There is a weariness to Bishop Jack Spong which borders on disinterest. Matters on which he is clearly passionate are discussed in a manner which is almost offhand. Even the enthusiasm of his current audience in the United Reformed Church does not seem to raise him from his lethargy. A year and a half away from a retirement which for his opponents cannot come soon, he has published a new book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die. It is a title with the air of a final attempt to get his point across.
Spong's point, to some, constitutes nothing more or less than the abandonment of Christianity as the ages have known it. Christ as the incarnation of God is "nonsensical", death on the cross as a sacrifice for sins is "a barbarian idea"; scripture cannot govern ethical behaviour and, most significantly in the context of the Lambeth Conference different sexual orientations are part of mankind's creation in God's image.
Settling into an armchair at the Wydale Hall retreat centre in North Yorkshire Spong denies with a sigh that he is abandoning Christianity. His hope in writing the book, he says, was to call the Christian Church into such a reformation as will enable the people of the 21st century to affirm Christ. The Lambeth Conference, he believes, will not be doing that.
"What I'm trying to say is that the God who is perceived as a supernatural miracle worker in the sky is difficult for modern people to believe," he says and complains that if anyone actually bothered to read his book they would realise this. "Once you redefine God, as I am trying to do, you have to redefine Christ, because the affirmation of Jesus is that in and through Jesus you have met the holy God."
It may or may not be a coincidence that not only has Bishop Spong's blueprint for the future of Christianity just been published, but that the Archbishop of Canterbury's own template for the church, The Canterbury Letters to the Future, will be issued during the course of the Lambeth Conference. There is a stark contrast between the two. Archbishop Carey lays out a very traditional set of beliefs, affirming longstanding doctrines of the death and resurrection of Christ, the incarnation, sin and evil. They are all aspects of Christianity which Bishop Spong believes must be abandoned, or at the very least redefined, if Christianity is to make it through the next century.
Spong waves Dr Carey's work about and removes his glasses, the better, perhaps, not to read it. He seems unconcerned and even willing to play the loyal Bishop, up to a point. "I don't think the Archbishop will be part of the major debate," he declares. "The Archbishop is identified with a particular wing of the Christian church and that's the evangelical wing. That's a perfectly legitimate wing, but it's not the place where the future of the Church will be determined."
This may be the point. Bishop Spong likens himself to Martin Luther, although he keeps his own theses to twelve, rather fewer than Luther's ninety-five. "Luther died a Christian," Spong observes quietly. "He didn't die a Roman Catholic Christian but he died a Christian." This may be true but it is difficult for many within the Church to see how Spong can do the same, hence calls for his sacking or resignation. The Bishop Rochester, Rt Rev Michael NazirAli, in an essay on his Diocesan website, accepts the suggestion of a reformation but says that the resources proposed by Spong are "pathetic". Others are simply unimpressed, among them Rt Rev Stephen Sykes, who chairs the Church of England's Doctrine Commission and denies that Spong is saying anything new at all or that Spong's book will "break like Luther's Theses upon an astonished world". Likewise Bishop Richard Holloway, Head of the Scottish Episcopal Church, looks on Spong with a gentle tolerance as one on the far left of the theological spectrum, "tugging at the rest of us to think hard about the legitimate challenges that contemporary society puts to the Christian tradition."
Denials of the virgin birth and resurrection may be old hat to those who remember former Bishop of Durham David Jenkins, but Spong crucially disputes the death of Christ as a means by which mankind is saved and achieves salvation, the very core of Christian faith.
"The idea that God killed Jesus to pay the price of sin is a barbarian idea because human sacrifice is a barbarian idea," he declares. "Why doesn't God just say 'I forgive the sin of the world'? Why does God insist that the murder of his son be a part of the forgiveness?"
The idea of an atoning sacrifice Spong sees as having been imported into Christianity from Judaism at a much later date than, for example, the writings of St Paul, which he claims do not mention it. Spong is even more adamant that it must have no part in a church which hopes to attract people in the 21st century. "If a human father were to offer his son for the sins of the world we would arrest him for child abuse and murder. We would not worship him."
Spong is uncertain about the outcome of his own Reformation. He is willing to concede that he may pass into history forgotten, but he is not deterred by this prospect or by the publication of a book by the Archbishop affirming traditional values to a Conference on the cusp of the Millennium. He is far from finished with his explanation of why the Archbishop of Canterbury's views are of so little interest to him.
"He's a titular head but he doesn't have any authority. Lambeth doesn't have any authority." At last Spong becomes animated as he warms to this theme. "The Archbishop of Canterbury is nothing in the American Episcopal Church and he's a Margaret Thatcher appointee. He's not been elected by anybody. We didn't elect him. The Bishops in England didn't elect him. At least the Cardinals elect the Pope. He is the presiding officer of Anglican Communion, but he can't declare that certain things have to be believed."
Spong's problems with the Archbishop became their most strident and public last year over the issue of homosexuality, which has dogged the Church of England for several years, and Spong's own Episcopal Church for nearly thirty. It will loom large in the deliberations of the Lambeth Conference. Spong believes that "a new place" has been reached in America and he is adamant that no Lambeth Conference is going to tell him what he should do in his diocese. Openly practising gay priests living with their partners horrifies many in the Anglican Communion in general and the Church of England in particular. Dr Carey has said that he finds no justification in scripture for sex outside marriage, which would include gay sex, but Spong is clear that scripture is pretty much irrelevant. It is an argument on which he is well rehearsed and which he trots out with the efficiency of a tape recording.
"There's a lot in scripture that we have turned over in the light of new experience. Our knowledge and our experience has increased to the place where some of the prescriptions in the Bible are simply wrong. We don't believe epilepsy's caused by demon possession today either, yet Jesus is quoted as having said that it was. We certainly don't believe in slavery and Paul says in Colossians how Christians are to treat their slaves. We don't believe that women are property, and yet you'll find that in the heart of the Ten Commandments."
After a public exchange of forthright letters with Dr Carey Spong wrote, at the Archbishop's invitation, a Catechesis on Homosexuality, for the Lambeth Conference's consideration. His real hope is that the conference will not vote on the issue at all. Lapsing back into normal speech, Spong sees any vote as probably going the way of the traditionalists, resulting in the publication of a rival pro-gay report with all the acrimony that would bring. His preferred outcome of the conference is the establishment of a Commission such as oversaw the gradual acceptance of the ordination of women.
Spong's hectic speaking schedule in the run-up to the Conference is calling him away. The tranquil surroundings of a retreat centre give way to a possibly rowdy session with the Lesbian and Christian Movement, then on to Canterbury where, Spong says casually, he may not bother to speak. It is a suggestion unlikely to appease those who believe he should not even be there.
"I do what I do because I believe I have to bear witness to truth as God has led me to see truth," Spong says.
Perhaps there is something of Luther in him after all.
Peter Linford is News Editor of Church