When the Dust Settles: A tribute to John Shelby Spong

When the Dust Settles: A tribute to John Shelby Spong

Glynn Cardy 19th September 2021

I was handed a book in 1983 called “Into the Whirlwind”.  I was a second-year theological student at St John’s College in Auckland and was engaged, in the best traditions of student activism, with the major social and political issues of the time.  We marched, we wrote, we debated, we yelled, we were a holy pain in the neck.  We acted and reacted our way into new thinking (as Eric Fromm might say).  What we didn’t expect was any bishop anywhere to publicly agree with us.

Bishops you need to understand are guardians and teachers of the faith, ‘the faith’ being the received and agreed upon teachings of the Church.  They also are meant to keep as many of their flock secure and content, most of the time.  This is what pastoral care meant for many.  And while bishops can be quietly supportive of activists (which was my experience, mostly, of the bishops of Auckland) they will seldom join you at the ‘barricades’.

Jack (as he was called) was a different kind of bishop.  He knew the socio-political winds that were blowing.  He saw the Church resisting, chugging straight into them, and many members disillusioned and abandoning ship.  He saw church attendance in his diocese half in the last two decades of the 20th century.  Jack’s response, firmly grounded in his understanding of Scripture, and the role of the bishop to be at the forefront, was to raise a sail of change and tack with the winds.  He spoke truth into his and our context, and bore the cost of that.

Nowadays we might think championing religious pluralism, queer rights and ministry, endemic racism, sexual intimacy outside of heterosexual marriage, and women’s leadership, would not be that controversial in late 20th century America.  But for a bishop to give voice to such taki[i], and then to act on such voice, was to invite unbelievable vitriol, violence, and death threats.  There is a murky seething underbelly to religion that when poked by change or challenge is very ugly.  When Jack ordained the first openly gay man in the Episcopal Church in 1989 all hell broke loose.  And Jack and his family weathered that.

Jack’s strength was three-fold.  Firstly, He knew his Bible forwards and backwards. He would take the verses his adversaries threw at him and gently and reasonably explain those verses differently.  He related the big motifs in the Bible – like liberation from slavery, like upending conventions and expectations, like the close relationship between faith and courage – and apply them to his day and its issues.   As he once wrote, “I treasure the Bible.  I live in it and work on it all the time.  But it is not the word of God.  It’s the tribal story of a particular people, and the best thing about that story is that the story keeps growing and evolving.

The text today from Acts 10 of Peter’s vision on a Joppa rooftop is, as happens sometimes in Scripture, a constructed vision to give approval to a major theological seismic shift.  On the one hand Peter did not have this vision (we are not reading history), and on the other hand this became the vision of the Jesus movement and its leadership, including Peter (we are reading theology).  You could say, ‘God changed God’s mind’ and ‘God decided to disregard the Holy Bible’.  Or you could say the leadership of the Jesus movement had the courage to take their understanding of Jesus’ vision and deliberately tear down some of the key boundaries of their faith (determining who is in and who is not) to make it more inclusive. 

This was the sort of leadership Jack offered.  In his imitable style he wrote, “(Churches) amuse themselves by playing an irrelevant ecclesiastical game called “Let’s Pretend.”  Let’s pretend that we possess the objective truth of God in our inerrant Scriptures or in our infallible pronouncements or in our unbroken apostolic traditions.”  “I think religion in general and Christianity in particular must always be evolving.  Forcing the evolution is the dialogue between yesterday’s words and today’s knowledge.”

The second reading today is from Mark where the disciples ask Jesus who is the greatest.  And Jesus rather than saying ‘it’s the one who is the best pastor’, or ‘it’s the one who is the best teacher’, or ‘it’s the one who leads the most people’, or ‘it’s the one who is the humblest’ (which is how this text is often taught).  Instead, he points to a child (one who has no power, no status, no proven abilities; one who could be straight or queer, female or male), and says ‘whoever welcomes a child’.  Jesus upends the power and privilege grid.  ‘The greatest among you,’ says this Jesus, ‘is the one who welcomes the off-grid.  And in doing so,’ Jesus went on to say, ‘they welcome not only me but the God I believe in who doesn’t do power and privilege, who isn’t owned by any clubs or religions, who fundamentally includes everyone.’ 

