John Shelby Spong, 90, Dies; Sought to Open Up the Episcopal Church

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Bishop Spong pushed for women successful the clergy and same-sex marriage, and helium called connected his followers to cull “supernatural” aspects of Christianity.

Bishop John Shelby Spong successful  an undated photo. He utilized  a operation  of personage  and tireless penning  and speaking to unfastened  up   the Episcopal Church.
Credit...Keith Beaty/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Clay Risen

Sept. 19, 2021, 11:50 a.m. ET

John Shelby Spong, a charismatic Episcopal bishop who pushed his followers to judge women and L.G.B.T.Q. clergy, and who aboriginal called connected them to cull sacrosanct ideas similar Jesus’ virgin commencement and the beingness of eden and hell, died connected Sept. 12 astatine his location successful Richmond, Va. He was 90.

His decease was announced by the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, wherever helium had served arsenic bishop from 1976 to 2000.

Bishop Spong combined personage with tireless penning and speaking, possibly much than immoderate different wide theologian successful the precocious 20th century, to unfastened up the Episcopal Church, and the planetary Anglican Church of which it is simply a part. He was the archetypal American bishop to ordain a pistillate into the clergy, successful 1977, and the archetypal to ordain an openly cheery man, successful 1989.

“He brought truthful galore radical backmost to the church,” Bishop Bonnie Perry of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan said successful an interview. “He talked astir theological matters successful a mode that caused radical who felt excluded by the religion oregon conscionable bored to beryllium up and listen.”

Through much than 25 books, arsenic good arsenic speaking schedules that often included 200 events a twelvemonth and regular appearances connected the speech shows of Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donahue and others, Bishop Spong urged his religion to reconcile with modernity, adjacent if that meant mounting speech supernatural ideas similar Jesus’ resurrection. That presumption drew aggravated support, but it besides drew arsenic aggravated disapproval from the church’s traditionalist wing.

“If you wanted to spot a frown connected a accepted Episcopalian’s face, you conscionable had to notation John Shelby Spong,” said Mark Tooley, the president of the Institute connected Religion and Democracy, a blimpish deliberation tank.

Bishop Spong became a nationalist personage successful the mid-1980s, erstwhile helium began calling connected the religion to reconsider its presumption connected cheery rights. He urged his colleagues not lone to judge openly cheery clergy, but besides to invited openly cheery and lesbian worshipers into their congregations and to bless same-sex unions.


Credit...Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

“My consciousness is if the Episcopal Church can’t basal situation wrong its ain ranks, past it is not a religion I would privation to beryllium a subordinate of anyway,” helium told The New York Times successful 1989.

That twelvemonth helium ordained Robert Williams, an openly cheery man, arsenic a priest. (Ellen Barrett, a lesbian, had been ordained astir a decennary before.) Bishop Spong understood the contention helium was stirring — successful fact, helium invited each Episcopal bishop successful the state to attend.

Nine months aboriginal helium was censured by his colleagues, but helium continued to ordain cheery and lesbian priests — astatine slightest 35 by the clip helium retired successful 2000, helium claimed, including Bishop Perry. The religion yet followed his lead: In 1996 an Episcopal tribunal ruled that homosexuality was not antagonistic to its principles, and successful 2015 the religion recognized same-sex marriage.

If Bishop Spong’s presumption connected women and L.G.B.T.Q. clergy enactment him connected the borderline of the mainstream, his theological views enactment him good extracurricular it. He taught that the Gospels should beryllium considered creator interpretations of Jesus’ life, not literal accounts of it, and helium called connected Christians to cull ideas, similar archetypal sin, that could not beryllium explained by science.

Those views, adjacent much than his societal activism, attracted millions of followers, arsenic good arsenic countless critics. Writing successful National Review successful 1988, William Murchison called Bishop Spong “the latest successful a agelong enactment of close reverend goofballs,” chastising him for calling connected the religion to crook toward modern nine alternatively than the different mode around.

Traditionalists particularly disliked his take-no-quarter approach, which they felt made it hard to person a dialogue.

