Bishop Jack Spong

"Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love & Equality"
John Shelby Spong, HarperSanFrancisco 2000

A review by Andrew Deuchar of a recent book by one of the most controversial of Anglican bishops: Bishop Spong of the Episcopal Church of the USA.

In six years as Archbishop’s Secretary for Anglican Communion Affairs, I only met Bishop Jack Spong once, face to face. I was, of course, aware of his brooding presence at the 1998 Lambeth Conference, but he always seemed - by his own choice, let it be said - to be on the margins of the Conference (of which he is deeply critical in this, his autobiography).

My encounter with him took place in New York in 1997, when I was staying with the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Ed Browning. Bishop Spong arrived with his wife, to go out to dinner with the Presiding Bishop. Ed introduced him to me, saying simply ‘This is George Carey’s Anglican Communion Secretary, Andrew Deuchar.’ I had risen to greet the famous man, who looked at me and said ‘Is it?’ and walked out of the room!

In theological approach and in attitude to the Church, there is little common ground between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the then Bishop of Newark (New Jersey, not Nottinghamshire!). I suppose it would therefore be understandable for Bishop Spong to treat a member of the Archbishop’s staff with reserve, even suspicion. But the rudeness and arrogance which he displayed shocked me. He knew nothing at all about me as a person, and little about my church background or theological stance, and he clearly had no intention of finding out!

On receiving, as a gift, a copy of his autobiography, I was quite ready to correct my initial impression of the bishop. After all, as it happens, the sorts of things which he claims to stand for are also close to my heart. But even the title itself betrays what much of the rest of the book confirms, that here is a man so sure that he is right, that arrogance is the only impression he conveys to the neutral reader. Martin Luther it was, of course, who coined the phrase ‘Here I Stand’, and his stand can be seen to have been a key hinge in the 16th Century Reformation process. For Bishop Spong to claim those historic words for his life story is a dangerous start!

Desmond Tutu, in his commendation of the book, describes it as ‘The poignant account of someone who loves the church deeply and has been frequently misunderstood.’ It is a generous comment from one of the few church leaders of our time who escapes the scathing pen! Jack Spong begins by quoting some of the wildly opposite comments which have been made to him in letters. They veer from deep hatred to deep appreciation. One wonders - because he does not really comment on them - whether the fact that he did provoke such an extraordinary variety of views, whether he ever allowed that to affect him, or whether his natural response to opposing views was simply to dig deeper trenches.

The first target of his own brand of venom is the former Presiding Bishop, Jack Allin, who had a distinguished ministry in the seventies and early eighties, whom Spong dismisses as ‘a deeply partisan person with little or no capacity to embrace reality beyond his perception of it.’ The world, in Jack Spong’s view is a world of goodies and baddies, of right and wrong. He leads the goodies, who seem to be the only ones who are right!

His life and ministry have not been easy, and one of the most moving parts in the book are his descriptions of the distressing mental illness which his first wife Joan suffered, and which finally led to her death during the 1988 Lambeth Conference. No-one can really judge what that must have been like for him and his family, and it was clearly a great release when in the end she did die, and Bishop found new love and support with his second wife Christine.

The book only enters ‘my era’ towards the end. But my eyes quickly alighted on the first reference to my erstwhile boss, George Carey, who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1991. Interestingly, his predecessor does not rate a mention in the book! In commenting on the view that the Church of England managed to control dissent and subcultures in the church by choosing bishops generally from the Oxbridge axis of English social life, he goes on to say, ‘That safeguard was violated by Margaret Thatcher, who late in her political career appointed a thorough-going evangelical named George Carey to be archbishop of Canterbury. He would prove to be both an embarrassment and a disaster to the efforts of the Anglican Communion to be a bridge church into the future.’ Well, he is entitled to his view, but it is a view which would be shared by very few indeed, and most of them would be contained within a minority (on both the conservative and the liberal sides) of the Episcopal Church in the United States. That is not to say that Dr Carey gets everything right or that I agree with everything he says; but he certainly cannot be dismissed with that one-liner!

One could look at every stage of Bishop Spong’s life story, and note over and over again his demonisation of those who disagree with him. The strange episode to which he refers in the last chapter, when, having given a controversial interview to Andrew Carey of the Church of England Newspaper, in which he dismissed much of the content of African Christianity, he found himself on the end of deep anger from many African bishops at Lambeth 98, and was forced to issue something resembling an apology (but which he denies was!), is put down to ‘a public assassination’ by the journalist. Other targets who are verbally attacked include Ed Browning, the very man who had defended him so often, his successor as Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, himself renowned for leading one of the most liberal dioceses in the Episcopal Church, Rowan Williams, now Archbishop of Wales, and one of the great Anglican theologians of the current era… and so it goes on. The sad thing is that the agenda which he wants the church to pursue - doctrinal honesty, and justice for some oppressed minorities - actually seems to take second place to this sustained attempt to prove himself over against his detractors.

So what can one say of the book? Jack Spong undoubtedly sees himself as a prophet. He can certainly claim to have challenged his church, in particular and rather narrow fields. But he has chosen to align himself to Martin Luther. On the Richter scale of theologians and reformers through history - Paul, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Rahner, even his own mentor, John Robinson - he is, well, perhaps a tremor!

Andrew Deuchar

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Last revised 3rd February 2001