This was the God Jack believed in.  A God of compassion and self-less love.  Again, in his words, “God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist.  All of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God.  I honour my tradition, I walk through my tradition, but I don’t think my tradition defines God, I think it only points me to God.”

Jack’s strength was knowing how to justify such a statement like this by reference to the very Bible that his critics tried to impale him with.

Secondly, Jack was a wonderful communicator.  He wasn’t a theologian in the strict sense of that word.  He read widely and popularized others research and thoughts, like a good preacher does.  His theological roots were in the mediaeval universalism of Peter Abelard and the existentialism of Paul Tillich.  Where Jack excelled was in his ability to write clearly, succinctly, and accessibly for the general public.  His focus was always explaining the faith to those outside it (and those who once were in it).

What used to puzzle me was how he found time as a bishop to write.  While as the Bishop of Newark he wrote 11 books (and also, I might add, cared for his very sick wife).  American bishops, like their Aotearoa counterparts, work huge hours trying to meet huge demands.  He told me his diocese used to give him three months leave every year to read and write.  So, a big ‘shout out’, a big thank you, to that diocese, and those who picked up his duties during that time!

Jack also took risks in his writing.  He wouldn’t just communicate the understandings of broad middle Protestantism (like debunking a literal heaven and hell, or a literal virgin, or a bloody sacrificial death to save souls, or a physical resurrection), but he’d go out on a limb and posit ideas like Jesus being married, or Paul being gay.  Ideas which are interesting but conjecture.  Again, this is not something bishops do.  They don’t do conjecture.

And thirdly Jack was a wonderful pastor.  He was a kind man.  When he visited a church, like when he visited St Matthew-in-the-City when I was the vicar there, he would make it his business to find out about the church, what the issues were, the problems were, and how minister was faring.  Then he would do something that I’ve never seen a New Zealand bishop do.  He would stand up in front of that congregation and praise the minister.  And not just using one sentence.  He made you feel like someone just gave you a million dollars.  He was a great encourager.

As Bishop of Newark, he made every parish that had a vacancy interview at least one woman.  This was lightyears ahead of other dioceses.  He would say to people ‘the Episcopal Church today is not, and will not be, the same Church your grandparents attended’.  The winds of change have come and let’s not bury our heads in the sand of yesteryear wishing they’d go away.

Jack was also kind to his critics.  I’ve been in a number of public forums with him where some critics have been angry and even nasty.  He never responded similarly.  Always patient.  Always gentle.  Always thoughtful.  I do know though, that away from the spotlight, he would despair about the institutional church and many of his fellow bishops.

Jack’s ideas about God and prayer continued to evolve after he retired in 2000.  He wrote, “I think that anything that begins to give people a sense of their own worth and dignity is God.”  This is how he expressed his non-theist belief that God is not a noun, that demands to be defined, but a verb that invites us to live life to its fullest, love wastefully, and be all we can be.  Prayer therefore is the activity of being in that living and loving, enabling each person to give and to receive from one another, and thus find that deepest meaning of our existence.

Lastly, Jack was a very brave person.  As he wrote, “When the dust settles and the pages of history are written, it will not be the angry defenders of intolerance who have made the difference.  The reward will go to those who dared to step outside the safety of their privacy in order to expose and rout the prevailing prejudices.”  Jack was one who dared. 

Kua hinga te Totara o Te Waonui a Tāne[ii].  Haere ra e Jack.  We honour you, friend, pioneer, lover of life and truth.


On Religion:

Hysterical fundamentalism is not the way into the future; it is the last gasp of the past.

All religion seems to need to prove that it’s the only truth. And that’s where it turns demonic. Because that’s when you get religious wars and persecutions and burning heretics at the stake.

I don’t think hell exists. I happen to believe in life after death but I don’t think it’s got a thing to do with reward and punishment. Religion is always in the control business and that’s something which people don’t really understand.

The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.

As for the status of Western Christianity, we are in a place where our task is to redefine the primary symbols of our faith or tradition in a more human direction. That’s the thing I spend my time doing.

