Part XLI Matthew - Entering the Passion Narratives

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 19 February 2015 0 Comments
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I was baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church in my teens. Eventually, I left because I could no longer accept parts of the Nicene Creed as literally true. Due to your writings and the modern liberal paradigm of our current Presiding Bishop, I have returned to the church. Unfortunately, I have met with some opposition from several clergy members who are concerned that my beliefs are not “orthodox enough.” One local rector actually “interviewed” me and refused to admit me to membership status. I am perplexed. I know some parishes are more conservative than others, but I hadn’t expected to run into this sort of trouble. Do you have any advice for me? I sure could use some help.




Dear Ben,

Thank you for your letter. First let me say that I share your enthusiasm for our current presiding bishop Katharine Jefferts-Schori. She has been a great gift to the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion and the Christian faith. I have been privileged to know her.

The Episcopal Church, like every other part of the Christian tradition, is not a unified body marching in serried ranks to the beat of a single drummer. It is more like a ragtag procession of wanderers walking in a dry river bed not quite sure of either their direction or goal. The more adventurous of these walkers will move ahead of the pack to explore the territory lying before them. The more frightened among these walkers will stay far behind the pack unwilling to step into what has not already been explored for them. Between the frontier seekers and the rearguard walkers there is tension, hostility and the desire on the part of both to jettison the other. Between these two polarities, the great bulk of our churches are located moving ahead, but only to the point where they begin to feel the threat that a new idea always generates. Generally they do not want to identify themselves with the backward looking traditionalists, who still want to preserve ancient history by defending the 1928 Prayer Book, but neither do they want to forge ahead into untested waters.

You appear to have fallen into a congregation that is on the back side of the parade; a church that if a motion picture were to be made of its life it would have to be produced by “18th Century Fox.” Yes, we have them and basically they are filled by clergy and lay people who are afraid to “walk by faith,” seeking rather to walk only along the well trod paths of yesterday. Your choices are, therefore, not easy.

One choice is that you can stay, accept the irrational hostility of your rector, who appears to have set himself up to arbitrate who is welcomed in that church. I wonder if he has ever read the words of Jesus, “Come unto me all ye.” Note that Jesus did not say, “Some of ye.” I wonder if his congregation has ever sung that old evangelical hymn, “Just as I am – O, Lamb of God, I come.”

If you choose this option, you need to be faithful in your commitment, but also to make your witness loudly and publicly. So yours will be an uncomfortable role and those you challenge will never appreciate you, but others will for no church is quite as monochromatic as your rector seems to be.

Your second option is that you can leave – seeking a church that is more open and receptive to the issues that you represent. I do not know what the options are for finding an alternative church in your community. Is your church the only Episcopal Church in your city or town? If so, then shop among the other denominations that are present. There is almost always at least one open, progressive church in every town in which questions are welcome. In my experience, the United Church of Christ is the denomination that at the national level at least strives to be inclusive on every level, including theology and liturgy. You can, however, still find UCC congregations that are rooted firmly in the distant past.

If neither of these two options is possible, I recommend a house church formed by a small group, who will meet together regularly to study a book together. Church comes in many forms. I hope you will find one that calls you into all you can be.

John Shelby Spong




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