An unfortunate letter

Bishop John Shelby Spong has written an open letter to Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury that rehashes old complaints that have been extensively aired elsewhere and seems calculated to give offense. It is perhaps best seen as an act of unconscious self-marginalization (not to mention bad manners.) Spong, like N. T. Wright, has become one of those figures whose public utterances frequently do more to bolster the cause of his adversaries than his allies.

If one were attempting to poison the atmosphere when the archbishop and the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops gather in New Orleans on September 20-21, this is the letter one would write. Its publication places a burden on Episcopal bishops who favor the full inclusion of the baptized in all ministries of the Church, and continued membership in the Anglican Communion. They now must make it clear that Archbishop Rowan will receive a warmer welcome than this letter suggests.

Dear Rowan,

I am delighted that you have agreed to meet with the House of Bishops of the American Episcopal Church in September, even if you appear to be unwilling to come alone. It has seemed strange that you, who have had so much to say about the American Church, have not been willing to do so before now. Your office is still honored by Episcopalians in this country, so our bishops will welcome you warmly and politely. We have some amazingly competent men and women in that body, many of whom have not yet met you.

There is clearly an estrangement between that body and you in your role as the Archbishop of Canterbury. I want to share with you my understanding of the sources of that estrangement. First, I believe that most of our senior bishops, including me, were elated, at your appointment by Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Tony Blair. Most Americans are not aware that yours is an appointed, not an elected position. Those of us who knew you were keenly aware of your intellectual gifts, your openness on all of the great social debates of our generation and indeed of your personal warmth. We also believed that the Lambeth Conference of 1998, presided over by your predecessor, George Carey, had been a disaster that would haunt the Communion for at least a quarter of a century. An assembly of bishops hissing at and treating fellow bishops with whom they disagreed quite rudely, was anything but an example of Christian community. The unwillingness of that hostile majority to listen to the voices of invited gay Christians, their use of the Bible in debate as a weapon to justify prejudice, the almost totalitarian attempt made to manage the press and to prevent access to the wider audience and the dishonest denial of the obvious and blatant homophobia among the bishops made that Lambeth Conference the most disillusioning ecclesiastical gathering I have ever attended. The Church desperately needed new leadership and so many of us greeted your appointment with hope. Your detractors in the evangelical camp both in England and in the third world actively lobbied against your appointment. The hopes of those of us who welcomed your appointment were, however, short lived because in one decision after another you seemed incapable of functioning as the leader the Church wanted and needed.

It began at the moment of your appointment when you wrote a public letter to the other primates assuring them that you would not continue in your enlightened and open engagement with the moral issue of defining and welcoming those Christians who are gay and lesbian.
We all knew where you stood. Your ministry had not been secret. We knew you had been one of the voices that sought to temper the homophobia of your predecessor's rhetoric. We knew of your personal friendship with gay clergy and that you had even knowingly ordained a gay man to the priesthood. You, however, seemed to leap immediately to the conclusion that unity was more important than truth. Perhaps you did not realize that your appointment as the archbishop was because you had different values from those of your predecessor and that your values were exactly what the Church wanted and needed in its new archbishop.

In that letter, in a way that was to me a breathtaking display of ineptitude and moral weakness, you effectively abdicated your leadership role. The message you communicated was that in the service of unity you would surrender to whoever had the loudest public voice.
A leader gets only one chance to make a good first impression and you totally failed that chance. Unity is surely a virtue, but it must be weighed against truth, the Church's primary virtue.

Next came the bizarre episode of the appointment of the Rev. Dr.
Jeffrey John, a known gay priest, to be the area bishop for Reading in the Diocese of Oxford. He was proposed by the Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries. The nomination was approved by all of the necessary authorities, including you, the Prime Minister and the Queen. The fundamentalists and the evangelicals were predictably severe and anything but charitable or Christian. They and their allies in the press assassinated Jeffrey John's character and made his life miserable. Once again you collapsed in the face of this pressure and, in a four-hour conversation, you forced your friend and mine, Jeffery John, who is not only a brilliant New Testament scholar, but also one who gave you his word that he was living a celibate life, to resign his appointment to that Episcopal office. The message went out for all to hear that if people are angry enough, the Archbishop will always back down. Your leadership, as well as our trust in your integrity, all but disappeared.

