American theologians examine John Spong's theology

Review of Can a Bishop be Wrong? Ten Scholars Challenge John Shelby Spong by Bishop Paul Richardson - posted by kind permission of The Church of England Newspaper.

For John Shelby Spong the Lambeth Conference is a marvellous opportunity to secure yet more publicity. This, presumably, is the reason he did not stand aside to allow his elected successor to take his place at the 1998 gathering. That would have meant missing the chance to appear on TV and grab more headlines in the press.

The bishop shamelessly cashes in on his office to attract media attention. Why does the church allow him to do it? The charitable reply is that Anglican comprehensiveness is always going to give mavericks freedom they would not enjoy in other denominations. Given the way in which North American Anglicans have cracked down on dissent over the ordination of women, I am not sure this interpretation is correct. My fear is that most of Bishop Spong's colleagues do not realise how limited he is as a theologian or how far removed from Christian orthodoxy.

Russell Reno, a bright young theologian who has produced a stimulating study of Rahner, would agree with this assessment. "It tells us something about the theological ambience of the Episcopal Church", he writes in this new assessment of Spong by 10 American theologians, "that Bishop Spong could even speak to the House of Bishops without generating gentle chuckles at his theological dotage, to say nothing of outright laughter."

David Scott, professor of Ethics at Virginia Seminary, makes a similar point when he tells us the fact that Episcopalians are prepared to take Spong seriously. He abuses religious fundamentalists but gives blind adherence to what he believes to be the findings of modern science or the values of contemporary culture. His understanding of the gospel appears to amount to the conviction that we should "affirm life".

He frequently contradicts himself. As Bishop Stantion points out in the opening essay in the collection, he damns Genesis and the Priestly writer for being patriarchal and sexist but the adopts a sentence from the Priestly writer affirming the essential goodness of creation as his summary of the enduring message of the Bible!

Spong tells us that it us wrong for Christians to try to convert Muslims or Buddhists to their faith but then reveals that one of his burning ambitions is to persuade the atheist New Testament scholar, Matthew Goulder, to resume his priesthood. In furtherance of this evangelistic aim, Spong clearly thinks it is right to change the central message of the Christian Faith.

Spong has grave doubts about the Kyries at the Eucharist, feeling it is not appropriate to ask God for mercy, but similar reservations about the use of prayer do not prevent him from demanding services of blessing for same-sex couples.

John Shelby Spong is not in the same league as episcopal gadflies like John AT Robinson or David Jenkins. He lacks their theological ability. Instead of stimulating debate he only causes embarrassment. It is comforting to see from Can a bishop be wrong that there are able theologians in the Episcopal Church, many of them young, who are prepared to criticise his views. What remains is that the leadership of the Church has done so little to dissociate itself from him. For Anglicans elsewhere it raises questions about their own links with ECUSA. Some are asking whether we can allow the Episcopal Church to retain the Anglican Franchise in North America. It is not that the French fries are greasy. The hamburgers do not appear to have any meat.
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