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John Shelby Spong: Bishop who championed inclusiveness in the church

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Reverend John Shelby Spong, liberal theologian and former bishop who rocked the modern Episcopal Church, defending the inclusion of women and LGBTQ + people in the clergy while promoting a non-literal interpretation of scripture, has died at the age of 90 years old.

Spong was an outspoken leader of the liberal wing of the church, known for his efforts to open the faith to marginalized groups and preach a message of love and justice that would resonate in an increasingly secular age. He gained an international profile by writing more than twenty books, appearing on television shows such as Oprah and Larry King Live, and served as Bishop of Newark, where he served as the spiritual leader of some 40,000 Episcopalians in northern New Jersey from 1979 to 2000.

As a theologian, he was known to question some of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, including the virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus, and the existence of miracles. These views infuriated Christian leaders who called him a heretic, despite being part of a long tradition of theologians who argued that taking the Bible literally was to miss the truth behind its teachings. .

“He was trying to find the core and sweep the envelope of what it meant to follow Jesus. He was always looking for that truth, ”said Reverend Canon Kelly Brown Douglas, canon theologian at Washington National Cathedral and dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary. “What he really understood is that doctrine, dogma, doesn’t make us Christians. Doctrine, dogma, don’t make us a church. What makes us a church is respecting the sanctity of every human being and creating a world that does that and making sure the church leads the world in that direction.

Raised with fundamentalist Christian values ​​in Jim Crow-era North Carolina, Spong learned in his youth that gays were sinners, women were subordinate to men, and African Americans were inferior to whites. He should always say “Monsieur” and “Madame” to his elders, his father told him, as long as they are not black.

But as the civil rights movement took hold, Spong preached to black and white congregations, striving to shake off what he described as “residual racism” from his upbringing.

“I happen to believe that the image of God is in every human being, and that every human being should [be treated] with ultimate respect… And black people in America were the first to tell me that very clearly, ”he said in a 2001 interview with ABC, Australia’s national broadcaster.

Spong then expanded his ministry to encompass struggles for gender equality and LGBTQ + rights. Shortly after arriving in the Diocese of Newark in 1976 as Coadjutor Bishop, a stepping stone to the bishop, the diocese became one of the first to ordain women to the priesthood. In 1989 he ordained to the episcopal priesthood the first openly gay man, the Reverend Robert Williams, who had written to Spong after reading his book. Live in sin? A bishop rethinks human sexuality.

A lesbian, the Reverend Ellen Barrett, had been ordained to the priesthood more than a decade earlier. But Williams’ ordination made national headlines – Spong had sent letters to all bishops in the church, urging them to attend – and brought the issue of openly gay clergy to the fore, threatening to divide the denomination.

The church’s House of Bishops voted to censor Spong in 1990. But over the next two decades, the tide turned in favor of LGBTQ + rights: an Episcopal Church court ruled in 1996 that it did not There was no “basic doctrine” against the ordination of gay and lesbian men, and in 2003 Reverend V Gene Robinson was consecrated as the church’s first openly gay bishop. The church voted in 2015 to allow religious marriages for same-sex couples.

Spong was “a prophet,” Robinson said in a telephone interview, using the term to mean “someone who speaks the truth in power, who says those things that people don’t want to hear because it calls off. in question their morality and their life. question”.

“I stand on his shoulders,” he added. “Without the work he has done and the ministry he has done and the advocacy for LGBTQ + people he has done, I wouldn’t be a bishop. He did it long before it was popular or politically correct – he did it because he believed it was the gospel.

John Shelby Spong was born in Charlotte, North Carolina on June 16, 1931. His father was a salesman who struggled with alcoholism and died when Spong was 12 years old. A cousin, William Spong Jr, later entered politics as a Democrat of Virginia, serving in the United States Senate from 1966 to 1973.

Spong said the biggest influence on his upbringing was his mother, who was part of a strict Presbyterian sect that refused to play hymns because the lyrics were not “God’s words.” He then targeted this kind of biblical literalism in his books and sermons, relating The New York Times in 1996 he was looking “to find a way that people who despair of fundamentalism can have a home in this church.”

After graduating from the University of North Carolina in 1952, he received a master’s degree in divinity from Virginia Theological Seminary in 1955. The same year he was ordained a priest and married Joan Lydia Ketner, who died in 1988.

He married Christine Mary Bridger, an administrator of the Archdiocese of Newark who continued to edit his work, in 1990. In addition to his wife, the survivors include five children, a sister and six grandchildren.

Before being consecrated Coadjutor Bishop, Spong served 20 years in North Carolina and Virginia. As rector of St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond – also known as Confederation Cathedral because it was where Robert E Lee and Jefferson Davis once worshiped – he removed the Confederate flag that fluttered above of the building. In the mid-1970s, he invited a rabbi to speak, which led to a picket line of fundamentalist Christians who insisted that he try to baptize his Jewish visitors.

Spong has sometimes been accused of being a self-promoter, more interested in making the news than looking after his herd. But he embraced his role as the brand of his faith, telling the Bergen dossier in 1987, “The Episcopal Church has always had someone who raised the issues that forced the Church’s agenda. There is no doubt that I am that person now.

After retiring as bishop in 2000, he maintained a steady stream of public appearances, giving more than 175 speeches per year at colleges, seminaries and churches, according to a statement from the Diocese of Virginia.

“The older I get, the more deeply I believe but the less beliefs I have,” he said. Information service on religion in 2013, citing a maxim he learned from an older bishop. “And I think that’s probably where I am. I have a kind of mystical consciousness [of God] it’s indescribable, but I can’t avoid it. When I am asked to define God, I am almost wordless.

John Shelby Spong, born June 16, 1931, died September 12, 2021

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