Shortly thereafter, you concurred in a "guilt" appointment by naming Jeffrey Dean of St. Alban's Cathedral. It is a strange church and a strange hierarchy that proclaims that a gay man cannot be a bishop but can be a dean. Your credibility suffered once again.

When Gene Robinson in the United States was elected the Bishop of New Hampshire and, more particularly, when his election was confirmed by a concurrent majority of the bishops, priests and lay deputies at the General Convention (read General Synod), you appeared to panic. You called an urgent meeting of the primates of the entire Anglican Communion and allowed them to express enormous hostility. No one seemed to challenge either their use of scripture, which revealed an amazing ignorance of the last 250 years of biblical scholarship, or their understanding of homosexuality. By acting as if homosexuality is a choice made by evil people they violated everything that medical science has discovered about sexual orientation in the last century.
Just as the Church was historically wrong in its treatment of women, so now as a result of your leadership, we are espousing a position about homosexuality that is dated, uninformed, inhumane and frankly embarrassing. No learned person stands there today.

Then you appointed the group, under Robin Eames' chairmanship, that produced the Windsor Report. That report confirmed every mistake you had already made. It asked the American Church to apologize to other parts of the Anglican Communion for its "insensitivity." Can one apologize for trying to end prejudice and oppression? If the issue were slavery, would you ask for an apology to the slave holders? That report got the response it deserved. Our leaders were indeed sorry that others felt hurt, but they were not prepared to apologize for taking a giant step in removing one more killing prejudice from both the Church and the world. Those angry elements of the church were not satisfied by the Windsor report, inept as it was. They never will be until they have bent you and this communion into a pre-modern, hate filled, Bible quoting group of people incapable of embracing the world in which we live.

Next came threats issued by the primates of the excommunication of the American Episcopal Church from the Anglican Communion, as if they actually had that power. Ultimatums and deadlines for us to conform to their homophobia were treated by you as if that were appropriate behavior. When the American Church elected Katharine Jefferts-Schori to be its Presiding Bishop and thus the Primate of our Province, your response to that major achievement was pathetic. You did not rejoice that equality had finally been achieved in our struggle against sexism; your concern was about how much more difficult her election would make the life of the Anglican Communion. Once again, institutional peace was made primary to the rising consciousness that challenges what the Church has done to women for so long. When Katharine took her place among the other primates, she underwent with dignity, the refusal of some of those bishops to receive communion with her. Is that the mentality required to build unity?

Later you issued a statement saying that if homosexuals want to be received in the life of the Church, they will have to change their behavior. I found that statement incredible. If you mean they have to change from being homosexual then you are obviously not informed about homosexuality. It is not a choice or a sin, anymore than being left handed, or male or female, or black or even transgender is a choice or a sin. All of us simply awaken to these aspects of our identity. That truth is so elementary and so well documented that only prejudiced eyes can fail to recognize it. No one in intellectual circles today still gives that point of view credibility..

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.

John Shelby Spong, 8th Bishop of Newark, Retired

Comments (15)

Plus in his rush to rhetorical heights he neglects the fact that Terry Brown, of Malaita, in the Solomon Islands, is an openly gay bishop.

The first sentence states: "... even if you appear to be unwilling to come alone." Here is the opening of the ENS report on the March 2007 HoB meeting:

[ENS] Responding to the recent Anglican Primates' Communiqué,the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops, meeting March 20 in Navasota, Texas, expressed "an urgent need for us to meet face to face with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the members of the Primates' Standing Committee."

In Spong's world the ABC gets slammed for honoring all of the requests of our HoB.

I'm in the minority even amongst so-called "progressive" Episcopalians in my liking for Bp. Spong. Yes, he's a passionate man with strong, passionate views. So ?

Now would I have worded it a bit differently ? Probably. But people have been tiptoeing around ++Williams for far too long. It's about time someone laid it on the line for him.

