ONE OF THE KEYS to great comedy is timing. The same may be said of some aspects of journalism. Just as last week’s scoop is today’s chip wrapper so there can be a danger that last month’s pertinent interview can, in the light of subsequent events, be transformed from news to archaeology. An interview with John Spong, at the height of the Lambeth Conference crisis, seemed a triumph of providence and opportunism. In the wake of the subsequent events there, it may have the syndication value of the collected thoughts of Goliath in the Ashkelon Gazette.
The truth is that liberalism, and its most outspoken protagonist, received its first serious setback in many years at Lambeth – and not just on sexual matters. The third world bishops had come to do some militant evangelism to mother church on many fronts. Defeat, setback or compromise is unfamiliar territory to western liberal triumphalism and it is unlikely that one such victory for conservatives will undo forty years growing liberal domination. The liberal hierarchies of the western church have been chastened but they have not been unseated from power – no such mechanism currently exists. They have received a very clear message from their fellow Christians and, indeed, their own constituents that more traditional leadership is urgently required if the church is to thrive and do its job.
The importance of the John Spong story is not any particular doctrinal outrage he may have committed but rather that he is a classic symptom of the logical end of liberalism – certainly not the cause of the crisis. Jack Spong, in revealing the reductio ad absurdum of their retreat from orthodoxy, made it impossible, in the end, for many liberals to vote for liberalism.
His story is instructive in that it reveals, in microcosm, much of what has happened to the American Episcopal church and its disproportionate influence on the Anglican Communion.
As reported in last month’s issue, I had no sooner stepped on to the campus at Kent University than I bumped into Bishop Spong. I introduced myself and gave him the opportunity to be interviewed for ‘New Directions’.
There was a hesitation when he realised what this meant. (Spong once labelled The Church of England Newspaper “a most dangerous publication”. He had seen it when it still carried New Directions as its monthly supplement).
But the hesitation was momentary and his agreement to talk was not even derailed by his sudden recollection that this must mean I was a friend of Geoffrey Kirk! He smiled warmly and confided, “?Geoffrey and I are really very fond of each other; it’s just that he can’t admit it”?. Well, you wouldn’t expect us reactionaries to be sufficiently in touch with our feelings to know these things.
We headed up campus to the cafeteria for cover, quiet and a table for my notes.
As we approached the entrance, an American woman priest greeted Spong and threw her arms around him. “You lovely atheist, you”, she cried and launched into a conversation about his latest book – the one that denies every item of the Creed. Spong made a remark which could have become the epitaph for his Lambeth. “The greatest pain comes from being betrayed by your friends”. It was referring to those liberal hierarchs who privately shared his analysis but felt it impolitic publicly to espouse such root and branch denials of the faith. Towards the end of the conference it was fascinating to see how many fellow travellers felt it impossible to vote with Spong on areas where they were known to be in profound agreement because it had become uncomfortable so to do.
Over a cup of tea, I asked him
Where did you begin?
“North Carolina. My mum was a housewife and a strict Presbyterian. My father was a travelling salesman in tea and coffee who went to church at Easter, if necessary.”
Did you attend?
“Oh yeah. Regular Sunday School and I loved it. It was very evangelical. Later on I went to sing in the boys choir. By the age of 14 I had given up being evangelical – there were too many intellectual problems with that position – and became a strong Anglo-Catholic.
Was there anyone who especially influenced you?
“Yes, a priest called Robert Crandall – remarkable man. He became a father substitute for me. My own father died when I was quite small and we were left in abject poverty. I wanted to be like this priest. Sadly he was later forced out because of his alcoholism.”
What were you good at in school?
“Nothing really. But I managed to get to the University of North Carolina – the first member of my family to go to college. I discovered I had a brain; I was so excited. I completed a four-year course in three years, drinking it in like water in a desert. I got academic honours Phi Beta Kappa – 96% in philosophy with a zoology subsidiary. I was immersed in the world of ideas and I couldn’t get enough.”