I think the worst way to go is to have somebody think they speak for God. If you look at history, every nation that has operated as if it spoke for God has become violently destructive.

It appears to be in the nature of religion itself to be prejudiced against those who are different.

The task of the church, for example, becomes less that of indoctrinating or relating people to an external divine power and more that of providing opportunities for people to touch the infinite centre of all things and to grow into all that they are destined to be.

The way that I see Christianity is that its role is to enhance the life of every person.

The task of religion is not to turn us into proper believers; it is to deepen the personal within us, to embrace the power of life, to expand our consciousness, in order that we might see things that eyes do not normally see.

How to live:

Human wholeness can never be found in the denigration of another.

Whatever diminishes life is evil, and whatever enhances life is good.

I think the story of the Christian faith is how you can become more deeply and fully human, not how you can become religious. And I don’t see any indication that being religious makes you more moral.

When a human life is open to all that humanity can be, humanity and divinity flow together as one. It was and is a radical insight, and one the consciousness of the mystic is destined to understand.

On God:

I experience God as the power of life, the power of love and the ground of being. I don’t say that’s what God is; I say that’s my experience of God.

We walk into the mystery of God; we do not define that mystery.

Hallowed be thy name” means that the ultimate, the mystical, the ineffable can never be captured in human words.  Perhaps we need to learn from the Jews that if one speaks the name of God, one is pretending that one is able to know and to define God, which is the beginning of human idolatry.  That is when we begin to create God in our own image, while pretending it is the other way around. Perhaps.

Prayer is not adult letters written to Santa Claus, and God is not some parent-like figure up in the sky who’s going to take care of us.

Prayer is rather the activity that enables each of us to be givers to and receivers from one another of the deepest meaning of life – a meaning I call God.

I live on the other side of Copernicus and Galileo; I can no longer conceive of God as sort of above the sky, looking down and keeping record books.

I live on the other side of Charles Darwin and I can no longer see human light as having been created perfect and falling into sin, I see us rather emerging into higher and higher levels of consciousness and higher and higher levels of complication.

Some people think prayer stops bullets or rockets or land mines. It doesn’t. That’s magic, that’s not God. Sometimes, you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”  “If you’re really thinking prayer can stop rockets or bullets, you have to ask why some people do get hit by rockets or bullets. Are they people who no one prayed for? Are they people who God just didn’t like? I don’t think so.

The God understood as a father figure, who guided ultimate personal decisions, answered our prayers, and promised rewards and punishment based upon our behaviour was not designed to call anyone into maturity.

I don’t like to talk about it in those terms; it’s impossible to describe who or what God “is.” Suppose you were a horse, and you were asked to describe what a human being was like. You couldn’t do it.

There’s no way a human being can escape his or her human-ness to be able to imagine God. We can talk about how we’ve experienced God, not what or who God is.


The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.

The primary message of the Christian Church is that we were born in sin and we need to be rescued; we cannot rescue ourselves, so God comes to our rescue, pays the price of our sin and transforms us through the death of Jesus.

I don’t want a God that would go around killing people’s little girls. Neither do I want a God who would kill his own son.

There never was a time when we were created perfect and fell into sin and needed to be rescued. We are evolving people; we are not fallen people. We are not a little lower than the angels. We’re a little higher than the apes. It’s a very different perspective.

“I have become convinced that we must put an end to atonement theology or there will be no future for the Christian faith.

Christianity is, I believe, about expanded life, heightened consciousness and achieving a new humanity. It is not about closed minds, supernatural interventions, a fallen creation, guilt, original sin or divine rescue.

I cannot say my yes to legends that have been clearly and fancifully created. If I could not move my search beyond angelic messengers, empty tombs, and ghostlike apparitions, I could not say yes to Easter.

The Jesus experience expanded people into a position where they didn’t have to have defensive tribal lives, “God loves my people, my tribe, and doesn’t like yours.” The Bible is full of such references.

It is the nature of human life to feed our ever-present security needs by displaying fear in the presence of anyone who is different”.

[i] Taki is the Te Reo word for ‘challenge’ or ‘issue’.

[ii] The tōtara in the great forest of Tāne has fallen.