Holy Mary, Mother of God! This needs to be repudiated, and publically. It is, in its own way, as public an abandonment of effort toward maintaining the Communion as the recent multiplication of consecrations of Americans for foreign provinces.

Jack Spong's letter is pretty harsh. It is also pretty honest and I suspect it reflects the views of at least a few in the HoB. As such, it may serve the purpose of putting those feelings and reactions on the table, unmasked by the usual institutional politeness. I, for one, am not feeling in a particularly polite mood.

Lou Poulain

This is both condescending and unhelpful towards building a truly fruitful discussion. Bishop Spong, like other characters in the great "crisis" is sadly becoming a caricature of himself.

Then again, so many have learned to tune him out over the years.

For a long time, I've thought Bp. Spong was more interested in being the Notorious Rt. Rev. Spong, than in actually forwarding the work of the Church. This pretty much confirms it.

It's just an Akinola-type screed, from the other side of the question.

I like +Jack Spong, but he is an inverted fundamentalist. Mercifully few believe he speaks for TEC and I am sure +Rowan is holy enough and wise enough not to be concerned if he even gets to see the open letter.

Oops. Sadly, I slipped above (and not for the first time): mscottsail is Marshall Scott.

I believe in inclusive ministrry, lay or clerical, regardless of any immutable factor, including sexual orientation.

Spong's letter to ++ Rowan is most disrespectful. But consider the source: this is from a low-church bishop who seldom if ever wears the proper vestments to celebrate Mass. Such people have limited credibility until they improve their churchmanship. Sins require a willful aspect. One is born gay or straignt. But a bishop can choose his or her level of churchmanship.


I rejoice that someone has the honesty to say what he means in the face of those who vilify him. While his writing style may be a bit more harsh than I would like, I believe what he says needs to be said. There are so many on the other side saying so many more harsh things. He is not attacking the humanity of a group of people, or threatening their life. Many of us have been very unhappy that the Bishops of our church allow things to go on without challenge. Here is a challenge. I would not be a Christian today if it were not for Spong. I might be a lot happier with the way Borg writes, but I still appreciate it that he feels free to speak his mind in opposition to those who denigrate others.

Doug Purlin

Where was this letter published? I'm guessing that it was originally written for (and perhaps published to) Bishop Spong's subscription-based email list. Certainly Bishop Spong's vocabulary and tone suggest that he is "preaching to the choir," as the cliché goes, speaking to those who already find his views and way of expressing them compelling, rather than to those who might be persuaded by a careful, compelling, and nuanced argument.

Sometimes I think that what the Anglican Communion really needs is not a moratorium on any particular kind of bishop, but a moratorium on the phenomenon of "playing to the stands" -- of open letters ostensibly written to one person but meant to excite persons to whom the letter is not addressed; of liturgies calculated not to serve communities for whom those designated as leaders function in name, but which serve more fully inter-provincial and other broader and more openly politicized organizations, processes, and aims; of rhetoric explicitly about a group of 'outsiders' that is meant to further a solidarity of insiders.

I've had enough of it all. Let's treat all of our sisters and brothers as sensitive and intelligent human beings who might be persuaded by an argument that appeals to their compassion, integrity, and faith, or let us be silent toward if not warmly welcoming toward (and I hope it would be welcoming) and pray for those we judge as enemies.



They never will be until they have bent you and this communion into a pre-modern, hate filled, Bible quoting group of people incapable of embracing the world in which we live.

Bishop Spong should definitely have left that sentence out. His letter will very likely not prove helpful to furthering reasonable and calm discussion between the opposing sides. However, the opposing sides may be beyond that type of discussion, even without Bishop Spong's letter.

Having said that, I must admit that a great many of the thoughts Spong expresses in the letter have passed through my own mind. That's not to say that every thought that pops into one's mind should be committed to writing and issued as as open letter.

Honestly, I don't find much to condemn in the letter with the exception of the sentence above.

June Butler

A former boss once gave me excellent advice: "Speak truth to power." That's what this letter does.

Since +Rowan apparently believed that 40% of the American church was unhappy and ready to bolt over sexuality issues, it is *way* past time that someone laid it on the line for him.

