A controversial bishop is to deliver a lecture at a Glasgow church next week.
John Shelby Spong, who served as the Episcopal Bishop of Newark between 1979 and 2000, will be speaking at Cairns Church in Milgavie on Thursday 11th June. He will be addressing the dangers of Biblical literalism, which he considers have been responsible for many prejudicial attitudes and stem from a “Gentile heresy”.
Bishop Spong, a popular progressive theologian and author of several books including Jesus for the Non-Religious and Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, believes that the gospels were never intended to be understood literally, and that fundamentalism is the response of Gentile culture that was unable to grasp Jewish traditions and references.
In addition to popularising unconventional and sometimes controversial theological arguments, Spong has throughout his career been an outspoken advocate of equality. As a young priest in the 1950s and 1960s, he was a supporter of the Civil Rights movement – something which led to him experiencing threats and intimidation. Social justice is at the core of Spong’s worldview, and he has also championed LGBTI equality – seeking not only to facilitate acceptance of LGBTI people within the church but also to see them fully participating in church life.
In 1989 he courted controversy by ordaining a non-celibate gay deacon, Robert Williams, to the priesthood. Williams became the world’s first openly gay priest. As the American Episcopalians continued to make progress on facilitating equality, the church, and Spong himself, became the targets of several protests – most notably at the 1997 Phildelphia General Convention at which the church agreed to appoint a special commission to consider liturgical forms for the blessing of same-sex unions.
Spong’s uncompromisingly inclusive views have been affirmed in much of his writing. In relation specifically to homosexuality, his views are perhaps best summarised in a quote made in 2004, in which he was appealing for the wider church to take a stand against homophobic discrimination:
“Homosexuality cannot be compromised in the 21st century because it too is a moral issue. To the threats of parts of the Christian Church to leave if homosexual people are welcomed fully without any distinction, the body of Christ must be prepared to say, ‘That is your choice but we do not compromise truth to comfort you in your prejudice…we will not reject homosexuals now to avoid offending you.’ If the essence of our Christ is summed up in words that John’s Gospel attributes to him, ‘I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly’, then the choice is clear. Homophobia diminishes life; it does not make it more abundant. It must be ended; it cannot be tolerated even by making it kinder and gentler.
“The idea that you will allow politicians to advocate placing discrimination against homosexual persons into the Constitution of this country, while your voices are either in agreement or remain deafeningly silent, is an embarrassment.”
Spong was awarded the Humanist Foundation’s Humanist of the Year award in 1999. He is considered a maverick by some, but there can be little doubting that his work in creating a more inclusive church has yielded positive results.
The lecture will be open to the public. Tickets and further information about the events can be obtained from Cairns Church – www.cairnschurch.org.uk
“Biblical Literalism: A Gentile heresy” will be hosted by Cairns Church, 11 Buchanan Street, Mingavie, G62 8AW on 11th June 2015 at 8.00pm.