Spong settles old scores in autobiography

Published March 1, 2000

Here I Stand
My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love, and Equality
By John Shelby Spong
448 pages
hardcover, $36.50
Harper Collins
0 06 067538 1

A FEW years ago at a convention of diocesan bureaucrats, I met two women from the Diocese of Newark. I remarked that having a high profile bishop like theirs – John Shelby Spong – must make life extra interesting for diocesan staff. Then one asked “So what do you think of him?”

I replied: “Most of his ideas aren’t that new or original, having been discussed in thoroughly respectable academic circles for years. His great sin – as with most so-called ‘heretics’ today – was to express them in non-academic language ‘understanded of the people.’ His fellow bishops would try to distance themselves from him, not necessarily because they disagreed but to avoid hassle; and finally, the more the establishment tried to marginalize him, the more provocative his statements were likely to become.”

One of the women responded, “Yes, I think that’s fair – but I may be biased ? you see I married the man last month!” It was his second wife, Christine.

This forthright and very readable autobiography confirms my earlier assessment, but enlarges the picture to show much more than just an ecclesiastical gadfly.

He was born in the segregated U.S. south, learning early that each race had – and knew – its place. His alcoholic father died when he was eight, making young Jack the “man of the house” who helped with family finances with before- and after-school jobs while his mother had to re-enter the work force.

He also emerged from a Calvinist/fundamentalist upbringing into the Episcopal Church, later following the then usual stages of choirboy, acolyte, youth group, seminarian, and ordination in 1955.

His whole ministry can be characterized as a stand for inclusion, rather than exclusion – from defying the Ku Klux Klan and sometimes his own parishioners in the desegregation battles of the ’50s and ’60s, to admission of female acolytes, readers, and finally priests against conservative opposition, and most recently his championing of homosexual rights outside and within the church.

His teaching sprang from the same motivation – to offer an open Christianity that did not exclude sincere questioning, inclusive of intellectually honest searching rather than blind faith derived from people’s “primitive religious past.” When in 1976 he was elected bishop of Newark, he was by then well known – or notorious – both for his theological writings and his stands on human rights so his election was not universally acclaimed.

While in the eye of the storm on human rights and church issues, Spong faced personal trauma: his deeply loved first wife, Joan, with whom he had three children, had suffered a mental illness for 15 years, refusing medication. Later, cancer, which she endured for six years, took her in 1978.

Along with the personal story, Spong offers a fascinating insider account of Episcopal Church politics and unrepentantly reprises his role at Lambeth ’98 as the man conservatives love to demonize. He also devotes a quarter or more of the pages to settling old scores – and they are legion, including Vancouver’s Regent College and the present Archbishop of Canterbury. Depending on viewpoint, this either mars or makes the book.

As Spong says, writing an autobiography “has a touch of arrogance about it,” and this book is proof. It is also a remarkably enjoyable and informative read.


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