“Evangelical seminary – sort of low church liberal at Alexandria, Virginia. The motto was ‘Seek the truth of God – come whence it may, cost what it will!.’ I’ve tried to hold to that”
Spong is just telling me about the influence of Clifford Stanley, a Tillichian theologian, when the Primus of Scotland drops by at our table. He just wants to know if “Jack” is still on for the throwing of mitres into the Thames on the Lambeth day’s outing in London. “Jack”? assures him that he is. In the end the much advertised event, even trailed by George Carey in his opening address, does take place. The press, by then, are too bored to report this piece of episcopal showbiz.
To “Jack” and “Dick” it is a sign of their casting away of power and imperialism. To many orthodox believers, it is a long overdue acknowledgement that their denial of the inspiration of scripture disqualifies them from wearing the pentecostal tongues of fire that signify the apostolic consecration.
We moved on to Spong’s family. Last Lambeth there had been a considerable rumour mill about him, his wife, his friendships with staff, etc etc. My experience of the C of E has taught me that the best way to get to the bottom of gossip is to ask the direct question.
Tell me about your first wife?
“We were married when I was 21. Joan and I had 3 daughters – Ellen, now vice-president of a bank in Virginia; Katherine, an attorney in Richmond; and Jacquelin working in High-Tech in Silicon Valley. Joan died in 1988 while I was at Lambeth. It was unexpected – the doctors had told me she was in no danger when I came away here. She had had cancer for fifteen years and been mentally ill much longer. She wouldn’t leave the house, thought the FBI was after her – that sort of thing. But I could’nt bring myself to commit her. Two years after she died, I married Christina”.
Where was your first parish?
“Next Duke University – just off campus – a little church serving mill workers in the cotton community. We had a congregation of uneducated and PhDs in the same pews. I loved it – especially dealing with disillusioned kids – the struggle between faith and education that is always a problem for fundamentalists. Their questions were faced up to.”
“Eastern North Carolina – a rural church. It was the time of the desegregation of public schools – the rights of blacks being established. I escorted them to school and was pronounced ‘anathema’? for my action. By the time I left, the Chamber of Commerce had made me “Man of the Year”? – that was how far things had been transformed.”
It is curious to reflect at once on the courage this must have taken to defend the civil rights of black children and then recall that this is the same man who, just that week, had offended the African conservative bishops by pronouncing them one generation away from witch doctors! Spong was eventually got to say he was sorry to have offended them but he very noticeably did not withdraw what he had said.
“From there I went to Lynchberg, Virginia – right across the road from the evangelist Gerry Falwell and then on to Richmond, the capital, a very conservative southern city. It was an establishment church, genteel, aristocratic. The Governor and the Bishop were in the congregation. We must have had 70 -80 doctors and lawyers. There was a great programme of adult teaching – my Bible class had about 300 in it. Many of my books came out of that class. Lay people are not stupid and we dealt with biblical criticism and radical questions. The talk on the Virgin Birth we ran out of seats. People were so relieved that it was OK to question it. It helped them enjoy Christmas a whole lot more I love teaching. The semester after I retire I’m doing a Harvard lectureship. I think of myself as an academic manqué”.
How did you get to be bishop of Newark?
“I had originally been put in for Delaware but had withdrawn because I felt no call. In Newark, I only knew two clergy and that it was a progressive diocese. Previous bishops had marched with Martin Luther King and opposed the Vietnam War. I was elected in 1976. I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved there – 5 of my clergy have become bishops and 4 have become deacons. We have given some great leaders to the American church.”
How did you get involved in the sexual debate”?
“I arrived in Newark a traditional homophobe without knowing it. There was a very big gay population and they came to talk to me. I responded that I would not persecute but I would not encourage. In 1979 in the national debate, the bishops I respected most were pro-gay but I still didn’t decide or sign the statement of conscience. In 1985 the Commission on Patterns in Family Life reported on marriage, living together and gay and lesbian unions. In 1987 we voted to receive and study this report across the dioceses and in 1988 passed it and recognised gay and lesbian relationships.”
