The Christian church needs to leave behind its literal view of the Bible, its vision of God as a punitive tyrant and its denigration of gays, Bishop John Shelby Spong said in a special appearance at the College on April 6. It is time to hit the restart button and create a modern faith that speaks to the people of today, he added.
“Throughout our history we Christians have defined ourselves by our victims: Jews, Muslims, women, blacks. And now our victim is homosexuals,” said Spong, the retired Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Spong’s unorthodox theological views underscored his talk, “Homosexuality: The Battleground for a Dying Form of Christianity,” to an audience of more than 300 at the Frick Center. The lecture was part of the College’s yearlong focus on religion in public life, Still Speaking: Conversations on Faith.
Spong said his church in North Carolina taught that homosexuals were evil. “We didn’t have any in the South,” he joked. “I never heard the word until I was 16. I didn’t have any framework for understanding it.” The liberal approach was to treat it as an illness, he noted. The conservative approach assumed homosexuals were morally depraved and sought to convert them.
Spong carried the prejudices of his upbringing well into his life in ministry, until he met a priest in his diocese who was in a committed same-sex relationship. He also learned that his diocese included communities with a significant gay population. “I realized I would never be an effective bishop in this part of the country unless I learned something about homosexuality,” he said.
He read research, spoke with doctors at Cornell Medical Center in New York and came to the conclusion that “homosexuality is not a choice. It is simply a minority in the spectrum of human sexuality.”
Struggles have strengthened the church
The notion that the Bible is clear on the topic is “absolute balderdash,” he said, and went on to explicate biblical references to homosexuality in Leviticus, the letters of Paul, and Genesis. He added a lengthy exegesis on the “weird story” of Sodom and Gomorrah, which ends with Lot’s daughters having sex with their father to continue the bloodline. “They don’t read you that part of the story in church,” Spong added.
There are a lot of ways to read the Bible, Spong said, “but literally is not one of them.”
If you look carefully at the Christ story, he said, at its heart is the idea that no one is separate from the love of God. “You and I cannot be fully human if we denigrate any other person’s humanity. It is our purpose to give life abundantly. There is no room for prejudice in that vocation.”
Spong, who will be 80 in June, is “one of the most significant theological figures in the late 20th century, worldwide,” said the Very Rev. Joy Rogers, dean of St. James Cathedral, the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago. “He is a strong and engaging preacher and he has been a stunning prophetic voice to a church that prefers something more polite.
“On the ordination of women he was ahead,” she said. “On sexual orientation, he never apologized, never looked back.”
Spong noted that the changes in the Episcopal church on issues of race, gender, and sexuality in his lifetime have been breathtaking. When he was a boy in Charlotte, his church was so segregated that any person of color who appeared at worship would have been arrested. Today, the Episcopal bishop of North Carolina is a black man.
Women also have made progress. Today the church has more than 20 female bishops, including the presiding bishop, or elected head of the U.S. Episcopal church.
While Spong said he is disappointed by the willingness of some Christian denominations to continue in a theology of exclusion, he said he is “fairly pleased” with the movement of the Episcopal church in the United States. The struggles over women priests, race relations, and human sexuality have strengthened it, he said. “My sense is, it’s healthier today than it’s been in a long time.”