Assessing the Pontificate of John Paul II

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 27 April 2005 0 Comments
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I have been thinking a lot about the schism currently involving the African Church and our Episcopalians in this country. I remembered when I was in seminary, we were always collecting old theological texts and shipping them off to Africa. We should have burned those books and bought brand new texts and sent those instead. We are now getting back what we sent to Africa - outdated 19th century theology.


Your idea has far more credibility than many people think. There is nothing quite so dead as a dated theological book. At the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops in 1998, I did a radio interview with an African bishop who told me that the "Library" for his theological training consisted of about 50 books, all of them published in the 1930s. He was totally unfamiliar with the names that have shaped the theological enterprise in the last half of the 20th century in both Protestant and Catholic circles. When you add to this the fact that those motivated to become foreign missionaries tend to be "theologically certain," that is, they believe fervently that they possess the saving truth that if not shared with the people of the world "who know not Christ," those peoples' "lostness" will be forever a burden that their missionary consciences will have to bear, then you can understand another dimension of the present dilemma.

In my small study group at this same Lambeth conference was a Nigerian bishop who made Jerry Falwell look like both a flaming liberal and a scholar. This is not to denigrate this particular gentleman, whose sincerity and devotion were both exemplary; but it is to say that education is not equal the world over and inevitably those, who do not know the larger picture, are crippled because they also do not know that they do not know. That is the most profound ignorance of all and it deeply affects the fundamentalists of this world.

However, one caveat that needs to be added is that we must not think of Africa or anywhere else as monolithic in the way its people think. The three strongest voices for the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people, heard at this conference, were all African Anglicans. They were: the Archbishop of Central Africa Khotsu Mkullu, the Archbishop of Capetown Njongonkulu Ndungane and the retired Archbishop of Capetown, Desmond Tutu.

--John Shelby Spong

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