Then you wrote a book?
“Yes. A Methodist publishing house asked me for a book, I’d already written five – on Sex and the Bible – Living in Sin? When I produced it, the editor panicked and cancelled the book. It made national news and nine publishers came in for it. I did a nationwide tour and various talk shows. I’d studied all the medical papers at Cornell with my medical advisor, Dr Lehita (he was an RC. but he came over) and there is irrefutable proof that homosexuality is given, not chosen, and there’s nothing wrong with it. The only negative is rejection!”
Spong speaks with a charm and certainty that makes it difficult to understand why medical researchers, churchmen, ethicists and homosexuals themselves are still wrestling with this conundrum.
Aren’t there fundamental biological contra-indicators to homosexual practice?
“I was arguing on affectional relationships. Besides plenty of heterosexuals practise anal sex, not that I do myself, you understand.”
Your latest book reads as a total denial of the Christian faith.
“It explains why Christianity must change or die. I’ve written it for what I call ‘believers in exile’. It’s on its third printing already and my mail is 3:1 in favour. The laity are for it and the clergy against, broadly speaking. What I am saying is that there is a difference between the experience of God and its translation. Fourth and fifth century terms don’t translate.”?
Give me some examples
“The doctrine of the Ascension can’t survive the Copernican revolution – the discovery that we don’t live in a three tier universe. Darwinism demolishes original sin and the fall of man – we are evolving higher and higher. Therefore Jesus as a sacrifice for sin makes no sense – it is a repellent image. Jesus is not a redeemer, a rescuer but God calling us to deeper and fuller humanity beyond divisions.”
The twentieth century doesn’t offer much comfort to this theory of evolutionary goodness, does it?
And however interesting your thinking, it simply isn’t Christian.
“I’m writing for the non-committed – where christian symbols are not meaningful. I’m an evangelist to church drop-outs. I’ve no objection to traditionalists using symbols but I try to redefine God in non-theistic terms like the mystics and the process theologians. I get letters saying ‘You’ve given me a way to stay in the Christian church with integrity.”
Isn’t this just ‘Don Cupitt rides again’?
“I differ significantly from Don. “Sea of Faith” has the best analysis of the crisis but not the solution. God is a human construct but it points to something absolutely real. God in Christ is the experience though the explanations can come from all over the place. We are looking for new words for an old experience. I hope the new words will be consistent because the experience is. Christ in Canterbury now is the same as the 1st century experience but we wouldn’t call him Paschal Lamb or Son of Man. Christianity was formed in the pre-modern world. There has been an intellectual revolution. How can we sing the Lord’s song in this world? That’s the question.”
And here we must stop. Spong has already been over-generous with his time and is late for a study group. The question of why you pray if there is no supernatural being and what he thinks he is doing at the altar hang in the air. A celebration of improving humanity? who knows?
Spong does not have two horns and a tail. He is simply the most publicly articulate of a great number of western bishops of his generation. Faced with the collapse of a simplistic literalism, they have fled into the arms of secularism and causes. The husk of faith they have abandoned they caricature as orthodoxy. It is as if the Fathers had never written, no previous generation wrestled with the inexhaustible mystery of the transcendent in the immanent.
Saddest of all, perhaps, is the constantly repeated delusion that this is all making the church relevant to those outside. The evidence is to the contrary and nowhere could this have been clearer than at Lambeth recently. The liberal hierarchies of the western church presiding over massive and continuing decline – the second and third worlds, trying to be biblically obedient, experiencing extraordinary growth. Of course, sociologists and demographers will find a thousand complex reasons why this should be so. I tend to the simpler view articulated by my father before he became a Christian. Having just read the latest outpourings of a senior agnostic English bishop, he exploded:
“Well if you b—–s don’t believe it, why should I?”
Robbie Low is Vicar of St. Peter’s, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St. Alban’s