By John Shelby Spong
There is something fundamentally flawed about institutional Christianity today. I see it in two distinct places. It was clearly present when I listened to ecclesiastical figures talk about the election of a female bishop to be primate of the Episcopal Church in the USA. The other is found both in the tone and content of the debate on the issue of human sexuality that consumes the energy of the Christian Church today. In this column, I want to examine both of these phenomena with the suggestion that they are deeply related.
A chorus of less than celebratory comments by Anglican Church leaders greeted the election of Katharine Jefferts-Schori to be presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. Seeking to be positive, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, sounded more like the sympathy seeker he seems to have become. “Poor Rowan Williams” is the way people refer to him today across the United Kingdom as he describes how difficult his role is. Instead of being the leader he is capable of being, he has become a chronic whiner about the task of keeping Anglican unity as if that is an appropriate vocation for its titular head.
In his statement about America’s new primate, he welcomed Bishop Jefferts-Schori to her new responsibilities and promised to be supportive of her ministry but proclaimed that her election would place a strain on the bonds of Anglican unity. I presume that he thinks the continued oppression of women throughout the Communion would somehow strengthen the bonds of Anglican unity. Surely, any student of history will tell you that as new consciousness and values emerge, those who have built power bases on an old consciousness and dying values will be threatened and will seek to defeat the new ideas. History does not move backwards and once any prejudice is debated publicly, it has already begun to die. There are no exceptions to this rule in history.
The Episcopal Bishop of Fort Worth, Texas, Jack Iker, greeted Bishop Jefferts-Schori’s election as primate by immediately appealing to the Archbishop of Canterbury for protection of his institutionalized sexism. There were two things pathetically pitiful about this appeal. First, the Archbishop of Canterbury has no authority whatsoever over the American Episcopal Church. Second, the ordination of women has been in effect canonically in the American Church for 30 years. Forty percent of the Episcopal clergy are now women, sixty percent of our theological students are women, and 15 of our bishops are women. All of those steps were achieved according to the canons that bind the membership of this church and especially its bishops. There is no authority beyond that of the national governing body of any province of the Anglican Communion. This part of the Christian Church is now and always has been a confederation of national bodies with no central authority. The once-every-ten-years gathering of Anglican bishops of the world is for consultation only, with the power to speak to the churches but never for the churches. Jack Iker knew all of these things when he was ordained priest and promised to conform “to the discipline of this church.” He accepted election to the Episcopal office in a church that already had both women priests and women bishops. I helped him be confirmed in his Episcopal post both with my vote and with my public support among progressive bishops. He needed every vote he could get and squeezed in by the narrowest of margins.
I supported his election because I treasure the catholic broadness of my church. We are and must be broad enough to welcome and include the Jack Ikers of the world. Now he struggles to narrow the boundaries of this church that had to be stretched to include him, to the place where only he and his few acolytes are members. It is strange logic but religion produces quite irrational manifestations from time to time. Now, instead of facing reality, he wants someone to protect him from having to adjust to reality, but adjust he must. If he cannot do so, he should vacate his office instead of begging for special treatment.
He is joined in this sad chorus made up of a handful of malcontents, who have cultivated negativity for some years now. They have not won on any issue before this church in the last century, from desegregation, to prayer book revision, to women priests, to women bishops, to inclusion of gay and lesbian people. They portray themselves as God’s sole supporters in a world going to hell. They remind me of the lament of Elijah in the book of Kings where the prophet bemoaned the fact that he alone was faithful to God. That story says that the Lord opened his eyes to see thousands who “had not bowed the knee to Baal.” It is a peculiar form of mental illness to think that everyone other than you is wrong.
The Church has every responsibility to love those that the world has left behind. They are hurting people, fragile people, living in pain. However, the Church has no responsibility to accommodate them, to promise them that their dying point of view and their dated prejudices will be respected. They have no reason to expect that either the Church or the world will slow down so that they can catch up. People complained that the unity of the Church was violated when black people demanded access and equality. Would this present group of unity seekers want the Church to accommodate racism by trying to keep the slaveholders happy? Of course not. In a similar manner, unity is not served by tolerating the sin of patriarchy or the sin of homophobia.
I remember well the rhetoric of the era when race dominated the church’s debate. In 1948, when I dared to suggest that all Episcopal young people, black and white, should be invited to the Youth Convention of the Diocese, my bishop, Edwin Anderson Penick, said to me: “Jack, the people of the Church in North Carolina are not ready for integration.” Which people were not ready, I wondered? The black people were quite ready. The younger clergy, whose consciences had been raised to the evil of segregation, were quite ready. The people who were not ready were the bigoted ones who were unprepared not just to give up but even to face their prejudice. “The Church,” in the name of some bizarre definition of unity, coddled them by a continued rejection of people of color and their allies until that stance became absurd.
Peter Jensen, Archbishop of Sydney, Australia, probably the most backward and fundamentalist Diocese in the entire Anglican Communion, says that the battle over homosexuality is a battle about “the authenticity and authority of Scripture.” That is absolute balderdash! It is about the misuse of scripture in the cause of continued ignorance! For centuries the Bible was quoted on the wrong side of every public issue. It was quoted to oppose the Magna Carta, to condemn Galileo, to discriminate against Jews, to justify war, to uphold slavery and segregation, to oppress women and to persecute homosexuals. The Bible lost every one of those battles.
Peter Jensen is so afraid of reality that, more than anyone I know; he tries to control access to truth in his archdiocese. He made his brother the Dean of the Cathedral in Sydney, appointed his son to the faculty of Moore Theological Seminary in Sydney and employed his wife on the staff of the Archdiocese of Sydney. For a priest to serve in that diocese, he (no she’s are allowed) must be a Moore Seminary graduate. For a professor to teach at Moore Seminary, he must be a Moore graduate. Moore Theological Seminary would make Bob Jones University look moderate! Can truth ever be engaged by those who believe they possess it and are afraid to listen to anyone else? I view that as hysteria, not confidence. Archbishop Jensen does not know the difference between freedom and bondage, between power and truth, between himself and God. Why any institution, with leaders like these, would appeal to anyone other than frightened, insecure people who hide from reality, simply escapes my imagination.
The second question is what is the basis of the Church’s claim to possess some expertise on the issues of human sexuality? This is the same group that said: “Celibacy is the pathway to holiness.” It is far more often the pathway to sexual guilt and to the sexual violation of the weak and vulnerable. This is the institution that said the ideal woman is a “virgin mother,” reducing all women to a sense of inadequacy. They defined virtue in women as being a “permanent virgin.” I suppose that made sense to the celibate males who did the defining, but it makes sense to no one else. This is the institution that tells us that birth control is evil, that condoms used to stop AIDS even among married people is sinful, that women are defective males and that homosexuals are morally depraved or mentally ill. Is that a track record to inspire confidence? This is the institution that wants to root out homosexuals from studying for the priesthood, but is not about to purge gay men from the ordained ranks, where they now serve at the highest levels and in numbers that are breathtakingly large but real.
The debate on sexuality inside institutional Christianity is revelatory of the fact that this institution parted company with reality years ago. It is on the losing side of this battle. It is doing the dance of the dying, exhibiting the final shake of rigor mortis.
What hope do we have for the future of the Church? My hope is in an increasing number of people in groups around the world who want to be Christians without closing their minds to new truth. They want to embrace the real world, not some fantasyland of make believe. They are small cells watching the Church they love from within as it flails away in the losing battle of trying to suppress every controversy that emerges when new truth demands attention. They are ready for a new day. That new day is coming no matter how desperately the Vatican, Canterbury, Church Synods and Councils try to hold it back. I welcome it.