But no one is going to listen to this letter just because +Spong wrote it, which is a shame. He is absolutely correct---the Bible has lost on every one of those contentious issues in the past, and we are stronger and better Christians for that "loss."

The day for politeness is over. Jesus was never polite when something of spiritual significance was at stake---he threw out a few choice words himself... "vipers," "hypocrites," "white-washed tombs." I would argue that the Good News is, indeed, at stake now.

+Spong ain't Jesus---but he's the only bishop in TEC who has had the courage to speak truth to power. God bless him for that.

Paige Baker

Where does Spong's letter go wrong?

The list he offers of the many painful moments when +Rowan seemed willing to marginalize and exclude American and Canadian liberals and our LGBT sisters and brothers in order to include those threatening to leave is useful. That history certainly belongs in the House of Bishops conversations with the Archbishop.

But Spong is dead wrong saying +Rowan believes 'unity is more important than truth.' Fundamentally the Archbishop agrees with his friend James Alison (a marvelously disturbing, gay Roman Catholic theologian). Alison writes, "...the really hard work in Christian theological discourse lies in the ecclesiological sphere: creating church with those whom we don't like."

Like justice and mercy, unity and truth belong together. Unity forces us to share and rethink the pieces of truth we’ve learned, learning and growing as we are embraced by the Truth who loves us.

Bishop Spong question the effectiveness or clarity of Archbishop Williams' recent leadership moves, again a useful question. But the leadership questions aren’t enough; we gain a great deal by listening for our brother's integrity and faithfulness, what he has always stood for as a theologian, and how well his present moves express that (or where they miss).

A year ago in a brief moment with the Archbishop, I thanked him for his unwavering, explicitly theological commitment to the conversations with those most unlike ourselves. Williams wrote about those painful, confusing conversations where God is making something new of us in his 1997 essay, "Interiority and Epiphany," (in his collection On Christian Theology). Here’s a sample -

"I do not emerge into selfhood without concrete otherness; I do not discover my humanity in the absence of frustration, the resistance of the world to my will."
P. 243

"Gradually but inexorably, the practice of Jesus' continuing ministry in the community extends also beyond the boundaries of the ethically and historically acceptable members of God's people..."
p. 251

"The good or interest of the excluded [person] the indispensable and unique contribution it constitutes to the good of all. The language of 'rights' is an important dialectical moment in ethical discourse, but becomes sterile when it is divorced from a proper conception of the human good that has to be worked out in conversation with others. In this sense...Christian ethics is relentlessly political, because it cannot be adequately expressed in terms of atomized rights invested in individuals or groups, but looks beyond to the kind of community in which free interaction for the sake of each other is made possible. That means adjustment and listening, it means politics."

Recalling passages like these, I thanked him for leadership that expressed a theological commitment to keep us all in conversation. +Rowan smiled broadly and said that was exactly what he’d been striving to accomplish as archbishop. He didn’t think the American church was getting that.

I agreed, but added (as I know others have) that most of the American church hadn’t felt included in the conversation. I said that as a very like-minded liberal Catholic Anglican, I felt left behind and abandoned when he seemed willing to step forward to talk with a fellow Anglican who described us as a 'cancer on the body of Christ,' but unwilling to call Archbishop Akinola to account for such language. And if he wanted the American church to participate in this conversation, what about leaning back our direction by publicly welcoming and spending time meeting with Gene Robinson and Katharine Jefferts Schori?

The leadership I ask of +Rowan is what Gene Robinson has asked for (and offered) again and again, a resounding, joyful declaration that we are ALL guests at Christ's table – Rowan Williams, Gene Robinson, Katharine Jefferts Schori, Peter Akinola, Jack Spong, and the whole unlikely lot of us. And yes, as we brokenly accept Christ’s unbroken welcome, the Archbishop can ask us to live into the communion in Christ we find there (like it our not).

Archbishop, lead us back to our long Anglican tradition of communing with those who scandalize us (as we continue to invite those who hold aloof). That’s what draws us inescapably into a hair-raising, heart-breaking, reconciling listening process.

The truth +Rowan preaches is that reconciling justice comes as we claim each other, a whole communion in Christ without exception. Let him lead us all in practicing that.

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