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J A T Robinson and Bishop Spong (and evangelicals)


One of the great mentors of my life was an English bishop and New Testament scholar named John Albert Thomas Robinson. He burst into public awareness in the United Kingdom in the late fifties when he testified before a commission seeking to ban the novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. For a bishop to favor Lady Chatterley titillated the English media who love juxtaposing religion with sexual expose. People were not aware at this time that this Bishop of Woolwich was also a serious student and a prolific, if not yet well known, writer.

In 1962 a back ailment required that John Robinson be confined to bed for a number of months. His fertile and imaginative mind was freed from other distractions and he wrote a little book called Honest to God that appeared on the bookstands in 1963. It made the controversy about Lady Chatterley’s Lover look pale by comparison. This book forced people to recognize that the language of traditional religion was not a language that people believed today whether they continued to use it or not. An advance story in London’s SUNDAY OBSERVER trumpeted the headline, “Bishop says the God up there or out there will have to go.” Thus, the Church was launched into what came to be known as the “Honest to God Debate,” and John A. T. Robinson became a household word in the English-speaking world.

That little book sold more copies than any religious book since Pilgrim’s Progress. It was translated into dozens of languages. It was discussed, not just in religious circles, but in pubs, on golf courses and over bridge tables. It brought religion out of the churches and planted it firmly on Main Street.

One would think that the leaders of the churches would have welcomed such an initiative, but that would be to misunderstand the nature of institutional religion. The religious establishment, instead, recoiled defensively. Every would-be theologian rushed into print to denounce this book. Calls were issued for Bishop Robinson’s resignation or for him to be deposed for heresy. A book of reactions to Honest to God was published to keep the waves rolling. It revealed just how deeply John Robinson had touched the hot buttons of religious fear that the traditional defenders of the faith struggle to conceal.

The echoes of this debate reached my ears in my small-town parish in Tarboro, North Carolina. I did not rush to read the book. Reviews indicated that it quoted extensively from Rudolf Bultman, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Paul Tillich. I was quite familiar with these thinkers and so I dismissed the book as a popularizing effort of no great significance. Nonetheless I placed the book on my reading schedule, and finally got to it in 1965.

I remember the day I first opened this book. Vacationing on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I sat on the beach one afternoon with Honest to God. I did not put it down until I had read it through three times. I knew from that moment that my life would never be the same.

John Robinson made me aware that my childhood understanding of God would not live in my world. He forced me to face the fact that the words of both the Bible and the Creeds sound strange to post-modern people and that my faith had to grow or it had to be abandoned. I began on that day the long, tortuous and, to this moment, not yet completed process of rethinking all of the symbols of my religious past so that I could continue to claim them with integrity. I also pledged myself never again to use pious cliches that I clearly no longer believed.

This book drove me first back to the Bible. I knew that the Noah story, or the splitting of the Red Sea story, could not be literally true, to say nothing of the stories of Jesus turning water into wine, walking on water and ascending to the heaven of a ptolemaic universe that had ceased to exist with Copernicus. My church had prepared me poorly, I discovered, to live as a believer in a post-Copernican world, to say nothing of a world shaped by such giants as Newton, Darwin, Freud or Einstein. The Church still lived in a world of miracle and magic, where reward and punishment were meted out by God according to human deserving.

Seven years later, in 1972, this internal struggle emerged externally in the form of my first book which was deeply shaped by the “Worldly Holiness” chapter in Honest to God. My publisher entitled my book Honest Prayer, hoping, I am sure, to be pulled into the Honest to God energy that was still abroad. In 1973 I first met John Robinson. This larger-than- life man came to speak in Richmond on the 10th anniversary of the publication of Honest to God. He was very British, displaying little emotion. After the session I was introduced to him. I thanked him for what his writing had meant to me. I presented him with a copy of Honest Prayer. We talked for a while and then we each returned to our respective lives. Five years later in 1978 John and I met again at the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Bishops of the world. I was now one of those bishops and John, who had returned to Cambridge to teach New Testament, was present as a consultant. Both of us, bored by the speeches, decided to leave early and walk through the woods of Kent to discuss the New Testament. We came across a country pub and stopped to share “a pint.” We even engaged in the pub game of “bowls,” but all the while still discussing the New Testament. It was such a pleasant experience that we decided to repeat it each day. So while the bishops were debating, John and I probed the gospel tradition and I learned from his incisive mind.

