The Good Bishop Is Right — The Time for Church Debates on Homosexuality is Past

Retired Episcopal bishop John Selby Spong has declared that he will no longer argue about the status of gay and lesbian people in the church. "There is no middle ground," the bishop says, "between prejudice and oppression." So much for "love the sinner, hate the sin."

Last week, retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong issued a manifesto declaring that he “will no longer debate the issue of homosexuality in the church with anyone.” Period. In “The Time Has Come!” Spong writes that for him, enough is enough, especially when it comes to Christian responses to homosexual issues based on a particular reading of the biblical texts and understanding of Christian ethics. 

I’ve been mulling over his essay—or as I earlier characterized it, “broadside”—for several days. And I’ve been reading the reactions of others to it as well. Some agree. Some disagree. Some do both, kind of an “agreement, but…” sort of thing. Statements have appeared like: “…the battle is NOT won.”

“I hate to see him leave the debate…”

“No, the battle is not won!”

“…we must engage people in order to change hearts and minds.”

Or, like those words penned by my fellow Presbyterian blogger, John Shuck at “Shuck and Jive”:

We need more people to follow the lead of Bishop Spong and speak clearly. This clear speech is what is required to penetrate the fog of homophobic propaganda and the hand wringing of the weak-kneed who unwittingly corroborate with it.

I like that.

When I first read the essay, my first reaction was, “Hey, that reminds me of the old Chambers Brothers song of my youth, ‘Time Has Come Today.’” My second response was, “Hey, that reminds me of something my seminary apologetics professor used to say all the time, ‘Belief cannot argue with unbelief, it can only preach to it.’”

I read the piece as one who was once on my way to ordination as a deacon in the Episcopal Church, only to be shooed away from the table by a hypocritical bishop reflecting those very attitudes condemned by Spong in this essay. I read it as one who has returned to the church of his birth and upbringing, the Presbyterian Church USA, and has found a large measure of peace and comfort in doing so.

Belief cannot argue with unbelief

What isn't apparent in the manifesto, but what is absolutely necessary to it, is the theological journey Spong has been on. I don't think we, regardless of our faith commitments, can really understand the manifesto in its fullness, nor really concur with it, without first understanding and appreciating that journey.

The priest of the small Episcopal church I briefly attended a while back was quick to label Spong as a heretic from the pulpit and sometimes, in private and jokingly I trust, call for his burning — along with the Presiding Bishop, et al.

Spong is, by certain standards, a heretic. But then, so am I. And that has nothing to do with his, or my, view of homosexuality. That view, that understanding, flows from a theological journey. For Spong, traditionally understood theism is a woefully inadequate conception of what we term “God.” The Bible is a collection of theological reflections which can inform our own reflections. It is not, in any way typically understood, the Word of God.

Many of the so-called “historical” events found in that collection of writings — for example, all those great Hebrew stories in what’s sometimes called The Old Testament, many of the Jesus stories like the virgin birth, preexisting divinity of Jesus, bodily resurrection, etc., are not history properly understood; but, rather, are theological interpretations of encounters with and experiences of the man, Jesus, who while not “God in the flesh,” was, nevertheless, divine-infused. I don’t think I’m misunderstanding his writings here. Even the latest book, Eternal Life: A New Vision, presents these thoughts in its subtitle: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell.

The logical end of that kind of theological journey is the realization that to continue to debate an issue like homosexuality in the church is, indeed, fruitless. It is fruitless if for no other reason than the fact that there is no common ground from which to start the debate. Belief cannot argue with unbelief.

Put plainly, what possible good outcome is there from a debate in which one party starts from the assumption that the collection of writings we call “Bible” is authoritative in some way, normative for our sexual behavior, when the other person starts from the assumption that the collections of writings we call “Bible" are no more authoritative for our behavior than, for example, the Koran, or the writings of various eastern religious figures, or all those Gnostic gospels?

The only possible result is talking heads, each trying to be heard above the other, often yelling at each other in the end. Belief arguing, if you will, with unbelief.

Read the original article in Religion Dispatches


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