(c) Church of England Newspaper, July 10th1998. Posted by kind permission of the Church of England Newspaper & Andrew Carey.
If Bishop John Spong hopes to have a hearing from any of the Bishops representing the growing, rather than dying, force in Anglican Christianity he had better not repeat the following words, which he used to describe Christians in Africa: "They've moved out of animism into a very superstitious kind of Christianity. They've yet to face the intellectual revolution of Copernicus and Einstein that we've had to face in the developing world. That's just not on their radar screen."
It amazed me when we met last week at a central London hotel, that the artful Episcopal exponent of political correctness could utter words like these. Is this American imperialism gone mad or is it just a moment when we see the true colours of the man who believes he can be compared with the giants of history like Martin Luther? How far are such words removed from the colonialism of the past when Europeans shamefully talked about Africans as savages?
"Scientific advances have given us a new way of understanding homosexual people. At the Lambeth Conference and in dealing with the Third World this knowledge hasn't percolated down, and it's not going to change overnight."
When I put it to him that Third World bishops might feel belittled and patronised by such remarks, he compared them to the advocates of slavery in the 19th Century - an insult if ever there was one, especially to the African and Caribbean Bishops. "If they feel patronised that's too bad. I'm not going to cease to be a 20th Century person for fear of offending someone in the Third World" he declared bluntly.
But you are merely an American 20th Century person, a western 20th Century person, I pointed out. Bishop Spong, however, is convinced that time is on his side, as it has been on the side of feminists and of the anti-slavery movement. "In General Convention last year we came within one vote of passing legislation for same-sex blessings - we will surely pass that at the next General Convention in 2000."
For a man whose theology so emphasises the virtues of love he has very little love for his fellow-Christians. "I would rather they were Christians than animists," he says of Christians in Africa, "even superstitious, fundamentalist Christians of a type I have primarily experienced in Africa."
Where is your humility and understanding of other Christians, I ask. In his new book, (Why Christianity must change or die, HarperCollins £8.99) he argues that there has been a revolution in knowledge, entailing three responses: firstly people have rejected the Church, secondly they have retreated into fundamentalist, and thirdly they have become believers in exile, like him.
As NT Wright remarked in a devastating critique of Spong's thought: the queues to he doors of fundamentalist churches would be endless if everyone he called a fundamentalist was a fundamentalist.
"Fundamentalism," he counters, "is a broad category, literalism is a broad category. The fundamentalists are fundamentalist about everything: literalists are more speculative about what they are fundamentalist about. Some of there people would certainly not be fundamentalist about Jesus walking on water, or feeding the 5000, but they would be fundamentalist about the physical resurrection or the Virgin Birth.
"All literalism is a security system. But God doesn't need a security system to be protected. I can't hurt God, the idea that Spong can diminish or hurt God is just really amazing."
But you can harm Christian witness, surely? He demurs.
I point out to him that although there has been an honourable tradition of controversial bishops of have at least spurred people into talking about Christianity, he has gone further. Where is the integrity of following the path of his hero, Michael Goulder (a theologian and priest who had the honesty to become an atheist and resign his orders) in rejecting theism, without taking the final step? "You are effectively an atheist and the things you say about God and the 'Christ experience' are meaningless unless they have reference to some kind of external authority," I suggest (respectfully of course).
He responds: "I think God is calling you into maturity at this point, Andrew, instead of into accepting some kind of authority. Faith doesn't mean believing the right kind of propositions, faith means having the courage to know that God is out in front of you and no matter how you go in the future you'll never be apart from God, that is what faith means biblically."
And in fact, if only he was on the side of 'mere Christianity' he would be one of the outstanding witnesses of our age. For one thing, he has courage, and his presentational skills are absolutely brilliant. When he begins to talk about what he positively believes, although it bears little or no relation to Christianity, he becomes an evangelist.
He says: "If humanity is an evolving process into higher consciousness and not a perfect creation that fell away in an act of sin, then the way you interpret the Christ function has got to be radically different. I want the Christ function to enable me to achieve a higher level of consciousness, not to rescue me from the fall. Does that mean that I don't believe in sin? No that's to misunderstand. But sin to me is the baggage of evolution.
"you are I have survived four and a half billion years of evolutionary history, and the reason we have survived is that we are radically self-centered people. If the world were reduced to you and me for one last meal one of us would kill the other for that last meal to survive, that is the way the human animal survives historically.
"And it is that which is the baggage of our history that we need constantly to offer. The Christ function for me is the experience of the love of God that is so deep, so profound, so powerful, that it lifts me out of the threat to my security, and it enables me to give my life away.
" I could do that for my wife and children without giving it a second thought. What I'd like to be is at the point of life, that I'm so affirmed by the love of God, that I would be willing to give my life away for anybody. And that is what Christ does.
" Christ is, to use classical language, the incarnation of the love of God lived out in the human mind. I don't think that is departing from traditional Christianity" he declares.
Here is the heart of his belief, that traditional Christian belief is now utterly meaningless to modern people, and so a new Christianity must be invented. Bishop Spong's reinvention is surprisingly based on an impossible and derided philosophical position, one of progress: that somehow human beings are developing a higher level of consciousness.
Ignoring the evidence of 20th Century history in his optimism, Bishop Spong reduces Christianity to New Age theory, in which the 'Christ Figure' calls us to a new level of humanity. Christ accomplished nothing on the cross and was merely closer to the divine than the rest of us.
Although I am usually happy with compliments I have to wave aside his statement; "The difference between Jesus and you is a matter of degree rather than kind, the same God we meet in Jesus we meet in you. But Jesus is an infinitely fuller degree of what God means. The power of God invites me to be called into a deeper expression of what I am."
"God cannot be external to ourselves, because to talk about God you may as well look in a mirror. Every human being that describes God will inevitably do so as a human analogy. We recognise that is the best you can do. If horses had Gods they would look like horses. What I am trying to say is that the theistic definition of God no longer identifies with this day and age. God is not a Santa Claus, a miracle worker or a parent figure. He is not going to take care of you or me. You and I have to live our lives as if there is not a God."
What is the point then? "What I'd trying to say is that God is a power living in and through life, calling us into the fullness of our own humanity and that Jesus is the ultimate God presence, because in Jesus I see life as it was meant to be lived, love as it was meant to be shown. If I'm going to worship Jesus I've got to do it by living fully, ad by loving wastefully, and by daring to be who I am, and taking responsibility for myself and the world and not saying God is going to fix it."
Despite open denial of the Creeds, Bishop Spong clings to the Church, his episcopal office with its status and stipend and to his Christian identity. "I'm as much a Christian as you are, and I'm no more going to give up my Christianity in order to accommodate evangelicals or fundamentalists than you are going to give it up to accommodate me."
After a series of exchanges as our time draws to a close, he points out that if it wasn't him, there would be another Bishop Spong. We joke about the Church having to invent a Bishop Spong, but as I walk away I'm not so sure.
The Church of God could as happily do without Bishop Spong as it could without Andrew Carey. Somehow Christianity worldwide, in all its vibrancy, must just manage to limp along without us.