In those years John and I both continued to write books which addressed the theme of bringing the church into dialogue with today’s reality. I read everything he wrote. John Robinson’s echoes were heard in me every time I spoke and certainly every time I wrote. When one reviewer referred to me as the American Bishop Robinson, I was deeply touched. After Lambeth, John and I began to correspond. I yearned to bring him to lecture to our diocesan family, and finally he agreed. Six months before his scheduled appearance, however, John wrote that he had received a cancer diagnosis and had only a few months to live. He sent me a copy of the sermon he preached at Clare College, Cambridge, the Sunday after he received the diagnosis. I was deeply touched by it, though it made me aware of how lonely I would be without this kindred spirit. John died in the early months of 1983. In my grief I was pleased to be asked to write the American tribute to him published in THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY. Someone else had recognized how important he was to me.

I did not have either John’s intellectual training or his Cambridge PhD. Yet after his death, in a real sense I was the only other bishop who was addressing publicly the issues he had raised. That fall of 1983 I published a book entitled Into the Whirlwind: The Future of the Church. It marked a watershed moment for me from which there was no turning back. It was not that it was a great book, but reading it today I discover that the seeds of every book I have written since were present in its pages.

In 1988 Living in Sin? came out. That book was for me the kind of birth to the wider public that the debate on Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been for John Robinson. Because of that book and the controversy it sparked, I increasingly found myself occupying the space in which John Robinson once stood and bearing the hostility he received. Now I was the most controversial bishop in the Anglican Communion. My vocation clearly was to transform Christianity so that it could be lived out appropriately today. Each new book fueled this growing flame. Invitations to lecture began to come in from across America, as well as from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. To be a bishop leading this debate became the heart of my vocation. Hence, I worked long hours lest I violate either the integrity of my office or of my scholarship. I could not walk away from the role for which everything in life had equipped me. I have lived this role with vigor, yearning more than once to have had John’s counsel.

This past summer I returned once again to the United Kingdom on a lecture tour. I had speaking engagements in Yorkshire, Aberystwyth, Cardiff, Sheffield, Leeds, Milton Keynes, London and Leicester. There were also breaks to allow us to visit family and friends. In one of these downtimes I came face to face with John Robinson once again.

We went to visit two friends, formerly of St. Peter’s, Morristown, who now live in a tiny, secluded village in Herefordshire. To our amazement their next-door neighbor was John Robinson’s only brother, Edward. We spent an evening with him reminiscing about John’s career and his influence. My tour ended at a conference in Leicester for an organization called “The Sea of Faith,” where I debated the radical English theologian Don Cupitt. To my joy a member of this conference was Ruth Robinson, John’s widow. Once again we spent an evening remembering John Robinson. It was as if grace had touched me twice. The theological child of John A. T. Robinson had been welcomed home. I have now lived and worked twelve years beyond the life span of my mentor. I have picked up and addressed some issues that never surfaced for him. It has sometimes been a lonely journey. Today I can see the horizon of my career and wonder who the next John Robinson will be.

There will always be the “John Robinson” role present in the life of the Church. It will be welcomed by some, feared and hated by others. But that role is always the means by which growth and the renewal of the church is accomplished. I have been privileged to walk, however ineptly, in these footsteps.”

Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, Bishop of Newark 1999

“If I Have Seen the Future of the Church, I Do Not Like it

There are people who think that Europe or North America are the most secular parts of the world. But I would submit that this “honor” is held by New Zealand and Australia.

Recent polls in New Zealand indicate that 84 percent of the population of this nation claims no affiliation with any organized religious body. Specific estimates for Australia were not available, but educated guesses by competent observers suggest Australia is not significantly different. So the reality is that a majority of the citizens of these nations has moved beyond the boundaries of the traditional religious frame of reference. They are citizens of what Harvey Cox once called “The Secular City.” That, however, is only half of the problem. The other half becomes obvious when one analyzes the make up of that decreasing minority who still do claim religious attachment. They are overwhelmingly of the evangelical, fundamentalist Protestant or the conservative Roman Catholic tradition. They are basically ghettoized religious enclaves out of touch with the world in which they live.

