John Shelby Spong
Bishop John Shelby Spong in 2006. (Photo by Scott Griessel/Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

Controversial Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong Has Died

By Josh Shepherd

Bishop John Shelby Spong, a prelate of the Episcopal Church (USA) known for his progressive theological views and ordination of LGBTQ clergy members, died on Sunday morning at age 90.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, where Spong had once been pastor, announced that he had “died peacefully” at his home in North Carolina.

The bestselling author of such provocative books as Resurrection: Myth or Reality? (1994), Spong had been affiliated with The Jesus Seminar at Westar Institute, a group of theologically liberal scholars who cast doubt on the divinity of Christ and the Gospel accounts.

Consecrated as an Episcopal bishop in 1976 in the Diocese of Newark, New Jersey, within three years he was appointed head of the influential diocese and remained in that post until 2000 when he retired. He ordained the first openly gay male priest in the Episcopal Church in 1989, and went on to ordain about three dozen LGBTQ clergy in his diocese.

Reportedly, his diocese saw dramatic declines in membership during his tenure. Nationwide, Episcopal membership has declined by nearly a million members since 1979.

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Some gravitated to the Anglican Church in North America, which follows conservative theological stances. That denomination now has nearly 1,000 affiliated congregations and more than 125,000 members.

“He did great harm as Episcopal bishop over decades, mocking traditional Christianity,” tweeted Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a Washington, D.C. group which advocates denominations hold to long-standing creeds. “His diocese lost 40% of members under his reign as he ‘modernized’ faith by gutting it.”

Similarly, retired Episcopal Bishop FitzSimons Allison criticized Spong and similar church leaders in an interview. “I have been ashamed of Episcopal leadership denying the Christian faith and their ordination vows. … If not given confidence in scripture and creeds, (seminaries) will produce clergy whose parishes or missions will not flourish and over time they will no longer be serving a congregation.”

By contrast, Westar Institute in Salem, Oregon, where Spong had for years been a fellow, tweeted in remembrance: “His work and witness have inspired and freed many Westar members and a generation of thoughtful people. May his memory be a blessing.”

Spong also championed women clergy, requiring any church in his diocese that was searching for a new priest to interview at least one female candidate, said Bishop Bonnie Perry of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan. She recalled Spong as a “wonderful, amazing, Southern gentleman” who used his position and privilege for the benefit of others and believed in both inclusion and fairness.

He was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1931, and attended fundamentalist churches as a child. After his father died when Spong was 12, he found a mentor in an Episcopal priest named Robert Crandall. Spong attended Virginia Theological Seminary, graduating in 1955 and subsequently serving at several Episcopal churches in North Carolina and Virginia.

An author of more than a dozen books including Why Christianity Must Change or Die, Spong had a knack for communicating complex theology to lay readers, said Kelly Hughes, president of DeChant-Hughes & Associates public relations and a longtime book publicist specializing in religious thought. 

However, his critics say he also misrepresented important Christian doctrines, including the virgin birth of Christ, the reliability of Scripture, and the doctrine of original sin.

According to one report, Spong wrote in a diocesan newspaper article published in 2000: “I do not believe that God is a Being sitting above the clouds pulling strings. … I do not believe that human beings are born evil and that only those who come to God through the ‘blood of Jesus’ will be saved.”

Those views conflict with the catechism of the Episcopal Church first compiled in 1789, which reads in part: “By his obedience, even to suffering and death, Jesus made the offering which we could not make; in him we are freed from the power of sin and reconciled to God.”

In a 2013 interview, he spoke about his own spirituality and beliefs. “The older I get, the more deeply I believe—but the fewer beliefs I have,” he said. “I have a sort of mystical awareness (of God) that’s indescribable, but I can’t avoid it. When I’m asked to define God I’m almost wordless.”

Spong is survived by his wife Christine and three daughters.

Religion News Service contributed to this report.

Freelance journalist Josh Shepherd writes on faith, culture, and public policy for several media outlets. He and his wife live in the Washington, D.C. area with their two children.

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24 thoughts on “Controversial Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong Has Died”

    1. Wow — normally we must experience a natural disaster in order for that verse to be trotted out! But hey — who needs the Tower of Siloam when you’ve got Bishop Spong??!!

  1. I read his book book, Biblical literalism : a gentile heresy : a journey into a new Christianity through the doorway of Matthew’s gospel and found it fascinating. It gave me a ledge to stand on when personally struggling with some of the very real challenges of Biblical literalism. May he rest in peace.

    1. Without knowing what you mean by ‘literalism’ I can’t start to imagine what its challenges are, but let’s assume you mean the direct grammatical realism with concrete meaning to the original readership. The prime challenges, in this case, could be the confrontation of events and prophesy with either a metaphysical materialist or neoplatonic idealist/gnostic world view. Hmm, I can see the problem.

    2. I met him at a conference some 25 years ago where he treated me, a total stranger, to lunch and was very interested in my spiritual journey. He was a great listener, very humble and quite visionary and I remember being quite impressed by his kind and generous spirit.
      Were there more Christians who behaved like Dr Spong, there would not be such a wholesale rush to the gates to escape our Christian heritage.

      1. Anne Stearns Pardun

        He was a very kind and inclusive man. He walked the walk even if he didn’t parrot the traditional doctrine. He made you think and truly cared about his fellow humans.

  2. Spong – presumed to reflect a mature – rather than a juvenile faith. I trust he died honestly – if Jesus means anything, it is being honest….

    I would hope someday the evangelical religion would come to grips with the essence of honesty – and eschew those whose lives are fundamentally dishonest in their carrying of repeated adulterous affairs….

