April 05, 2004
Calling a spade a bishop

Jonathan, the new Methodist co-blogger at The Ivy Bush, links to an interesting discussion between heterodox Anglican bishop John Shelby Spong and Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams. He comments:

... if John Shelby Spong really believes what he apparently believes, he should be a Unitarian, not an Anglican. Instead of doing this, however, he is asking the Anglican church to become more Unitarian. The honest thing for him to do would be for him to become Unitarian. Does he have enough integrity to do this?

I've read a lot more about Spong than by him, but I've wondered the same thing. I certainly thought that while I was reading his allies, Marcus Borg and Bruce Bawer. And yet they're all Anglicans.

Unitarian Universalists don't get a whole lot of respect these days. I hear about them mainly through jokes, many of which UUs tell themselves. But the 400-year-old sect has an illustrious history. Last year I read about Dorothea Dix, and how her conversion to Unitarianism helped fuel her tireless work on behalf of the mentally ill. The Unitarians were also early advocates of religious tolerance and also claim an interesting intellectual heritage with the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Certainly if Spong et al. actually became UU, it would give the church some strong public voices it hasn't had in a while.

I can see how there would be some problems from their perspective, however. For one thing, since 1995 the main UU body has disclaimed actually being Christian. It reveres Jesus, but in kind of the same way that Muslims, Baha'is and some Hindus revere Jesus as a guy who really knew God instead of a guy who was God. The Spongites seem to believe the same, but it seems to be very important to them to claim the name of Christian for themselves. There is, underlying all their discussion, the implication that they're the ones who really know what Jesus was about. They're not foolish enough to call their view traditional, but in some sense they claim the true spirit of Jesus, that the answer to WWJD? in today's world is what they're doing. This was the gist of Bawer's book Stealing Jesus, which I first mentioned here. It's right in the title: Jesus was stolen by conservatives, and we need to steal him back.

The other reason, it seems to me, is that UUs are too darned tolerant for Spong. While Spong states flatly (and weirdly) that "theism is dead," the UUA says it uses terms that can be "used with integrity by theist and nontheist members." In fact, UUs generally oppose creeds, dogmas, and proselytization (another joke: "What do you get when you cross a Jehovah's Witness with a UU?" "Someone who knocks on your door and doesn't know why"). Spong, however, comes across as a dogmatic evangelist. There's no room in his church for theists, or believers in miracles or the resurrection of the dead.

So if Spong were UU he might ruffle as many feathers there as he does as an Anglican. The UUs don't approve of taking over other churches, but that seems to be what Spong is trying to do, by calling it his own.

Posted by Camassia at April 05, 2004 07:09 PM | TrackBack

I think you're mischaracterizing Spong by saying "there's no room in his church" for people who disagree.

I also think the reason he is an Anglican is because, well, he's an Anglican. He's not "taking over" another church -- he considers himself fully within the church.

I have been thinking lately about the term "Christian" and why someone would claim it. I had several large arguments about it on Shock and Awe, and at the Boar's Head Tavern (before they tossed me out!).

I think a "Christian" is someone for whom Jesus Christ is the central, singular, primary figure in their religious/spiritual faith. If Jesus isn't central, then you're not a Christian.

To UUs, Jesus is not central. To Bishop Spong, he certainly is, even though his interpretation is not the traditional one.

For me as well -- Jesus is my lens through which I see God. Apart from him, I would have no particular center, religiously.

That's not necessarily a bad thing :), but it's why I call myself a Christian. Because of my life experience (including a Christian upbringing), I can't understand God easily except through Christ.


Posted by: Kynn Bartlett on April 6, 2004 01:35 AM

I think that what one is taught to believe, as a Christian, may be irrelevant to one's personal salvation. To me "faith" means striving in every way to be what Jesus is. By the same token "works" does not mean those effects that one has on the outside world through living a moral life; you could get that from philosophy. The works that matter are works on one's Self. For this work, Jesus is *the* role model. When you get there, you will *know* if Jesus is God, or not--it won't be something you were taught to believe.

Posted by: Rob on April 6, 2004 04:44 AM

I haven't read Bruce Bawer, but I remember him as the author of A Place at the Table, which came out at about the same time as Andrew Sullivan's Virtually Normal, and was compared to it by many people. If Andrew Sullivan has been conflicted about whether to stay in the Catholic Church or leave, I imagine Bawer would be, if anything, more reluctant to leave the ECUSA for the UUs.

Posted by: Lynn Gazis-Sax on April 6, 2004 08:04 AM

Well, I pretty much agree with Camassia and Jonathan about Spong, but I understand what Kynn is saying about the definition of Christian. I haven't read much Spong either, but from the article Camassia and Jonathan linked to I don't understand what Spong likes about Jesus. Is it just the ethical dimension? His teachings on the poor, his emphasis on justice? Then why doesn't Spong put Jeremiah or Hosea at the center of his faith?

For me, the teachings don't make sense apart from who Jesus was. Ethics and theology are linked.

Posted by: Jennifer on April 6, 2004 08:56 AM

Spong might believe that Anglicanism is his home where he worships God.

Interestingly, Anglicans once almost became institutionally Unitarian [no creeds], but with bishops - I believe at the first general convention. I'd double check, however....

Posted by: John Wilkins on April 16, 2004 11:45 AM
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