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.
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