Friday, May 13, 2011

Jack Spong in Lynchburg

I had the opportunity to hear Bishop John Spong when he spoke in Lynchburg about 10 years ago. Since Spong is frequently referenced by writers to the Lynchburg newspaper, I thought some might appreciate my take on the man.

Jack Spong is a very funny man. He is a master of the clever quip, the amusing anecdote, the humorous aside--an entertaining speaker. He is the kind of person who would probably be an enjoyable companion for drinks or dinner. But as a bishop, as a shepherd of the people of Christ's church, I find him anything but a reliable guide.

The crowd nearly filled the large sanctuary at St. John's church in Lynchburg this evening, and welcomed back its most famous rector. Jack Spong served this, one of Lynchburg's influential and wealthy congregations, during some troubling years of the late 1960's. Now Spong declares that every book he has written (his 18th will soon be released) had its beginning in the adult Sunday School class he taught during those four years in Lynchburg.

The bishop is introduced as, and he seems to style himself as, a man who has fought courageously all his life against prejudice and ignorance. As the reverend relates his life's story, we learn that he had the good fortune of being, from the age of 3 1/2 years, morally superior to his parents. He recalls an incident when, at that age, his father severely reprimanded him for addressing the black workmen at his home as "sir." He admits he didn't understand fully, but he says he knew then that his father was wrong.

His life's story is a fascinating one. It seems he once held every prejudice known to man, but had the great good fortune of overcoming them all. The racial thing was overcome at an early age, but it took a few more years to overcome the anti-Semitism, chauvinism, homophobia, and biblical fundamentalism he absorbed from his Episcopalian home and Sunday School.

One of the many anecdotes that fail to ring true was his saying that growing up in his church he never knew that Jesus and the disciples were Jewish. Jews were always bad people, he was taught. Jesus was light skinned and blue-eyed. Spong thought he was a Swede!

Another thing he ascribes to conservative Christian faith is the idea that only men are made in the image of God. Again, it strains credulity to suggest that such an idea was at all common even in the most fundatmentalist churches within the bishop's lifetime.

Perhaps the most outrageous statement of the evening was his assertion that the Ten Commandments are immoral. He believes they are immoral because the commandments assume that women are the property of men (the 7th and 10th commandments imply this, he says.) Some of his most effective laugh lines were delivered in making this point about his overcoming his prejudice against women.

Throughout the lecture, the bishop derided a conservative view of scripture, appealing to the idea that since the Bible has been interpreted in ways that we find unacceptable today, the Bible cannot be a reliable guide to us today. In doing this it is the bishop's unfortunate tendency to misrepresent what the Bible actually says. For instance, he says that Deuteronomy teaches that a child that talks back to his parents must be stoned to death. "How many of you every talked back to your parents?" the bishop asks. "How many of you would be here today if this law were enforced?" Surely even he knows that this is not the intention of the passage (Deut. 21: 18f) that speaks of the execution of incorrigible sons. But this is the way Spong usually refers to Scripture with which he is uncomfortable. He presents it in its most unfavorable light, or actually distorts it, to the evident delight of his audience.

The bishop spoke of the challenge of overcoming homophobia in his own life, in his diocese of Newark, the house of bishops, and the church at large. He tells of the vast opposition among the church leadership to his ordination of an openly homosexual priest in 1989, but evidently feels vindicated in that today most bishops of the church are on his side of this issue. Bishop Spong seems to have indeed led a wave of change in the Episcopal Church USA, and we can expect if trends continue in this direction. the church membership will be so liberated from its past that they will no longer know who they are, and the ECUSA will quietly fade into oblivion.

The Rt. Rev. Spong ended his talk and the congregation responded with a lengthy standing ovation. My hands were still; I remained in my seat. I was entertained, this is true, but I somehow expect more from a bishop.

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