Bishop John Shelby Spong
Your book, Original Blessing, was the work that first brought you to my attention. It was in many ways a breathtaking book because it challenged the core of the primary interpretative Christian myth that proclaimed the basic fallen sinfulness of human life. That myth had been used historically primarily to enhance the power of the institutional church and its ordained hierarchy. In the service of that myth the church was destined first and foremost to be the dispenser of guilt. Someone has observed that the church “does guilt” more successfully does anything else, and guilt is, as one person noted. “ the gift that keeps on giving .”
To convince people of their on unworthiness is step one in creating a controlling mentality, especially when the church claims to be the only dispenser of forgiveness. It was also this definition of human life as fallen and hopeless that inspired the interpretation of the Christ as the Divine Rescuer. This, in turn, caused Christians to view the cross as a human sacrifice which would be pleasing to God who required a blood offering in order to restore the fallen world. It was and is a strange way to tell the story of the love of God found in Jesus Christ, but for centuries we Christians seemed to know no others. Finally, and in no small measure because of your work, we awakened to the reality that this way of proclaiming Christ presented us with a God more grotesque than worship worthy.
Once this ancient myth was broked open in your book, Original Blessing, you were then able to develop your vision of the Cosmic Christ. That, in turn, led you to place your emphasis on human wholeness instead of encouraging that passive, dependent, immature kind of Christianity that the church traditionally seems to encourage. This vision of wholeness in turn opened you to seeing holiness in all that God had made. So your love for God’s creation, our mother the earth, led you into being a theological environmentalist. Your discovery of holiness stretched on to include women whom the church had dismissed and gay and lesbian people whom the church had rejected. In each area you were a voive for something new, pointing the Christian Church to something it has never been but must surely become.
It is easy to see why you frightened the guardians of traditional orthodoxy. It is also easy to see that you were and are calling the Christian Church beyond the limits of antiquity, beyond its denominational structures in being the voice of a new creation. As one who shares with you a vision of this new Christianity, I have been pleased to learn from you, to walk beside you and be your colleague in helping to usher in this new day for the Christian church.
Prophets who see the future and who embrace it in their lives as living signs of that new truth are never appreciated by the leaders of those institutions which the prophet’s words inevitably challenge. In their desire to cling to the past they have attacked you. It is fascinating to note that as they sought to exclude you, they were also sounding their own death knell. That is the way it always is when institutions become closed to the new truth. But a generation from now, Matthew, people will look back at you and your work and give thanks that one like you lived in this critical moment and helped the Christian Church give birth to new possibilities. Being an ecclesiastical midwife is quite a vocation.
I salute you with affection and appreciation.
The Right Reverend John S. Spong
Bishop of Newark
The Episcopal Church