Saturday, September 08, 2007

An Open Letter to Canterbury

There has been some interest expressed in the comments regarding discussing the open letter written by Bishop John Shelby Spong to Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. I am personally conflicted regarding my opinion of Bp. Spong. Consequently, I'll provide two sources for the letter, each including very different introductions, and both from persons for whom I have the highest regard. The letter can be found here and here. Make sure you visit both of these sites.

Before discussing this letter, I wanted to talk just a bit about the internal conflict I have in regards to Bp. Spong.

First, the positives. The first thing I read by Bp. Spong was Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. I was elated that someone was finally saying those things out loud. I didn't find many new ideas. Most of what he talked about was familiar to any seminarian (yes, even at Nashotah House, at least that was so 20 years ago). What was unique was that Bp. Spong was saying these things for the entire world to see.

To understand why this was so novel, it may be helpful to stop for a minute and say something about the nature of the education one receives at seminary. There is a tension regarding the self-definition of theological schools. Are they graduate schools or professional schools? This tension sometimes gets played out in the way professors teach. Those who are inclined to see it as a professional school will dump out lots of information, expect you to memorize it, and then test you on your recall.

Those who saw it as a graduate school would be more like Fr. Joseph Hunt, who taught Hebrew and Old Testament at the House for two decades. Fr. Hunt once announced to us, in a rather loud voice, "There is no messianic prophesy to be found in the Old Testament." As you might imagine, this was quite upsetting to some of us of the more evangelical stripe. But he would not listen to our arguments. His response was, "You are using secondary sources. When you can make your argument from the original Hebrew, then we will talk." Consequently, we were motivated to learn our Hebrew, as well as delve into the question of messianic prophesy much more than if we had not been challenged.

I see much of what Bp. Spong was doing as very similar to the method used by Fr. Hunt. He challenges our assumptions. He forces us to dig deeper.

He is also a passionate man. I think we need more passion (forgive me, blessed Evagrius!). Regardless of my personal reservations, I must recognize that his passion has drawn many people back to the Church. This is not speculation. And the term "many" is not an exaggeration. Some who left the Church years ago, because they simply could no longer compromise their intellectual integrity by buying the whole bill of goods that some Christians seemed determined to force on them, would stumble across one of Bp. Spong's books. The breath of fresh air he offered allowed them to recognize their deepest longing, their longing for God, their longing for community, their longing for that elusive "something more," and slowly, tentatively, they sought out the Church as a means of re-connecting with God.

We need to be about the business of opening more windows into the Church, not closing them! If Bp. Spong is such a window, thanks be to God.

Now, the negatives. Eventually, I got weary of the bishop's tone. His passion began to sound like pride. Maybe I am mistaken. Maybe what I was hearing was self confidence. And being a clergy person does require a high level of self confidence, if one is to have the audacity to stand in a pulpit and stand behind the altar of God. I finally stopped reading him, and have yet to read his last two books (although I think I have them on the shelf somewhere; must get the library sorted!).

Sometimes, I think he takes things too far. If you read enough of his work, it becomes quite evident that his roots are in the evangelical corner of the Church. He's not much of a sacramentalist. As such, he sometimes becomes too much of a literalist for me. Things are either true or false, black or white, good or bad. I don't see the world that way. I see lots of gray, and much shrouded truth that I don't think mere humans will ever be able to capture in words.

And then, there is the catholicity thing. If you've followed Bp. Spong's journey at all, you will remember that there were times when just about everyone, including many of the members of the House of Bishops, disagreed with him. But that did not even slow him down. Some like this willingness to stand alone against the world. I'm uncomfortable with a bishop doing that. It seems to put little value on the collegiality of the House of Bishops.

But, we live in bizarre times. Maybe what is needed now is more bishops who are willing to stand and speak out, even if they stand alone?

Regarding his beliefs, or lack thereof, I refer you to my Fr. Hunt example. His ideas are really nothing new (and are probably more well articulated by others, such as Marcus Borg). I think they are ideas that demand a healthy debate (or a remedial class in Hebrew). They push us further, and so defeat the lethargy that is the bane of so many of us.

But you really didn't want to listen to my ramble, did you? You wanted to discuss the words of the retired Bishop of Newark. Ok. let's get to it.

The letter is strident, passionate, and very harsh. Is that a surprise? That is the bishop's trademark style. Get past that. Look at what he says.

If the House of Bishops are going to have any kind of meaningful conversation with Dr. Williams later this month, then Dr. Williams needs to be informed of the perspective of some members of that House. Bp. Spong has informed him of that perspective. This may come as a shock to the Archbishop. Keep in mind that some of his staff and advisers came to Canterbury during the time of George Carey. He has been fed a biased opinion of what is really going on in the Episcopal Church for many years now. Bp. Spong's letter serves as a corrective to some of those erroneous opinions.

The conclusion of the letter is worth noting:

...Next you declined to invite Gene Robinson to the Lambeth Conference of 2008. All of the closeted homosexual bishops are invited, the honest one is not invited. I can name the gay bishops who have, during my active career. served in both the Episcopal Church and in the Church of England? I bet you can too. Are you suggesting that dishonesty is a virtue?

You continue to act as if quoting the Bible to undergird a dying prejudice is a legitimate tactic. It is in fact the last resort that religious people always use to validate "tradition" over change. The Bible was quoted to support the Divine Right of Kings in 1215, to oppose Galileo in the 17th century, to oppose Darwin in the 19th century, to support slavery and apartheid in the 19th and 20th centuries, to keep women from being educated, voting and being ordained in the 20th and 21st century. Today it is quoted to continue the oppression and rejection of homosexual people. The Bible has lost each of those battles. It will lose the present battle and you, my friend, will end up on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of morality and the wrong side of truth. It is a genuine tragedy that you, the most intellectually-gifted Archbishop of Canterbury in almost a century, have become so miserable a failure in so short a period of time.

You were appointed to lead, Rowan, not to capitulate to the hysterical anger of those who are locked in the past. For the sake of God and this Church, the time has come for you to do so. I hope you still have that capability...
What jumped out at you in this letter? Are there sections with which you strongly agree or disagree?


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