Read an Excerpt
Setting the Stage:
The Parameters of the Debate
"Your words are not just heresy, they are apostasy. Burning you at the stake would be too kind!"
"Your book was like manna from heaven -- God-sent! I cannot adequately express my gratitude. "
"You rail against the Church's doctrines and core beliefs while you accept wages from her. Even whores appreciate their clients. You, sir, have less integrity than a whore!"
"You have made it possible for me to remain in the Church and have taught me how to believe honestly its creeds even in the twentieth century. "
"Bishop Spong, you are full of sh-t. We are going to clean you up."Reading your book is like eating a delicious Black Forest cherry birthday cake. It has made me vulnerable while increasing my desire to worship. "
British Columbia, Canada
"Remember, as you prance about disguised as a minister of the gospel, that you will pay for your sins eternally in the lake of fire."
Charleston, South Carolina
"Your book is a transcendent work of brilliance and, I am sure, permanence.""I hope the next plane on which you flycrashes. You are not worthy of life. If all else fails, I will try to rid the world of your evil presence personally."
"I believe you are a prophet and I will strive with you to answer God's call to live fully, love wastefully, and be all that I can be. Thank you, thank you, and may your life continue to be blessed."
Grosse Point, Michigan
These are excerpts from but a tiny few of literally thousands of letters I have received in my career as a bishop. They clearly reveal the diversity of responses my life, ministry, and writings have elicited over the years. If someone had told me years ago that I would create these enormous levels of both appreciation and hostility in my ordained life, I would have been dumbfounded, shocked, and probably deeply hurt. How did it happen? What created these twin emotions of praise and anger, of gratitude and fear? What forces pushed me, compelled me, or led me to play my particular role in the struggle to make the Christian Church respond to the issues of our century, and indeed to open new dimensions of spirituality to the citizens of this century? That is the story I seek to tell.
March 6, 1976, was a crisp, sunny late winter Saturday in Richmond, Virginia. It fell in the midst of a busy weekend in my life. On Friday, the fifth, I had indulged my passion for sports and secured, through my politically well connected cousin, tickets to the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament, which was being played in Landover, Maryland. My alma mater, the University of North Carolina, was playing my daughters' alma mater, the University of Virginia, in one of the two semifinal games on that date. To be a Tar Heel while living in Virginia and serving St. Paul's Episcopal Church, the historic "Cathedral of the Confederacy," in downtown Richmond made me about as popular as Kentucky Fried Chicken's Colonel Sanders at a chicken farm. The commitment of old-line Virginians to the Cavaliers of the University of Virginia was deep. Even my two older daughters would choose to go to the University of Virginia and to be grafted into the Virginia tradition. So I watched this particular game in a sea of Virginia alumni. One of them, sitting just behind me, was my friend Sidney Buford Scott, whose family had given Scott Stadium to the University of Virginia and Scott Lounge to the Virginia Theological Seminary. He was one of the few in those stands who was aware that I was at that moment a nominee for the position of bishop coadjutor of the Diocese of Newark in the state of New Jersey and the choice would be made the next morning. That night, as my university was being eliminated by his, he inquired about that process.
"Any chance you'll be elected?" he asked.
"Somewhere between slim and none." I replied. "I believe I'll get enough votes not to be embarrassed, but not nearly enough to be elected. It's not something in which I have any great investment."
That was an honest assessment. That was also the only time that evening that the Newark election entered my consciousness.
The Sunday of that same weekend was also to be a big day in my life. I was engaged in a series of dialogue sermons that were to last for three Sundays on the wide-ranging subject of medical ethics. This was my attempt to address theologically a concern that had been brought to the public's attention by the case of one Karen Quinlan, who had been in a coma for months, kept alive by mechanical devices. Her parents had petitioned the courts for permission to remove these artificial support systems and allow this young woman, their child, to die. The courts had refused this request, and a national debate had ensued.
St. Paul's Church in Richmond was only three blocks from the Medical College of Virginia. We had over eighty doctors in the congregation. Occasionally I used the sermon period for a dialogue on vital public issues. This allowed me to Invite people who possessed an expertise that I did not to engage both me and the congregation in debate. Whether a hopelessly brain-dead young woman should be kept breathing by medical devices seemed tailormade for such an approach. A young internist associated with the Medical College of Virginia and active at St. Paul's named Daniel Gregory had agreed to be the medical member for this dialogue...