Not the answer: Bishop Spong’s Manifesto

Bishop Spong is at it again. In a recent document entitled, “A Manifesto! The Time Has Come” Bishop John Shelby Spong takes a hard-line approach against those who would disagree with his view that the church should fully accept gay and lesbian Christians in its life and ministry. Well, “hard-line” is putting it mildly: Bishop Spong refuses to engage further in the debate over homosexuality in the church. He’s done. Thrown in the towel. Packed it in. He writes:

I will no longer engage the biblical ignorance that emanates from so many right-wing Christians about how the Bible condemns homosexuality, as if that point of view still has any credibility. I will no longer discuss with them or listen to them tell me how homosexuality is “an abomination to God,” about how homosexuality is a “chosen lifestyle,” or about how through prayer and “spiritual counseling” homosexual persons can be “cured.” Those arguments are no longer worthy of my time or energy.”

I have sympathy for such a position to a certain extent. I understand that debate can be trying and tiring. Bishop Spong is retired himself, so retiring from the debate is maybe not such a big deal (though his angry prose is a delight to read).

But in his refusal to converse, Bishop Spong chooses the way of the angry prophet over the pastoral approach. And this is a shame. Those who disagree with him on the question of homosexuality are not demons of the right, but brothers and sisters in Christ with whom he happens to disagree. As any child can tell you, refusing to talk when you don’t get your way doesn’t solve anything.

Have a blessed retirement, Bishop Spong, but this young pastor is just getting going.

image by Sigurd Decroos

Comments

  1. I think you’re oversimplifying with this, “refusing to talk when you don’t get your way doesn’t solve anything.”

    This isn’t about getting your way. Nor is it about anger. This is about having constructive dialogue with people with whom such a thing can be done. At some point, one has to understand that constructive dialogue is simply impossible with some people, and to even engage with them gives their position a level of credibility it does not deserve.

    Would you debate the merits of the racist views of the KKK with a member of the KKK? Maybe you would, but I think many folks would not deign to acknowledge such positions because they are simply not worth acknowledging. At some point, I think the responsible adult thing to do is to simply walk away from the bigots.

    Just how crazy, uncivil, evil, and hateful would a person’s position have to be in order for it to be so beyond the pale that you would see conversation as not only a waste of time, but as lending credibility? I think that is the point Bishop Spong and others are trying to make.

    For my part, I had “debated” these issues for a couple decades before reaching the same conclusion as Bishop Spong and I can tell you that I have never once seen debate change anyone’s mind about anything ever. People simply do not make data-driven decisions about their beliefs. If they did, there would be no overweight doctors who smoke, eh?

  2. Petulance is a word that comes to mind. Maybe he’s beginning to realize that his way is not God’s way after all.

  3. I agree with Alan.

    In what way has Bishop Spong “not gotten his way”? Regarding homosexuality, his denomination is much closer to his view than the reparative therapy/”gay is deviant” crowd. I don’t see him taking his toys and going home. Rather he is realizing that further debate is pointless, and to debate the merits of these arguments confers legitimacy on views that he deems beyond the pale.

    You may disagree with *where* he has drawn the line–that place beyond which dialogue is fruitless–but your post suggests that such a line should not exist. As long as we call ourselves Christians, we must continue to talk with one another, no matter what the view. Is that what you are arguing?

    I don’t debate the ordination of women anymore. Does that make me an angry prophet? I’m certainly not angry about it, though it makes me sad. Whether I’m a prophet is not for me to say…

    I also feel that disengagement from such debates can be deeply pastoral, even gracious. Too often they add heat but no light. Few minds are changed.

    Rest assured, my refusal to debate the ordination of women is not because I “haven’t gotten my way.” I have the title and the pension plan to prove it :-)

    Excellent post though–very thought-provoking.

  4. Thanks, folks. I think MaryAnn’s question is a good one:

    “You may disagree with *where* he has drawn the line–that place beyond which dialogue is fruitless–but your post suggests that such a line should not exist. As long as we call ourselves Christians, we must continue to talk with one another, no matter what the view. Is that what you are arguing?”

    Firstly, those whom Bishop Spong describes could be construed as folk in my congregation, or the brothers I have breakfast with each week at the local diner, or my colleagues in other more conservative denominations. In fact, though Bishop Spong sees a debate which has gone on too long and should be declared over, in my context no real debate has happened yet, though folks still deeply disagree.

    To your larger question about whether dialogue must never be ended, I guess I would be fine with agreeing to that as a position, at least. It might be hard to to enact it–dialogue with my friends who don’t believe I read the Bible right, or woman should be ordained, etc. But, my Christian understanding that these folks are just as much members of Christ’s body as I, and that they are my brothers and sisters in the faith, means I cannot write them off as beyond talking to.

    And, yes, I guess I do debate the question of female ordination every now and then even today. Perhaps, again, it’s my context in rural America with many conservative denominations, or maybe it’s just my naive open personality. Who knows.

  5. Barbara Busharis says:

    And as any parent can tell you, there are times when further discussion is pointless. It doesn’t mean you don’t love the child who is presenting a stunning variety of arguments in favor of what you have decided they cannot do. It just means you aren’t going to keep going down a road to nowhere.

    I think Alan’s point is spot on: This is about having constructive dialogue with people with whom such a thing can be done. If you have people in your congregation who are troubled by homosexuality but open to a constructive dialogue, by all means, engage them at whatever level you can. That’s not what I thought Bishop Spong’s essay was about. I guess I am glad that there are people willing to pick up the debate torch…just as I’m glad, I think, that there are people willing to debate with Holocaust deniers…but I have no problems with someone saying you know, life’s just too short for this.

  6. With all due respect, you may all be missing the point: if this is going against God, then this dialogue that you all hope for will never take place. That’s a possibility which although it may be inconceivable to you, may not be an impossibility with God.

    If you claim that homosexuality is normal, then there is no Biblical evidence for that. For some people, and there may be more than a few in your congregation Adam, that is where the conversation ends. Bishop Spong is ranting against God like a petulant child who cannot accept the truth; homosexuality is sin.

  7. Ian Copeland says:

    Good luck finding an opening for civil discourse with that one, bro.

  8. Dennis Sanders says:

    First off, you need to understand that I’m gay and I’m an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

    That said, I’ve never been a big fan of Spong because he tends to be somewhat of a fundamentalist in his own right. He tends to paint anyone that doesn’t have his viewpoint as backward and wrong.

    When it comes to this issue, yes there are folks who are just hateful. But I have also met people who are good folks who are not at the place of full acceptance. I would rather stay in fellowship with them and maybe witness to them through my life instead of condeming them.

    Call me crazy, but I feel the need to stay at the table within reason.

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