When retired bishop John Shelby Spong was last in Australia he was promoting his autobiography Here I Stand, which detailed the angry responses to his long-time pro-gay stance within the Episcopal (US Anglican) Church. In his books, including his latest, A New Christianity For A New World and Why Christianity Must Change Or Die, Spong has done everything from questioning the virgin birth to defending gay marriage. Spong is considered notorious: he’s ordained gay priests and been a vocal critic of anti-gay bishops around the world, including Sydney’s Anglican archbishop Peter Jensen.
The difference with this visit is that many of the issues Spong has spoken about for years have hit world headlines -“ and how. As the Star goes to press, a two-day meeting begins in London called by the archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to discuss a possible schism within the worldwide Anglican communion. The meeting was necessitated by the appointment of openly gay bishop V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire in the US, sparking anger and talk of a split everywhere from Nebraska to Nigeria.
At his hotel in the Rocks, Spong greets me with a quiet smile and I’m struck by his height, his slight Southern drawl and immediate ease. (He will tell me later this brief trip to Australia includes 80 speaking engagements, including a visit to Sydney’s MCC church. The man is a pro.)
We begin with Spong’s thoughts on the controversies currently facing the Anglican church and his response is gently flippant.
I’m delighted about it, he says. My sense is that we’ve broken ground. We’ve entered into a new level of consciousness and it will never be turned back. And whenever you do that there’s like an immediate outcry -¦ but there’s no going backwards. No black has ever been re-enslaved. No person’s ever been resegregated.
Spong’s optimism flies in the face of a considerable backlash that has spread across different denominations and into the mouths of government leaders. Arguably in reaction to the Anglican crisis, the Vatican released a document last month denouncing not only homosexuality and same-sex unions as evil, but also politicians who defend gay rights. Days later, George W. Bush and John Howard echoed the pope’s vitriol. Even atheist readers should shiver at the legal repercussions -“ especially given our attorney-general’s dismissal of same-sex relationships as invalid, and that this week in the US is Marriage Protection Week. Spong is nonplussed.
I think the battle’s over in my country, Spong says. I don’t mean it’s over in Nigeria, but it’s over in my country. It’s what I call trickle-down ideas. I don’t believe in trickle-down economics -“ that never works -¦ but I think consciousness changes constantly. It would be impossible for a candidate of the most conservative party today to discriminate against women. It wouldn’t have been impossible 20 years ago, but it is now.
When the Supreme Court of my nation just passed a six to three decision decriminalising homosexual acts in any state of the union where they had been criminal -“ including Texas -“ George Bush didn’t even comment -¦ He knows that it’s not gonna look good. What he did was to send the Senate Republican majority leader Bill Frist out to announce to the right wing of his party, which is vicerally homophobic, that the Republican Party would lead a constitutional amendment to define marriage as something that happens between a man and a woman.
Now if you understand American politics that’s a great sign -“ it takes 20 to 25 years to amend the constitution. So that in 20 to 25 years the consciousness will simply be in a different place. It’ll die -¦ he says.
Spong is an unstoppable, unflappable force, fearless with his opinions. Rowan Williams has no real power and has boiled spaghetti for a backbone; Desmond Tutu is a clear voice in gay and lesbian justice; and the sexuality of one Catholic leader is highly suspicious.
It’s easy to be swept away with his rhetoric, because his vision of a new Christianity is so appealing, so inclusive. He doesn’t even care if there’s a cost as severe as a schism -“ within the Anglican church or between denominations.
I don’t think it matters frankly. Evangelical Protestants hate homosexuality and they hate Catholics. They’re not common friends. They’re united in the United States on homosexuality and abortion -¦ At the moment Jensen and Pell are friends, because they have this common alliance -¦ he says.
Pay no attention to Archbishop Jensen or George Pell. They are not the voice of the majority. The pope is frantic. The pope has intervened in the Episcopal thing in North America to support these dissidents -“ he doesn’t know what they represent -¦ and he’s old and senile at this point -¦
Our coffee arrives and Spong’s is decaffeinated, which is just as well. Now 72 years old, Spong is still incredibly assured -“ in a 45-minute interview he never says um or corrects his own comments. We turn again to the future.
I think all institutional religions are probably dying and that doesn’t bother me at all. I choke on my flat white. Indeed the quest for unity strikes me as a strange quest. Unity is not a high value in my opinion: truth is. I grew up in a church that was segregated. We could have had wonderful unity if we just kept those black people out. We had a church that was totally sexist and it was really fine until women started knocking on the door to say -¦ -˜I want to be a priest, I want to be a bishop.’ We could have unity today if all the gay people go back in the closet and not bother us.
United or not, will Christian western churches ever see gay marriages approved?
Again, I think it’s inevitable -¦ he says. Leading the vanguard is not the churches, it is American corporate businesses: Disney, Microsoft, have begun to give everybody domestic partner benefits -“ that’s the start -¦
Of course there’s Southern fundamentalists that tried to boycott Disney because of this. Can you imagine? To boycott Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck because they’re immoral! Spong says in a rare broad smile. People like their money more than their prejudices, he adds.
I think we won’t call it marriage, because that’s a red rag to a bull, but I think we will have a national recognition of committed relationships that can be registered legally -¦ Spong says.
We don’t marry anybody anyway. What we do is bless the union. The state makes it legal, the church simply blesses the union -“ and we are already doing that -¦ It’s not even considered unusual any more. It’s a new day.
There’s a brief pause, so I jump in with a personal question and Spong is knocked only slightly off, despite the innocence of the query. He’s been retired since 2000 -“ how is he finding his new life?
I’m probably busier than I’ve ever been. But it’s a different kind of thing -“ I’m doing only what I want to do, he says. Spong mentions his wife, who is upstairs in their hotel room planning the next engagement -“ but seems to regret the comment in case it seems impolite. He explains that the most personal journalists usually get is to ask if he himself is gay -“ sometimes on live radio.
I refuse to answer the question because I love to keep ’em guessing, Spong says. See, if I say no I’m not, it sounds offended. I say that’s a decision I can never prove to you one way or another. You can look at my life, I’ve been married not once but twice -¦ but I’ve known people that were married that are gay. I think you treat that with a very light touch.
The heterosexual retired bishop from the Deep South shakes my hand and heads upstairs for his next interview. On leaving, Spong says in that unabashed American style: I really think I’ve got a message and I’m in a position where I can influence public opinion -¦ and that’s because I’ve been doing it for a long time, because I’ve written a lot of books.
I’ve learnt how to stand out, he says.
A New Christianity For A New World by John Shelby Spong is published by Harper Collins and available at good bookstores everywhere.