One of the Episcopal Church’s most controversial liberal bishops, whom IRD frequently critiqued, has died. The Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong passed away at his home in North Carolina according to an announcement from the Richmond, Virginia parish he once pastored. He was 90 years old.
The bishop claimed he wanted to “save” Christianity by deleting all parts conflicting with modernism and its particular version of science. But by his life’s end, theological modernism had largely expired, its themes no longer perceived as relevant for persons born after the 1960s.
Spong in his final years belonged to the now largely defunct Jesus Seminar, which voted with marbles on which scriptures were authentic, always rejecting verses that claimed the supernatural. With those scholars, Spong rejected divine interventions, including Jesus’ deity, resurrection, virgin birth and miracles. In the end, Spong denounced theism itself. He also questioned Christian teachings about the afterlife and suggested that their primary purpose was control of human behavior in this life.
“Heaven and Hell have got to go,” the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, New Jersey retired bishop lectured at United Methodist-affiliated Drew Theological School after authoring his 2010 book Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell. “Nobody knows what the afterlife is all about; nobody even knows if there is one.”
Spong served as a bishop from 1976-2000 and was an outspoken proponent of the ordination of noncelibate homosexual clergy within the mainline Protestant church. His revisionist theological views brought him into conflict not only with Episcopal Church traditionalists, but also in the worldwide Anglican Communion. Spong struggled to understand a rapidly growing Global South Christianity that embraced traditional church teachings and upheld a high view of scripture as trustworthy and the Word of God — teachings that he insisted in his 1999 book Why Christianity Must Change or Die were detrimental to the church’s ability to reach modern people.
In a 1998 interview with the Church of England Newspaper, Spong said of Christians in Africa: “They’ve moved out of animism into a very superstitious kind of Christianity. They’ve yet to face the intellectual revolution of Copernicus and Einstein that we’ve had to face in the developing world. That’s just not on their radar screen.”
In dismissing African and Caribbean bishops upset by his remarks, Spong countered, “that’s too bad: I’m not going to cease to be a 20th-century person for fear of offending someone in the Third World.”
Under pressure from fellow Episcopal Church bishops whom he had embarrassed, Spong partly backed down, stating that “superstitious” had been “an unfortunate” word choice.
Spong eventually described himself as a non-theist, rejecting not just historic Christian teachings in the Nicene Creed, but also the very idea of a personal God.
On multiple occasions I had the opportunity to hear from Spong in person as he articulated his revisionist viewpoint.
Memorably in 2013, as Spong preached at the Good Friday service of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, he asserted that several of the apostles were “mythological” and declared that Jesus Christ did not die to redeem humanity from its sins.
In addition to dismissing the historicity of biblical characters, Spong also attacked atonement theology, dismissing blood washing away sins as an “evangelical mantra” and a “barbaric theology.”
“Jesus does not die for your sins in this [John’s] gospel; he dies to make you whole,” Spong announced from the pulpit. “As evolving creatures, the problem is not that we have fallen, but that we are not yet fully human.”
“We are not sinners, the church got that wrong, we are rather incomplete human beings,” Spong concluded.
It remains unclear what aspects of Spong’s legacy might endure. After a 2016 stroke he mostly stepped back from public ministry, and his work fell by the wayside as younger seminarians did not share his modernist perspective. Students at the Episcopal Church’s Virginia Theological Seminary politely received him, but pushed back at his rejection of scriptures — ironically equating the rigidity of his viewpoint with the literalism of fundamentalists with whom he so strongly opposed.
Spong’s 2010 lecture at Drew University — a campus teeming with undergraduates — was memorable for a near-absence of young people. Unfamiliar with the Madison, New Jersey campus, I located the building in which the lecture took place by following a retirement-age lesbian couple. Together we entered a mostly full room in which I counted no more than 4-5 persons without gray or white hair.
But perhaps the most difficult item to square with Spong’s legacy is the Diocese of Newark itself. Among the most liberal parts of the church, Newark reflected more than any other place Spong’s revisionist beliefs. But Episcopalians in Newark declined by more than 43 percent during his tenure from 64,323 to 36,340, a loss of 27,983 members in 21 years — far faster than the denomination as a whole. Interviewed by 60 Minutes host Lesley Stahl for a report on Spong, Former IRD President and Episcopal Church renewal leader Diane Knippers recalled Stahl’s mouth “dropping like a rock” when Knippers shared the diocese’s own statistical report. Shortly after Spong’s retirement, journalist Robert Stowe England noted that the Diocese of Newark under Spong declined at a rate 20.1 percentage points higher than the rate for the entire Episcopal Church across the same time period.
Today, the Diocese of Newark has declined another third, down to 23,045 baptized members in the most recent report (2019). The diocese that most heeded Spong’s words that Christianity must change or die found itself in an uninterrupted collapse across four decades.
Spong’s passing met with words of support from fellow theological revisionists both within and outside of the Episcopal Church:
Rest In Peace, brave bishop. Thank you for giving us so much, challenging us always, and expanding our vision of a loving God. https://t.co/YGuW0up9aQ— Diana Butler Bass (@dianabutlerbass) September 12, 2021
Death in our diocesan family: With sadness we share the news of the death this morning of Bishop John Shelby “Jack” Spong, VIII Bishop of Newark. More information, including funeral arrangements, will be shared as it becomes available. May he rest in peace and rise in glory. pic.twitter.com/c3cJ8OuobL— Diocese of Newark (@dionewark) September 13, 2021
News has come to us that Westar scholar Bishop John Shelby Spong died peacefully in his sleep at his home this morning. His work and witness have inspired and freed many Westar members and a generation of thoughtful people. May his memory be a blessing.https://t.co/nMrgdGvStP pic.twitter.com/cWd9PpMIFw— Westar Institute, Home of the Jesus Seminar (@WestarInstitute) September 12, 2021
Bishop John Shelby Spong, who died Sunday at age 90, led the Diocese of Newark for more than two decades and in 1989 ordained the first openly gay male priest in the Episcopal Church.— Episcopal News Service (@episcopal_news) September 13, 2021
Story: https://t.co/Cecd5eQLmU pic.twitter.com/NIc9SQpKiE
The Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, one of the most influential theologians of liberal Protestantism, died today. He was 90. pic.twitter.com/i8hvUsasNk— Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons (@GuthrieGF) September 12, 2021
first time I read Spong. I was appalled at his “Christian” theology. I asked “How is it that he is a Bishop? after reading more and having the privilege to hear him speak in person I came to love the Grace with which he could question. He helped me to know a bigger God! pic.twitter.com/T7ds16JBKa— Duane Anders (he,him,his) (@DuaneAnders) September 13, 2021
More: Read Mark Tooley’s account of his evening with ecclesiastical provocateur John Shelby Spong here.