The Rise of Fundamentalism: Fundamentalism's Roots -- Part I

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 7 March 2007 0 Comments
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I live in the United Kingdom. I am an Anglican Christian in

the Diocese of Canterbury. We have been asked to provide voluntary help in

staffing and supporting the 2008 Lambeth Conference. This set me thinking

about the nature of that meeting and what might transpire. I am feeling more

and more that the Anglican Communion is being forced by the vocal minority

of bigots into a position where almost the only topic will be homosexuality

and whether the Anglican Communion should be inclusive or exclusive. Any

vote on that issue can only be divisive and could result in schism. I and

many others would value your thoughts on this matter.

Have we reached the place where schism of some sort would

actually be beneficial to the Anglican Communion? Would we, in the words of

a retired, high-ranking Church of England Clergyman of my acquaintance who

was not a bishop, have a purer form of Christianity as a result? He and I

are united on the "side" of inclusivity? I am a member of something called

"The Inclusive Church Movement," designed to change attitudes here in this

diocese. My experience is that although this matter is acknowledged as

vital for the future of the Anglican Church, no one is prepared to discuss


One of our bishops (Graham Cray of Maidstone) is the

Episcopal Advisor to an organization known as "Anglican Mainstream," whose

chairman, Dr. Philip Giddings, led the witch hunt against Dean Jeffrey John,

the openly gay priest who was appointed as an area bishop in the Diocese of

Oxford in which, as you rightly say, the new Archbishop bowed to the bigots.

Bishop Cray is conducting a parish visit here next month. I want to raise

this issue at the Church Council meeting which will bring his visitation to

a close. I will have the support of some of the council and the tacit

support of at least two of our clergy - the incumbent and our retired

curate. Is this occasion the best in which to tie a bishop down? The

Church of England faces financial meltdown as a result of many bad

investment decisions taken over the decades. These decisions violated all

the Old Testament laws on usury, financial manipulation and abuse, of which

there are many more than those laws in the Old Testament which refer to

homosexuality, which nevertheless has been placed in the forefront of the

present debate in the church.

Can you suggest ways forward that will ensure that the Church

remains inclusive - as established by Our Lord - and retains the last shred

of integrity in the eyes of the country it is said to represent? I am

excited and haunted at the moment by words from the introduction to the

book, "Anglicanism: The Answer to Modernity" written from the perspective of

theologians and priests working in universities. One passage talks about

the deep dissonance between the students expectations of dialogue and the

paternalistic dogmatism of the church which the students see or sense not

far below the surface. These are the words: "What they (the new students)

yearn for is wisdom and to be good. What they are told by the Church to

desire is to be saved and to be obedient." Where do we go from here?

I write in great admiration of your stand and ability to

communicate it with such vigor and integrity - long an inspiration to me and

many others.


I think you should raise the issue with your bishop. Silence

never solves problems, it only represses them.

I too watch the Anglican Communion with a sense of deep despair and

hopelessness. Let me trace some of the history that has led this church to

its present dreadful situation. We were plunged into this state first by

the reckless appointment of the Bishop of Bath and Wells, George Carey, to

be Archbishop of Canterbury in 1991. It was an irresponsible act of

political revenge by the deeply opinionated Prime Minister, Margaret

Thatcher, who had become increasingly angry with Robert Runcie, the

Archbishop of Canterbury, whom Carey was appointed to succeed. Archbishop

Runcie had led the Church in a critical attack on both Thatcher's urban

tactics and her participation in increasing the gap between the rich and the

poor. It was, however, at a victory celebration in St. Paul's Cathedral in

London to mark the end of England's war with Argentina over the Falkland

Islands that brought Ms. Thatcher's rage into full public view. Since

Argentina is also part of the Anglican Communion Archbishop Runcie thought

it appropriate to include in this service prayers for the Argentinian dead.

Prime Minister Thatcher was livid and quite vocal at the door of the

Cathedral that day and vowed that she would never let a representative of

the church embarrass her again.

She got her chance for revenge when the time came for a new

Archbishop of Canterbury to be appointed. The Crown Appointments Committee,

made up of a significant group of church dignitaries plus members of

Parliament, traditionally puts forward two names from which the prime

minister makes a choice. While the prime minister is free to reject both of

the nominees that is very rare. On that occasion the Appointments Committee

put forward the names of the Archbishop of York, the favorite of the church

leaders but one who had ruffled Mrs. Thatcher's feathers on other issues.

