the Gospels. He is not talking to himself.”
Spong wrote this was “a theological distinction far too subtle for the secular press to grasp. ‘Jesus is not God, Rector Asserts’ was the headline greeting readers of the Richmond Times Dispatch the next day, and the debate was on.”
As Bishop of Newark, Spong championed the efforts of gay people to gain recognition in the church, and on December 16, 1989, he ordained the first openly gay, partnered priest, Robert Williams, causing an uproar. After his assisting bishop, the Rt. Rev. Walter Righter, ordained Barry Stopfel as a deacon in 1990 with Spong’s blessing, Righter was accused of “heresy” in 1996, and acquitted by a church court. Spong speculated that the church prosecuted Righter, even though Spong conducted the earlier ordination, because “perhaps they felt that he would be an easier target, or they simply did not want to give me so large a public forum.”
In 1998, Spong published “Twelve Points for Reform” in The Voice, the newspaper of the Diocese of Newark. Among the 12 points:
- The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ’s divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.
- The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.
- The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.
In response, Rowan Williams, the future Archbishop of Canterbury who was then the Bishop of Monmouth in the Church in Wales, wrote a lengthy rebuttal. Williams summarized by writing, “I cannot in any way see Bishop Spong’s theses as representing a defensible or even an interesting Christian future. And I want to know whether the Christian past scripture and tradition, really appears to him as empty and sterile as this text suggests.”
Spong attended Virginia Theological Seminary, was ordained as a priest in 1955, and for 20 years served parishes in North Carolina and Virginia, until his election as bishop in 1976. Since retiring as Bishop of Newark in 2000, Spong continued an active career of writing, speaking, and teaching, until suffering a stroke in 2016.
He is survived by his second wife, Christine Mary Spong, and five children. His first wife, Joan Lydia Ketner Spong, died in 1988 after more than 30 years of marriage.
Funeral arrangements for Bishop Spong have not been announced.