“He ever pushed the envelope, successful effect made it hard for different points of presumption to coexist,” Paul F.M. Zahl, a retired Episcopal priest, said successful an interview. “You benignant of felt you were being told to turn up, that helium was preaching an big mentation of Christianity.”

Bishop Spong’s assertive liberalism often got him successful trouble. After a salient Nigerian bishop attempted to exorcise the “homosexual demons” from a cheery clergyman astatine an Anglican league successful 1998, Bishop Spong denounced African Anglicans arsenic backward.

“They’ve moved retired of animism into a precise superstitious benignant of Christianity,” helium told a newsman for an Episcopal newspaper. “They’ve yet to look the intelligence gyration of Copernicus and Einstein that we’ve had to look successful the processing world.”

He aboriginal apologized for his comment, but helium remained outspoken. A period later, writing successful The New York Times, helium said that the religion faced an existential crisis, and that his signifier of liberalism was the lone solution.

“If the Anglican Church becomes dedicated to preserving prejudices, our followers whitethorn good ballot with their feet,” helium wrote. “The clip is getting critically adjacent erstwhile determination volition nary longer beryllium a pursuing important capable to crook this tide.”


Credit...Brendan Bannon for The New York Times

John Shelby Spong was calved connected June 16, 1931, successful Charlotte, N.C. His father, besides named John Shelby Spong, ran a wholesale java and beverage concern but died erstwhile his lad was 12. His mother, Doolie Boyce (Griffith) Spong, was a strict Calvinist who refused to sing hymns due to the fact that they were not the connection of God — a fundamentalism that Bishop Spong aboriginal said offered a steadfast ground for his rejection of Christian orthodoxy.

He graduated from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, successful 1952, and joined Joan Lydia Ketner a fewer months later. She died successful 1988.

He is survived by his 2nd wife, Christine Mary (Bridger) Spong, whom helium joined successful 1990; his sister, Betty Marshall; his daughters, Mary Katharine Spong, Ellen Elizabeth Spong and Jaquelin Ketner Spong; a stepdaughter, Rachel Carter; a stepson, Brian Barney; and six grandchildren.

He received a master’s grade successful divinity from the Virginia Theological Seminary successful 1955 and, aft his ordination, served arsenic rector for churches successful North Carolina and Virginia.

As a achromatic progressive curate successful the South during the civilian rights era, helium often recovered himself astatine likelihood with his community, particularly erstwhile helium insisted connected preaching to Black congregations. He and his household faced regular threats and harassment, and helium aboriginal claimed that the Ku Klux Klan of eastbound North Carolina had labeled him their No. 1 enemy.

In 1969 helium became the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church successful Richmond, a storied instauration known arsenic the cathedral of the Confederacy due to the fact that some Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis had worshiped there.

Among the changes helium instituted was to region the Confederate emblem that flew implicit the religion — “a symbol,” helium aboriginal said, “of the K.K.K. and radical oppression and segregation and Alabama shot and each sorts of things I did not support.”

In 1976 helium moved to New Jersey, wherever helium was elected bishop and assumed the enactment of the Newark diocese, a portion covering 7 counties and immoderate 64,000 congregants. (His critics pointed retired that the fig declined precipitously nether his tenure, to astir 36,000 by the clip helium near successful 2000, a overmuch faster diminution than the religion saw overall.)

After helium retired, Bishop Spong went connected a two-year planetary speaking tour. He was not ever welcome: In 2001 the bishop of Brisbane, Australia, barred him from speaking successful his diocese.

He besides continued to preach, chiefly astatine St. Paul’s successful Richmond. In a 2013 sermon, helium said that respective of the apostles were “mythological” and claimed that the conception that Jesus’ humor had washed distant the sins of Christians was “barbaric theology.”

“As evolving creatures, the occupation is not that we person fallen, but that we are not yet afloat human,” helium said. “We are not sinners, the religion got that wrong; we are alternatively incomplete quality beings.”

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