These religious bodies still utter claims about how evangelical and conservative Catholic churches are growing while remaining ignorant of what is really happening in the broader religious picture. Almost inevitably these religious groups are fighting passionate rear guard actions over causes that have been overwhelmingly settled in the secular world. They still expend primary energy debating the fitness of women to serve in ordained capacities. They seek to demonstrate, in opposition to everything we now know in the scientific world, that one’s sexual orientation is a chosen and not a given way of life. They appear to be dedicated to a simplistic view of Holy Scripture that assumes a literalness that has been abandoned by the academic world of scholarship for almost a century. In order to justify this mentality, they demonstrate a radical anti-intellectualism, which is marked by a defensiveness that manifests itself in religious anger and paranoia about the causes of their increasing irrelevance. They appear to believe there is some organized conspiracy dedicated to their destruction. They imagine these enemies to be enormously powerful and refer to them with capital letters, as “The Militant Feminists,” “The Gay Lobby,” or “The Secular Humanists.” They see themselves as a beleaguered minority battling for the truth of God, which they have confused with their distorted version of truth. They have become unpleasant, unattractive and unappealing to the vast majority of their fellow citizens. From such a faith community modern men and women have fled in droves.

As I lectured across these countries on my recent sabbatical study leave, I found an enormous spiritual hunger in the general population, but simultaneously a rising unwillingness to seek to satisfy that hunger in what has become the religious bodies of those nations. Time after time I spoke to standing-room-only crowds in places as diverse as Hobart, Darwin, Brisbane, Toowoomba and Melbourne in Australia, and Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Napier and Palmerston North in New Zealand. People came in those places to hear someone talk about God and Christ from a post-modern perspective. They came in order to raise the very questions they had not been able to raise in their churches before they left them. When they had tried to do so, they had received the response of a threatened authority system that could not listen. They heard the cliches of antiquity that tried to settle all questions and disputes with the claim, “but the Bible says….” or “but the Church teaches…..”

Representatives of this declining organized religious presence in both Australia and New Zealand took notice of the response I was receiving. They did not, however, act as if they recognized that we were engaged in the same enterprise. Instead, they saw me as one more enemy that they must discredit if their fragile hold on truth was to be maintained and so they behaved in ways that could only be described as rude and offensive.

At a public lecture held in Wellington’s Victoria University, fundamentalist hecklers in the audience interrupted with hostile barbs. My attempt to show how the story of the cross was constructed got characterized as “Are you saying that the gospel writers were liars?” In Hawke’s Bay I attempted to explain how the interpretation of the Christ experience grew from Paul (48-62 C.E.) through the elaborate theological explanations found in the writings of The Fourth Gospel (95-100 C.E.), I was interrupted by the same mentality suggesting I might be the Anti-Christ.

In the heart of Wellington I delivered a series of addresses on four successive Tuesdays at midday. The audience grew from 425 people on the first Tuesday to 550 people on the final day, necessitating the opening of a new auditorium with a public address system to handle the overflow. At the first of these addresses a small group of evangelicals frantically tried to corner a few of the listeners after the lecture to explain just why it was that I was wrong and thus not to be believed. At the third of these lectures evangelicals who were in the overflow room talked back loudly to the speaker system until the wrath of those who had come to listen silenced them. Walking out of that room at the end of the lecture, one of them passed an usher holding an alms basin. To the glee of his evangelical supporters, he proceeded to slap that basin so hard the usher dropped it, scattering coins and bills all over the floor. On the last Tuesday when the crowd was the largest, evangelicals prepared a sixteen-page handout which they distributed as people departed, entitled, “Why Spong is Wrong!” I was flattered by this attention, which certainly indicated that my message was being heard.

This lectureship so engaged the Wellington public that a lead editorial in The Wellington Evening Post suggested that churches had been derelict in their duties by not bringing this knowledge about the Bible, readily available in the academy, to the attention of the people in the pews. This editorial further suggested that religious people seemed to be engaged in a conspiracy of silence designed to keep their power intact. When the lectureship was completed, two major stories were published on successive days in The Dominion, Wellington’s morning paper, seeking to interpret the meaning of the phenomenom of the crowds as an expression of a spiritual hunger no longer being satisfied by organized religious bodies. I doubt if the evangelical Protestants and conservative Roman Catholics were pleased.

