An Open Letter To the Moderator of the United Church of Canada: The Rt. Rev. Jordan Cantwell

Essay by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 1 October 2015 6 Comments
Please login with your account to read this essay.


Thanks so much for sharing your scholarship with us and expressing it so that we can understand it.

I only wish the main-stream churches thought they could share this kind of scholarship with the congregations. When I was a student at Chapel Hill I had lots of religious questions, since I came out of a pretty strict family. I went over to the Religion Department and talked to Dr. Bernard Boyd and then changed my major to religion. Within three weeks of understanding how the Bible was written, a big load was lifted. Now 50 years later, there is still no talk/discussion of the information I learned that made such a difference for me and I think it would for other people, who can no longer believe the Bible literally. I assume that seminarians learn all of this, but they hesitate to present it because it might offend someone in the congregation and they surely don’t want to lose members. (In my adult Sunday school class at our Methodist Church, I presented Living the Question series, which I thought was excellent).


Dear Susie,

Thanks for your letter. I, too, am a University of North Carolina graduate from Chapel Hill and although my major was in Philosophy and Zoology, I did take a class with Bernard Boyd. He was one of the most exciting university lecturers that I can remember. He was always well prepared, but more importantly, he understood the biblical tradition as an exploration of the issues of life. He knew that biblical fundamentalism was in fact biblical ignorance, but he did not just attack it, he offered an alternative approach which filled the empty spaces that fundamentalism had once claimed to fill. Dr. Boyd was probably the most popular lecturer at that university and his classes were always filled with standing room only crowds.

The two Arizona Methodist ministers, Jeff Procter-Murphy and David Felten, who produced the Living the Questions series had and have a similar vision. The response to Living the Questions, across the United States and around the world, has been tremendous. The people to whom the series appeals, however, are those for whom the old literalisms have lost their meaning. Inside the structure of the Methodist Church and among many of its bishops, unfortunately, Living the Questions has served only to “disturb the faithful.” I never believed that lay people needed to have their God protected from truth. That is why I suspect that the primary barrier to churches teaching their people the Bible honestly comes, not from the lay people, but from the bishops and clergy, who are still resisting the biblical scholarship that is available to them. During my career I served churches in Durham and Tarboro, North Carolina and in Lynchburg and Richmond, Virginia before I was elected bishop. Lay people in those churches embraced a new understanding of the Bible based on current biblical scholarship like people who had discovered water in the desert. I became convinced then that the problem we had in teaching the Bible to our people critically was not with lay people, but with the frightened, ordained leaders of our churches.

When the dean of a theological seminary announced recently that he wanted to develop at the seminary he headed something he called “progressive orthodoxy,” I know where at least one of the problems facing the church lies today. “Progressive Orthodoxy” is an oxymoron. It is a theological “Maginot Line” of defense against “modernism.” Imagine a God so weak and pitiful that a seminary dean has got to defend this God against biblical truth.
What the church is dealing with in this confrontation is the clash between security and truth. Security is disturbed when doubt is allowed to be expressed; when yesterday’s religious formulas are revealed to be inoperative, and when we discover what is really in the book they like to call: “the Word of God.”

I see a world filled with people who are hungry for meaning and truth, but who know that it cannot be found in a literal Bible. If the leaders of the church would offer them contemporary biblical scholarship, stop pretending that Christianity has all the answers, give up the idol of security and allow people to begin a journey into the mystery of God, then the institutional church, which is dying today, will turn a corner and begin to revive. The fact is that Christianity does do not have security to offer anyone. What we do have to offer is that in Christ there is the ability to embrace honestly our radically insecure humanity and still to find the courage to live with integrity. That is not only a great gift, but it is also a radical call to a new maturity.

This past summer I had the privilege of speaking five times in two North Carolina towns called Cashiers and Highlands. You will recognize that both are not far from your home in Cullowhee. While we were there we met and had dinner with David Belcher, who is the Chancellor at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee. He and his wife were delightful. I am sure that both of them are great assets in your community. I hope you know them and if you do please give them my best wishes. If you do not know them then make it a point to meet them. It will be worth your effort.
John Shelby Spong




6 thoughts on “An Open Letter To the Moderator of the United Church of Canada: The Rt. Rev. Jordan Cantwell

Leave a Reply