An Episcopal bishop's unorthodoxy reaches epic proportions.

Feb. 18, 1991
The War Comes Home
RELIGION, Page 62, Time Magazine
More Spongtaneous Eruptions

Jesus Christ, as portrayed in some New Testament passages, is "narrow-minded" and "vindictive." The Gospel writers "twisted" the facts concerning Jesus' resurrection, which was never meant to be taken literally. The virgin birth of Christ is an unthinkable notion, and there is not much value in the doctrine of the Trinity, or in the belief that Jesus Christ was sent to save fallen humanity from sin. St. Paul, the missionary of Christianity to the Gentiles, was a repressed and "self-loathing" homosexual. As for the Old Testament, it contains a "vicious tribal code of ethics" attributed to a "sadistic" God. The idea that Yahweh bestowed the Promised Land upon the Israelites is "arrogance."

Excerpts from a tract by a staunch atheist? On the contrary, those are assertions offered by a bishop of America's Episcopal Church, John Spong of Newark, in his new book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (Harper San Francisco, $16.95). Spong's unorthodoxy is of long standing, but it has now reached epic proportions. His previous book, Living in Sin?, assailed Christian dos and don'ts on sex and asserted that nonmarital sex can be holy under some circumstances. After the work appeared in 1988, Spong ordained a sexually active gay priest, inspiring the Episcopal House of Bishops to "disassociate" itself from Spong's action.

The provocative prelate also has Roman Catholics fuming. A task force in his Newark diocese has just declared that Catholicism's view of women is "so insulting, so retrograde that we can respond only by saying that women should, for the sake of their own humanity, leave that communion." Spong handpicked the panel, and offers no particular criticism of its assertions, though he says he might have employed milder language. Newark's Catholic Archbishop, Theodore McCarrick, has decried the "offensive attacks" on Catholicism.

In Rescuing the Bible, Spong brands traditional Catholicism as a "destructive" creed. But he is even more offended by conservative Protestants who take a literal view of biblical exegesis. Spong, 59, held similar beliefs in his boyhood as a practicing Presbyterian, and has admitted that Fundamentalism gave him a "love of Scripture that is no longer present in the liberal tradition of the church." In taking aim at literalism, Spong declares his goal is to reveal the spiritual truths underlying the biblical text. Still, his book lashes out both at the conservative view of the Bible and at its adherents, who are, Spong says, consumed by "enormous fear" of doctrinal uncertainty.

Spong's wildly offbeat convictions raise an intriguing question: Are there any limits to what an Episcopal leader may believe--- or disbelieve? His Paul-was-gay argument, based tenuously upon the Apostle's unmarried state and frequently mentioned sense of personal sin, is causing a growing uproar among traditionalists. But conservative Bishop William Frey, president of Pennsylvania's Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, doubts any decisive stand will be taken by the church against his colleague's writings. "The House of Bishops has shown itself to be impotent in the face of challenges to the core beliefs of the church," Frey says. "We've been paralyzed by our politeness."

Los Angeles Bishop Frederick Borsch, who chairs the hierarchy's theology committee (on which Spong sits), explains that "we are not a confessional church that tries to write a definition of orthodoxy. A lot of us would defend this as the genius of Episcopalianism." Spong's latest work, however, leaves the genius somewhat embattled.

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