In other places across the United States and Canada I have seen manifestations of this closed-minded, threatened and uninformed religious mentality. It was apparent in the attempts that were made to “doctor” the content of a religious debate conducted in Vancouver when that debate was later published in an evangelical magazine to make the evangelical position look better than it did during the debate. It was apparent when an evangelical bishop actually changed a tape recording of a debate on homosexuality, conducted at the Virginia Theological Seminary, to cover his inept and ill-informed performance. It was obvious in an English evangelical newspaper just prior to our General Convention in July which ran a distorted attack on me for “closing urban churches” with their chief illustration being derived from the fire more than a decade ago that destroyed a congregation in Jersey City that had been dying for twenty years.

The reality is, however, that in the United States, Canada and England this mentality does not exhaust the meaning of religion. There is still room in the Christian churches of these lands for differing points of view to find expression. These western nations still have competent spokespersons for a Christianity that is engaging the issues of this modern world. Christianity has not yet become totally identified with an evangelical fundamentalist or conservative Catholic point of view. But the danger that we might be moving in that direction is present. It has already occurred in parts of Australia, especially in Sydney, and in most of New Zealand. If my experience in these two nations is accurate, a Christianity identified with right-wing fundamentalism will result in a massive exodus of thinking people from the churches of those lands. When the only voice of Christ that can be heard in the land is the voice of a strident anti-intellectual fundamentalism or semi-fundamentalism, thinking people depart from the Church. That is a future scenario that I intend to resist with all of the power of my being.

So I return to my office as Bishop of Newark planning to be very public in proclaiming a Christ who is engaging the issues of the real world. I will challenge the ignorance that is rampant in our society in regard to biblical studies. I will stand against the stereotypical prejudices still present in Christian churches against women, gays and lesbians. I will seek to get the theological debate of our generation into the public arena so that this secular society will know that the voice of Christ is broad, deep, competent and not limited to the shrill sounds of those who think religion is a place where one can find security and avoid the tensions of the modern world.

I call upon the Churches of this Diocese to join in this endeavor by adding adult educational opportunities to their life and I ask our clergy to be willing to dedicate primary energy to this function. Christian education for adults is not to be confused with teaching religious propaganda designed to shore up the religious answers of antiquity. Christian education is an activity in which truth may be pursued come whence it may, cost what it will. It is an endeavor in which the spiritual realities of human life may be honestly explored.

If we do not do this in a competent and intentional way and do it immediately, then we run the risk that what I saw of Christianity in parts of Australia and in New Zealand is indeed what the Church of the future will be like. Such a Church will not be one in which Christianity, as I now know it, will ever be able to live. The need is urgent. The time is short. The issues are clear. Only your response remains to be determined.”

John S. Spong, Bishop of Newark 1999


More people in Britain think religion causes harm than believe it does good, according to a Guardian/ICM poll. It shows that an overwhelming majority see religion as a cause of division and tension – greatly outnumbering the smaller majority who also believe that it can be a force for good. The poll also reveals that non-believers outnumber believers in Britain by almost two to one. It paints a picture of a sceptical nation with massive doubts about the effect religion has on society: 82% of those questioned say they see religion as a cause of division and tension between people. Only 16% disagree. Most people have no personal faith, the poll shows, with only 33% of those questioned describing themselves as “a religious person”. A clear majority, 63%, say that they are not religious. Older people and women are the most likely to believe in a god, with 37% of women saying they are religious with 29% of men. The findings come at the end of a year in which multiculturalism and the role of different faiths in society has been at the heart of a divisive political debate. But a spokesman for the Church of England denied yesterday that mainstream religion was the source of tension.

Reminds one of Nero Fiddling as Rome burnt

The Right Rev Bishop Dunn, Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, said “The perception that faith is a cause of division can often be because faith is misused for other uses and other agendas.”

How true!

The survey revealed that only 17% of Brits now consider Britain “Christian”. The clear majority, 62%, say Britain is better described as “a religious country of many faiths”. Source: The Guardian


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