To try to encourage his selection, the second candidate was generally

regarded as unqualified. An old line evangelical, who thought the Bible

contained the answer to every question and who was known to speak in

tongues. The Church leaders thought this candidate, George Carey, was too

bizarre a choice even for Margaret Thatcher. However, the Prime Minister's

anger was such that she decided to teach the Church of England a lesson.

George Carey became the designated Archbishop of Canterbury. The Anglican

Communion was about to embark on the most incompetent Arch-Episcopacy in its

history. The Church of England News, an ultra-right fundamentalist

publication, cheered the appointment. It should be noted the senior

reporter on the staff of this Journal was Andrew Carey, the new Archbishop's

son, whose career revealed an unprecedented ability to distort truth and to

violate ethical standards of journalism. So now this new Archbishop of

Canterbury, who serves as the chief spokesperson and the public face of the

Anglican Communion, was suddenly occupied by an embarrassingly ill-informed

person, one who was overtly hostile to gay and lesbian Christians, and an

unthinking fundamentalist. He was also destined to chair the once every ten

year Lambeth Conference in 1998, that brings together the Anglican Bishops

of the world. We met at Kent University and it was the worst church

political spectacle I have ever watched. Right wing ultra conservative

bishops from America, who had lost on every major issue of the century, on

race, women and homosexuality, began to lavish money on conservative

evangelical third world bishops, flying them from all over the world to

Dallas to plot strategy for turning the Anglican Communion into a

battlefield on homosexuality, which they, of course, identified with evil

and proclaimed it "contrary to Holy Scripture." The mood was ugly.

Character assassination of liberal American, Canadian and Scottish bishops

was carried out with no regard for truth. Bishops like Robert Ihloff of

Maryland, speaking on behalf of his gay and lesbian clergy was booed and

hissed by other bishops on the floor of the conference. Leading African

bishops, who had the advantage of world class educations like Desmond Tutu

(in absentia), Njongonkulu Ndungane of South Africa and Khotsu Mkullu of

Central Africa tried in vain to stem the tide of homophobic Bible quoters.

Archbishop Carey sat on the front of the stage cheering on this travesty.

Homophobia reigned supreme. The liberals were routed. The last photograph

that graced the front pages of almost every newspaper in the United Kingdom

at the end of that conference showed a Nigerian bishop breaking through a

crowd to lay his uninvited hands on the head of the Rev. Richard Kirker, the

Executive officer of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, "to cast the

demon of his homosexuality." out of him. I have never been so embarrassed

before to be an Anglican. The saddest thing of all was that George Carey

never saw this behavior as anything but "being faithful to scripture."

There are two kinds of ignorance in this world. One is the ignorance of not

knowing. That kind of ignorance can always be remedied by simply getting

the facts. The other kind of ignorance, however, is the ignorance of not

knowing that you do not know. This was George Carey's ignorance and it will

take the Church of England at least a decade, maybe a quarter of a century,

to recover from his abysmal term as the head of the Anglican Church.

In 2002 the Church of England and new Prime Minister Tony

Blair were taking, I thought, a step into wholeness when they chose as

George Carey's successor, Rowan Williams, the head of the Church of Wales,

and now the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Williams was a recognized scholar

with liberal and open leanings, who had supported women priests and gay

priests at an earlier time in his career. The one thing they did not count

on is that Rowan Williams has no backbone and, quite obviously, no core

beliefs except to seek unity at any price. Whereas George Carey was the

least competent Archbishop of Canterbury in recent history, Rowan Williams

has turned out to be one of the weakest.

That combination will haunt the Anglican Communion for years.

The current battles-- threatened breakups, schismatic movements and angry

rhetoric-- that mark this church today are the direct result of these two

destructive leaders serving in succession: the first incompetent, the second

weak. One sign of hope for this Communion is that the United States has

elected a terrific woman, Katharine Jefferts Schori, to be our primate and

the Australian Anglicans have elected to lead that church an incredibly

bright, open and competent young man, still in his 40's, named Philip

Aspinall. These two leaders have a chance to bring sanity back to this

communion or at least to turn away from the insanity that now embraces it.

The election of a new primate in Canada next year and in South Africa when

Njongonkulu retires will be crucial to Anglican health. I, for one, insist

that truth always be placed above unity and I do not care to be a member of

a Christian body that is mired in an unchallenged sickness called


Leadership matters. The combination of a weak Rowan Williams

in Canterbury and an out of touch Benedict XVI in the Vatican is a double

tragedy for world Christianity. Both of these chosen church leaders are

signs that we are in a new dark age. My hope resides in the fact that

sometimes the world is darkest before the dawn. I pray that this will be

true of the Anglican Communion.

Thanks for writing.

John Shelby Spong




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