A Time to Die?

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 23 March 2005 0 Comments
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My wife and I are so impressed by your weekly essays. When we share some with friends, they ask, and we wonder too, are you retired from the ministry? If not, where do you serve as bishop? We think a lot of people would like to know.


Thank you for your inquiry. I am pleased to respond.

I am a native of Charlotte, N.C. and attended the public schools of that city. I got my undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina and my Masters Degree in Theology at the Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. Since that time I have done additional study at Union Seminary in New York City, Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, and in the storied Universities in the U.K. of Edinburgh, Oxford and Cambridge. I have taught at Harvard, the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, California and the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. I was elected Quatercentenary Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1992, and a Fellow of St. Deiniol's Library in Wales in 2002. I have been a scholar in residence at Christ Church of Oxford University. I have been awarded two Doctor of Divinity degrees and two Doctor of Humane Letters degrees.

I began my ordained ministry when I was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church on June 12, 1955, and a priest on December 28, 1955. I served churches in Raleigh, N.C., Durham, N.C., Tarboro, N.C., Lynchburg, Va., and Richmond, Va., over a period of 21 years. Then, in March of 1976, I was elected by the clergy and people of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark (which includes all of Northern New Jersey, the New York suburbs on the Jersey side of the Hudson River) to be their bishop. I served that wonderful diocese as their bishop for 24 vigorous and exciting years. I retired from that office in 2000 at the ripe old age of 68, and as the senior Bishop, in time of service, in the entire Episcopal Church in the United States. To be away from the demanding administrative responsibilities of a vibrant diocese gave me the time and the freedom to expand my lecturing and writing career so that it has now become a full time new profession. I am as excited about this stage of life as I was about each of the others. In the polity of the Episcopal Church I retain my title as well as my seat, voice and vote in the House of Bishops until death. I have chosen, however, not to exercise that privilege. I never felt that retired bishops, who have no jurisdiction, and thus no responsibility to implement decisions made by that House, should vote on matters that bind the active bishops. So I have no intention of ever returning to my seat in the House of Bishops or of ever exercising that vote. I have many friends among the bishops of my church that I miss greatly, but I also have the sense that I gave all of the gifts and the leadership that I possess to that body for 24 years. I have no qualms now about entrusting this church, which I still love very deeply, to the emerging generation of Episcopal leaders.

Instead I now write this weekly column, I have a contract with my publisher Harper/Collins to produce three more books. The first one is complete and will be in all major bookstores by April 14th of 2005. I give between 200-250 lectures a year across America, Canada and Europe. I have also made seven lecture tours of Australia and New Zealand and treasure my friends in those two countries. My books have now been translated into Spanish, French, Swedish, Finnish, German, Korean and Arabic and have sold well over one million copies. My invitations to lecture come from every tradition within the Christian Church, as well as some 20-25 colleges and universities a year. I have also had the privilege of lecturing to Jewish audiences in Synagogues, a lawyers group in Ohio, a group of high school science teachers in Edmonton, Ontario, and to the national meting of the Hemlock Society (now called Compassion in Dying). This lecture schedule is posted regularly and can be viewed on my Website, www.johnshelbyspong.com. That schedule is heavily European this year with a ten-day lecture tour in Finland, a two-week lecture tour across Sweden, a one-week course at St. Deiniol's Library in Wales and a number of engagements in England. We are also going to do the 190-mile walk across Northern England from the Irish Sea to the North Sea, while we are there. We expect to complete that in 16 to 17 days. Hiking is a special form of recreation for me and I average five miles a day, though that is frequently accomplished not in the beautiful outdoors, but on a treadmill either at home or in a motel.
Perhaps the most important thing about my life is that I am married to a spectacular human being named Christine, who is as talented as she is beautiful. She not only organizes my lecture schedule, but she also is my primary and much admired editor. We have five children, all grown and deeply into their careers and six grandchildren, who range in age from 17 to 2, all of whom we adore. I appreciate your asking. I have a sense (strange I'm sure) that my weekly essays are like letters to friends so that it never occurs to me to think that my readers do not know everything about me that they want or need to know but with this column now reaching about 10,000 subscribers, I realize that this is no longer a reasonable assumption.

I hope to meet you somewhere, someday.

-- John Shelby Spong




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