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John Selby Spong's Personal Dilemma

reprinted from the Spring-Summer 2003-04 edition of Essentials


   John Spong has every appearance of being caught in a profound personal dilemma. He cannot bring himself to practise what he preaches. Tim Harris is the senior minister of the Kensington and Norwood Team Ministry in Adelaide and is also the Chairman of EFAC in SA. He has just completed his Ph.D on a Pauline theology of humility as the subversion of status.  
   Bishop Spong has a great ability to tell us what he thinks, but he is unable to let go of his attachment to the culture and customs of the historic Church, whose faith he now rejects. In one candid passage in Why Christianity Must Change or Die,1 Spong recognises the inherent inconsistency in his situation, and of his inability to let go:
   "Worship, both private and corporate, continues to be a major part of my own life, even as I walk deeper and deeper into the exile. I do not think this can be explained simply by saying that worship is a habit of my lifetime. As a bishop I engage in, indeed I lead, corporate worship with great regularity… In those services I still use the traditional prayers of my faith community, despite their strange, archaic, and sometimes unbelievable literal content. I still confess my sins. I make my deepest desire known to God in my petitions and intercessions. I still express my profound sense of thanksgiving. I still listen to the readings from the sacred scriptures, which continue to intrigue me even though some of the passages are absolutely bizarre and even offensive…
   Honesty compels me to admit that most of my difficulties with the words and concepts of worship arise from the fact that these words assume the truth of the theistic definition of God." (173-174)
   In a passage of personal reflection (173-175), Spong notes the influence of academic theologians such as Paul Tillich on a whole generation of clergy, many now in positions of senior leadership in the church. While their theological mentors had the freedom of remaining in academic institutions "where they talked about this theological revolution only to one another", Spong and others of his generation had the pastoral responsibility for translating such thought into the realities of parish life as they led worship, baptised, confirmed, married, buried and counseled. However, it has to be said that given a working lifetime devoted to seeking to bring some consistency between theological belief and meaningful expression, Spong still appears to be locked into using patterns of worship and formulations in public worship that he does not genuinely believe or even feel comfortable with.   
  This dilemma is also seen starkly in his personal presentation. Spong is at his strongest in denouncing the feudal character of the traditional church, and at this point I agree with his criticisms (although not his theological rationale):  
   "We noted earlier that this priestly power was born in that unique but primitive claim that the designated holy person could somehow stand between the theistic God above and the fragile life of the human below. The priestly person claimed the ability and the right of interpreting the ways of God to human life… the priest claimed the power to decide how God was properly to be worshiped and what God required in terms of people's ethical behavior. In a believing age, the people accepted this claim with remarkable acquiescence. (179)   
   Today that superstructure of ecclesiastical privilege is tottering before our eyes. Its fall is inevitable, for it was built on the theistic premise that in our day has been eroded to the point of nonexistence…. Worship beyond the exile will surely reflect the loss of priestly power and priestly privilege. I suspect, for example, that a lay person will preside at the Eucharist during the next century, even in Catholic circles. It is inevitable…   
   [Another] symbol of the Church's shift away from theism is seen in that this loss of priestly power is now affecting the haberdashery worn by the ordained, especially the vestments worn by the hierarchy… The bishop's mitre is indeed a thinly disguised crown. The bishop's cope, which accompanies the mitre, is an ecclesiastical version of the king's royal cape. The bishop's ring is reminiscent of the royal signet ring with which the king sealed his official documents. The bishop's crosier (pastoral staff) is a replica of the king's royal staff. The bishop's chair, like the king's chair, is called "the throne," and people kneel at the feet of the bishop seated on his throne, when they are confirmed. Finally, the bishop's house is called "the palace"… One wonders who bishops are fooling. Today… the opinions of bishops on most subjects are widely ignored. Yet our costumes seek to disguise the fact that we are engaged in a massively irrelevant charade of enormous pretension… Royal vestments will surely be discarded if a new church capable of living beyond the exile is to be born." (181-182)   
   Yet Bishop Spong is rarely seen at a public event other than in his Episcopal garb, consistently sporting the royal purple reserved for prelates of the Church. Barely a publication associated with Spong fails to add the promotional byline "a bishop speaks/rethinks…". The inconsistency is glaring. John Spong is unable to set aside the institutional platform that gave him notoriety in the first place, despite his denunciation of such ecclesiastical hierarchy and conventions of status.   
   Bishop Spong recalls a call made in 1996 by the Anglican primate of the Scottish Episcopal Church to fellow bishops to take the opportunity to join him (at Lambeth, 1998) in a prophetic act of hurling their medieval mitres into the Thames. In the event, the call received the desired publicity, but was feebly enacted by a few using cardboard cutouts. I do not observe many of those who advocate Spong's views abandoning the trappings of their ecclesiastical power and status, least of all in his own Episcopal Church in the US.   
   The most timid chapter in his book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, dealing with actual reform in practice (Ch. 11: "The Emerging Church: Reading the Signs Present Today"), should have been the most important and challenging. Claiming to address the issues of the Church's "faith and practice", there is only one subdued passage addressing the key issue of prayer books, in which he tamely notes that some revision had resulted in theistic understandings being "muted significantly" (178). "The God who was up there or out there has so clearly faded" (176). Where is the call to abandon the prayer books that are predicated through and through on a belief in a theistic God? Where is the call to throw out the hymn books? The problem, of course, is that Spong and those who follow him have little if anything to replace them with, and are stuck in a liturgical no-man's-land as a result. They can no longer endorse or affirm that the language of worship is to be taken at face value, yet are unprepared to move beyond "muted" revision. Indeed, Spong continues to practise many of the customs he commends others in rejecting.   
