Terry Mattingly

Terry Mattingly

On Religion

Bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark, New Jersey, never stuck “Why Christianity Must Change or Die” on the doors of Canterbury Cathedral, since it was easier to post a talking-points version of his manifesto on the internet.

“Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead,” he proclaimed in 1998. “Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity.”

Lacking a personal God, it was logical to add: “Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.”

Spong’s 12-point take on post-theism faith emerged after spending years on the road, giving hundreds of speeches and appearing on broadcasts such as “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Larry King Live.” While leading the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, within shouting range of New York City, he did everything he could to become the news-media face of liberal Christianity.

By the time of his death at the age of 90 — on Sept. 12 at his home in Richmond, Virginia — Spong had seen many of his once-heretical beliefs — especially on sex and marriage — normalized in most Episcopal pulpits and institutions. However, his doctrinal approach was too blunt for many in the mainline establishment, where a quieter “spiritual but not religious” approach has become the norm.

Spong called himself a “doubting believer” and said he had no problem reciting traditional rites and creeds because, in his own mind, he had already redefined the words and images to fit his own doctrines. He also knew when to be cautious, such as during a Denver visit in the late 1980s — an era in which the Diocese of Colorado remained a center for evangelical and charismatic Episcopalians.

After a lecture at the liberal St. Thomas Episcopal Church, I asked Spong if he believed the resurrection of Jesus was a “historic event that took place in real time.”

“I don’t think that I can say what the disciples believed they experienced. I’ll have to think about that some more,” he said, moving on to another question.

The bishop answered a decade later, in his memo calling for a new Reformation: “Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.”

Frequently, Spong floated doctrinal test balloons in The Voice, his diocesan newspaper. Here are some other famous quotations.

On scripture: “The Gospels portray Jesus as believing that David wrote the Psalms, Solomon the Proverbs and Moses the Torah — a position which any graduate from any accredited seminary would today quickly dismiss.”

On the Virgin Mary: “The Mary I see in church history is a de-sexed woman. ... Her humanity has been taken away from her, and I think (Mary) makes a very poor symbol.”

On science: “We have practiced our enormous scientific and technical skills to open doors to aspects of life that once we assigned only to the gods. ... The power of divinity is more and more our own power.”

Spong argued that churches that didn’t embrace modernity were doomed. Nevertheless, during his era, Episcopal Church membership fell from 3.4 million in the 1960s to 1.6 million in 2019, according to official statistics. During Spong’s tenure as bishop (1976-2000), Newark diocese membership declined from 62,732 to 36,674. That number was down to 23,045 in 2019.

Spong was not troubled.

“When Jesus said, ‘Come unto me all ye,’ he did not add, ‘so long as you are not divorced or gay or a woman bishop or a doubter,’” he wrote. “This church of ours may never be the church of the masses; it will never satisfy the emotional needs of the religiously insecure.”

Speaking at Drew Theological School in New Jersey, the bishop also urged believers not to worry about eternity.

“Nobody knows what the afterlife is all about; nobody even knows if there is one,” Spong said in 2010. “All of these images of bliss and punishment, heaven and hell are not about the afterlife at all. They’re about controlling human behavior with fear and guilt. ...

“We don’t need a savior. If Jesus died for your sins, you are one wretched human being. I don’t think that’s good news.”

(Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.)

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