‘There are people who think that Europe or North America are the most secular parts of the world. But I would submit that this “honour” is held by New Zealand and Australia’. So wrote John Shelby Spong after visiting Australia in 2001. Most Australians would agree with his observation. But he went on to say that this is only one side of ‘the problem’, the other side being that those who still participate in ‘organized religion’ tend to be either Evangelicals or conservative Roman Catholics constituting ‘ghettoized religious enclaves out of touch with the world in which they live.’
Spong has just completed another speaking tour of Australia, advertised as his ‘last’, thus ensuring an inordinate amount of publicity and large attendances at public lectures, for which, according to his publisher, he was extremely well paid.
He has enjoyed coming here over the years, and the liberal theological establishment that controls most non-Sydney Anglicanism has used his merciless mickytaking of anyone who thinks that distinctively Christian doctrine is still true to undermine the proclamation of the Gospel and the teaching of the faith once delivered to the saints. Back in 2001 the then Archbishop of Brisbane, Peter Hollingworth, no real friend of orthodox Anglicans, banned Spong from preaching in Brisbane parishes. Two years later, his successor Philip Aspinall not only hosted Spong and allowed him to speak in the diocese; he had him preach at St John’s Cathedral! Local priest, liberal biblical scholar and devotee of The Jesus Seminar, Dr Greg Jenks said that Spong was more welcome in Brisbane ‘because of the change in leadership … the Archbishop is more open to exploring … theological questions and challenges.’
As well as Brisbane, Spong visited Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Adelaide and Hobart. Approving articles appeared in the daily newspapers, and every opportunity was used to give him time on TV current affairs programmes and talk-back radio. In his addresses, he denied virtually every article of the Christian Creeds, he sneered at the theologically orthodox (branding all and sundry who do not agree with him as ‘fundamentalists’), and even dismissed the idea of a proper and robust debate in Sydney, saying, ‘I have no desire to be in a debate with people who are defending yesterday’s truth.’ He projected himself as a charming but misunderstood friend of oppressed minorities, reserving his considerable vitriol for those he classified as ‘homophobic’ as well as the opponents of the ordination of women.
Mark Thompson of Moore College, Sydney, wrote in Southern Cross: ‘[Spong’s] own ideas have repeatedly been shown to be contradicted by the evidence and so untrue (eg: NT Wright’s Who Was Jesus? from 1992), yet he continues to insist that he values truth more than anything else. He labels his opponents as arrogant but is reluctant to subject his own theories and speculation to testing by evidence or argument. He simply dismisses all criticism as irrelevant and out of touch … Spong knows how to produce a soundbite, but his soundbites cannot stand up to the facts.’
Of course, to NT Wright, mentioned above, we might add a range of other critics including Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali and Archbishop Rowan Williams (who probably now regrets his throw-away line: ‘the sort of thing that might be asked by a bright twentieth-century sixth former’). The Bishop of Tasmania, John Harrower, more recently said to the Australian media that he was ‘deeply offended by [Spong’s] parody of orthodox Christianity and the recklessness of his teachings.’
Spong caricatures and ridicules the doctrines of the Incarnation, the Trinity, and the resurrection of Jesus, and he has a particular hatred of mainstream Christian ways of viewing Jesus’ death on the cross. In fact in his ‘Twelve Theses’ we read, ‘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.’ It should not surprise us that Spong has joined the long line of people who take exception to the Christian understanding of the Cross (1 Corinthians 1.18–25). What is surprising is his naïve view of human nature that reduces the cross to an act of love that we can imitate at will in all sorts of ways in our relationships in order to make this world a better place. Having eliminated any real concept of our sinfulness, he has, in fact, done away with the need for atonement and redemption.
On Holy Saturday 1999, I turned to The Australian newspaper to see what the various church leaders said about Easter. The only one to really hit the nail on the head was Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell, who said that Easter was: ‘a promise that love will have the last word, that goodness will prevail, and the scales of justice will balance out across eternity’.
We instinctively cry out for love. In Jesus we discover the God who loves us with an everlasting love. Spong is right when he says that we ‘can see the death of Jesus as a total self-giving of the love of God’ or ‘God loving wastefully’. But Spong forgets that we cry out just as instinctively for justice – look at the way the vast majority of people reacted to the bombing of the World Trade Centre. Both Catholics and Evangelicals have traditionally spoken of the cross as the place where ‘heavenly love and heavenly justice meet’. This is a great mystery involving God himself entering the horror of the consequences of our sin, and ordinary Christians are right to be affronted when Spong seeks to dispose of it by means of slick clichés intended to endear himself to the cynics of our age.
It is far more helpful to read von Balthazar in Mysterium Paschale:
The injustice is not cleared away by half-measures and compromises, but by drastic measures which make a clean sweep of it, so that all the world’s injustice is consumed by the total wrath of God, that the total righteousness of God may be accessible to the sinner. That is the Gospel according to Paul who sees the fulfilment of the directional meaning of the entire Old Testament in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ … That is not myth, but the central biblical message and, where Christ’s Cross is concerned, it must not be rendered innocuous.
The theologically liberal bits of Australian Christianity are declining. It is ironical and appropriate that their pin-up boy is the bishop who from 1978 to 1996 presided over a documented 48% decline of membership in his Diocese of Newark. In fact, while from 1990 to 1995 ECUSA as a whole declined 6.7%, the Diocese of Newark declined 13.9%!
The theologically orthodox are glad that Spong’s last visit to these shores is over.
David Chislett is Rector of All Saints, Wickham Terrace Brisbane