  3. Twenty years ago he was invited to speak at my alma mater, Lynchburg College. I wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper in which I compared him to the sophists of ancient Greece, who could sound convincing on any topic they spoke on but didn’t really
    know or care about the truth. He was a false teacher who brazenly rejected the faith given once for all the saints. The New Testament has a great deal to say about such false teachers, none of it good.

  4. I think we have to explore what is meant by God, and explore what is meant by the Bible being the word of God. In our home we accommodate two extreme views.
    My wife believes that God the creator exists, and that the Bible is the transcribed word of God. Her broad faith is coherent and unshakeable around those pillars.
    I believe that God is a crucial idea that has been invented during evolution. That this idea of God has been reified to where God is an existent mediated primarily by language and social psychological processes. Where the Bible, old and new testaments, has been authored by men inspired by this reified God: the old to mediate the Jewish people; the new to mediate a universal Christianity (where the societies in which so many of us find ourselves, have been crucially mediated by Christianity).
    We then find that these respective views are congruent and can coexist. Where we can each partake of the other’s occurrence and mediating faith.
    At the end of the day we are simply two children within something way beyond our capacity to grasp and understand the totality of things.

    There isn’t any good reason why Christianity cannot accommodate all its variants. Even where those variants are in theological tension or conflict. More work perhaps needs to be done on what we might call meta-theology, which respectfully tracks and maps the variants, and seeks a Biblically inspired ground on which to reconcile disagreements.
    We will then differ on whether we look to the past for that inspiring and reconciling interpretation, or whether we reflect on the present and the future to ground that interpretation.
    The divergent views of the Bishop, that Josh reports on, then both have their place, are each and both to be respectfully and fairly interrogated.

    1. Jesus did not give His followers the option of inventing their faith. He said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) Jesus also said, “But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matt 7:14) Also, in Rev. 22:18, it says: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll.”

      I understand the desire to make Christianity all-inclusive. But if you do that, it’s no longer Christianity. That may seem too narrow for many. But if there is only one God who sent His only Son to die to pay the penalty for our sin, would it make sense that He’d be okay with us refusing the path He’s provided and inventing our own?

      In other words, if you are right, and God is just an invented idea–then sure, Christianity should be all inclusive. However, if you are wrong, and Jesus is who He said He is, then perverting His words and rejecting His way is an offense against the God of the universe. So, I suggest Christians adhere to the word of Christ and those who reject Christianity can form another religion. Just don’t call it Christianity.

  5. “Controversial”? I think it should have said “Apostate.” I’m sorry it hurts leftist feelings so, but the Bible is clear — those who reject the Gospel of Jesus Christ will spend eternity in hell. A man who twisted Scripture to make a god in his own image and rejected substitutionary atonement was not born again. He will spend eternity — that’s not my wish or God’s wish; it’s God’s objective standard that was rejected by Spong.

    1. You said “I think it should have said “Apostate”. I’m sorry it hurt’s leftist feelings so, but the Bible is clear—those who reject the Gospel of Jesus Christ will spend eternity in hell. A man who twisted Scripture to make a god in his own image and rejected substitutionary atonement was not born again.”

      I could say the exact same thing about the Evangelical’s favorite, Donald Trump:
      “I think it should have said “Apostate”. I’m sorry if it hurts rightwingers feelings so, but the Bible is clear—those who reject the Gospel of Jesus Christ will spend eternity in hell. A man who twisted Scripture to make a god in his own image and rejected substitutionary atonement was not born again”.

      At least Bishop Spong was a decent human being.

  6. Spong was a heretic pure and simple. He denied every major doctrine of orthodox Christianity as outlined in the Creeds. He was a vile human being. A tool in the hands of Satan.

  7. Barney Wolfe why bring Donald Trump up concerning this article about Bishop Spong? Who cares if Bishop Spong was a decent human being. That sure didn’t get him in heaven. Only confessing your sins to Christ and asking Him into your heart will result in redemption. Here we go again sticking it to evangelicals for voting for Donald Trump in 2016. Only God knows Donald Trump’s heart and only God gives redemption. Therefore, you don’t need to worry yourself about the state of where Donald Trump will spend eternity. God will take care of that.

    1. Michelle Hopkins–100% agree with you. When push came to shove, moral or not Trump spoke truth about nearly every huge, pressing topic. What was ONE area Spong spoke truth and life about?

  8. Julie, why do you mildly disagree with the left-wing heretic Spong, but go after right-wing radicals in the church with all your might?

    1. To this point, I haven’t expressed any opinion about Spong–mild or strong. I did, however, argue what Scripture says, which is in opposition to what Spong taught. And I asked Josh to write a fresh story for me, rather than republish the RNS article on Spong, which I felt didn’t adequately report how heretical some of Spong’s beliefs were.

      1. It seems like you devote an outsized amount of energy on exposing nobody crackpots like Jackson Lahmeyer and Sherri Tenpenny from the corners of the internet, in comparison to titans of heresy and relativism like Spong who have thousands of time the reach, influence, and prestige.

        1. My main focus is abuse and corruption within the evangelical (mostly conservative) church. So yeah, I don’t spend a lot of time reporting on liberals outside that camp. That’s not my calling, and frankly, many of those leaders are quite open and public about their heretical views. It’s hardly news.

    2. Radicalism – be it on the rightwing or leftwing – is not good spiritually, physically, mentally, or emotionally. Its impact on individuals and collective impact on societies is evidence enough. We should all stand up to radicalism.

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