   There is an important observation to be made at this point. Why is Spong so muted when it comes to putting reform into practice? Why is he so vague about those who are undertaking reform? I suspect it is because most of the areas of reform he notes as hopeful signs of the future church have been pioneered and put into practice by the evangelical church more than anyone else: changing practices in the administration of Communion, and especially removing the mediatory role of priests and advocating lay administration of communion (181); experimental expressions of worship (178); freer body language in expressing relationship with God (more standing than kneeling, 176-177); the abandonment of addressing priests as 'Father' (178) and setting aside of ecclesiastical privilege (180), including medieval titles, vestments and the elitist focus on bishops and church hierarchy (181-182). Spong contends that such reform is the inevitable outworking of rejecting a theistic notion of God. Then why is it that the evangelical church has led the way in these areas, and undertaken such reforms more far comprehensively? Spong's theological premise is totally flawed, but his observation of the need for reform is valid.   
   There is a counter-argument to Spong's thesis that it is the abandonment of theism that will lead the way to reform in practice. If you rip the heart and soul out of the church, and reduce matters of faith to empty clichés and platitudes, all you have left is the inherited customs, organisational fabric and institutional structure of the church. Many who espouse a non-theistic theology like Spong find it hard in parish ministry, and follow his experience in seeking preferment and senior leadership positions in the church which gives organisation power and prestigious platforms from which to pronounce on the woes of the church (not to mention dabble in political commentary), but little responsibility to translate such rhetoric into genuine reform. Those who identify their confidence in the church with the activity of a theistic God working through his Spirit, fully engaged with the world, and with Jesus Christ as a living Lord and Saviour, are far more prepared to let go of the outer institutional forms and customs associated with previous ages. Reform is driven by a sense of mission and recognition of the need to witness to the nature of our faith in action as well as in speech. More is needed than controversial books whose success is measured by book sales and attendance at promotional events. The measure of genuine reform is to be seen in transformed communities of faith with a confidence in witness, joy in worship, and engagement in ministry.   
   Spong's book is premised on the claim that the Church is dying. This is not actually true. Sections of the church are dying. However, the church on a global scale is growing dramatically. Even in western societies, there are local churches that are clearly thriving and exude vitality. Almost without exception, they are churches that affirm the historic faith of the church and a belief in a theistic God. The evidence pointing to an effective prescription for an ailing church leads in the opposite direction to Spong's version of faith and practice.   
   The character of Spong's chapter dealing with actual reform (ch. 11) is especially interesting. It is not a call for reformation. It is largely descriptive, where Spong's voice is hidden behind observations as to developments he regards as 'inevitable'. Yet there is no leading call to action, to put the challenges of his radical thought into practice. That, it appears, is the work for others to undertake.   
   However, this is entirely unsatisfactory. In terms of the witness of the Church to the faith that it professes, such a situation results in confusion at best, and even to a deceptiveness before the wider public. A visitor observing the public worship of our churches is supposed to make sense of a community of faith whose whole language of worship says one thing, yet they hear pronouncements from such as Spong and those who follow him saying that the whole framework of faith in such worship is wrong.   
   Cultural anthropology reveals the connection between patterns and rituals of lifestyle, and underlying belief systems.2 Rituals, clothing, space and language all serve to reinforce the construction and maintenance of some form of social reality, inevitably to validate the social position and status of the elite.   
   John Shelby Spong faces the dilemma of living and ministering within an ecclesiastical social world which no longer corresponds to the content of his provocative speech. The challenge before him, and those who would follow him, is to follow through on their convictions and put their words into practice. Leave the prayer books and hymn books to those of us who still believe them, and let us undertake our own reformation, upholding the historic faith of the church while seeking reform in its culture and institutional form. For it seems to me that it is the evangelical church, which Spong so despises, that has been much more consistent and courageous in pioneering many of the areas of reform he has otherwise lauded in his vision of the future church.   
   Spong talks of walking deeper and deeper into exile. I don't think he has even left the front door. Yet the language of exile reflects a desire to return home. It is my hope that those who feel they are in exile will return home to discover that God, as an independent being far greater than our finite imaginations or conceptions, has been there all along. The God revealed in Scripture is actively engaged with our world in and through the Spirit; a God who entered into the totality of human experience in the person of Jesus, and who holds out the hope of reconciliation and the fullness of the kingdom through Jesus Christ, Lord and Saviour.   
  1 Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. A New Reformation in the Church's Faith and Practice (HarperSanFrancisco, 1998). All references in this article are to this publication.  
  2 See especially Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols: explorations in cosmology (Routledge, 1996), and Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Penguin, 1966).  



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