There’s been lots of recent attention on United Methodism’s lesbian bishop, Karen Oliveto, against whom the church’s top court recently ruled for violating church law on Christian sexual ethics.
But controversial retired United Methodist Bishop Joseph Sprague, who denied Christ’s eternal deity and other Christian doctrines, recently reemerged, speaking in April in Arlington, Virginia at the National United Methodist Caretakers of God’s Creation Conference, co-organized by United Methodist Women.
Although Oliveto faces further judicial action, Sprague was cleared in 2003 of violating church doctrine. In 1999 Sprague, who was elected bishop in 1996, promoted to his clergy a book by Marcus Borg, a self described “panentheist” who asserted beliefs about Jesus as messiah were invented by the early church.
In 2002 Sprague spoke at United Methodist Iliff Seminary in Denver, where he denied Christ’s virgin birth, bodily resurrection, and atoning death, asserting that Jesus was not born divine but become divine through the faithfulness of his earthly walk, with the implication that others could follow suit. His book repeating this theology, Affirmations of a Dissenter, was published the same year. Sprague suggested an alternative Trinity of Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. (I doubt either MLK or Gandhi would accept this honor!) In 2004 he was arrested performing civil disobedience at the United Methodist General Conference in Cleveland, where he protested church policy against homosexual behavior. Ostensibly during his few moments of incarceration, he wrote “Pastoral Letter from Cleveland,” which attempted to echo Martin Luther King’s more famous message from Birmingham.
Unusually in United Methodism, in which bishops don’t typically challenge each other, Sprague’s heterodox denial of Christ’s eternal deity was publicly critiqued by Florida Bishop Timothy Whitaker and later by North Carolina Bishop Marion Edwards.
Sprague retired in 2004, earlier than required, perhaps due to controversy. A plan for him to become chaplain of the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill was blocked because of his notoriety. He largely has stayed out of the public eye in retirement. In 2013 he wrote a public letter affirming retired Bishop Melvin Talbert’s celebration of a same sex rite in violation of church law. In Social Gospel fashion, Sprague suggested instead that “all United Methodists dedicate ourselves anew to following Jesus by freeing children from poverty, liberating the captives, and working to eliminate violence, mayhem, and war.” He did not explain how Christians, without the foundations of their faith, can indefinitely wage such justice battles.
Last month at the United Methodist Women’s environmental conference Sprague recalled addressing some women prison inmates, most of whom were “fundamentalist Christians,” and one of whom asked him for his ultimate hope, to which he responded:
Let us return to that brutally candid, young Appalachian inmate at the Ohio Reformatory for Women, “OK,” she said in response to my confession, “but when you are down, and believe me, we here in prison know down, what do you do?” Pensively, I responded, “I try to immerse myself in beloved community; to push my too proud self back into the care and company of intimate friends and fellow travelers that I/we might be helped to remember potent empowering stories and ponder anew the Eternal Yes in the heart of the Great Mystery made normatively visible in Jesus.
How likely were these prison inmates to have been inspired by by Sprague’s vague “Great Mystery?” Such rhetoric might fuel seminary trained Methodist activists of a bygone generation but is thin gruel for most people, much less the incarcerated. Liberal Protestant theology typically has a limited audience and shelf life.
Sprague’s open defiance of core Methodist and Christian doctrine nearly twenty years ago illustrates that Methodism’s divisions and theological confusion are not new. Jim Heidinger’s new history of Methodist liberalism, which I reviewed here, recalls the last real heresy trial in Methodism was in 1904, when a a highly influential seminary professor who rejected Christian orthodoxy prevailed.
Liberal theology governed Methodism for most of the 20th century. To whom will the 21st century belong? For all the loud noise from dissidents like Karen Oliveto, whose radical and fast shrinking Western Jurisdiction now has less than three percent of United Methodism’s membership, the demographic future of theological liberalism looks grim. Sprague in his recent speech bemoaned the “increasingly reactionary state of the church.”
By “reactionary” Sprague presumably means a church faithful to apostolic Christianity. The good news is that the apostolic witness always in the end prevails against the faddish alternatives.