John Shelby Spong
An Open Letter to My Readers
This week, my column takes the form of a letter to my readers. It is an unusual format, but it speaks to the unusual occurrences in our nation this past week. I hope you will read it. I hope you will respond to it.
I am just back from a lecture tour of Europe with a focus on the launch of a French translation of my book: Born of a Woman: A Bishop Re-Thinks the Virgin Birth and the Place of Women in a Male-Dominated Church. It was an exciting and stretching trip about which I will be writing in future weeks.
I returned home, however, to one of the most extraordinary weeks in the life of our nation. So I wanted to use my column this week to reflect on these historic events.
First, there was the cruel murder of nine worshipers, including the pastor at an AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. This horrendous act, motivated as it was by overt racial hatred, seemed, in almost a miraculous way, to bring the latent racism present just beneath the surface of this nation’s life to a head. More than that this act even appeared to “lance’ that residual racism as one might do to a boil, allowing the infection to drain and assisting the healing process to begin. Perhaps it was the witness of the grieving members of that Charleston Christian congregation, who offered both their forgiveness and God’s forgiveness, to the willful killer of their loved ones that did it. In any event, across the South, politicians began to say that it is time to remove the Confederate flag from public places. It is time to stop efforts to make minority voting difficult. It is time to remove the remaining vestiges of slavery from our society. Perhaps this was best symbolized when South Carolina’s Republican State Senator, Paul Thurmond, who in calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol in Columbia said: “I want to be on the right side of history.” He is the son of former United States Senator Strom Thurmond, one of America’s most overt racial agitators and perpetrators in the previous generation, a fact that was not lost on his audience. President Obama, in his role as “pastor in chief,” then spoke to a grieving nation at the funeral in Charleston, in which he brought history and healing together. He never looked or acted more presidential, even as he led the congregation in the singing of “Amazing Grace.”
Second, there was the 6-3 decision by the Supreme Court of the United States to uphold the Affirmative Care Act, better known as “Obamacare.” Without endorsing every proviso of this now established law of the land, what the Court did was to make it clear for the first time, that health care in America is a right of citizenship, not a privilege for those who can afford it. It was an amazing moment. That principle finally aligns the United States with all of the other developed nations of the world. It was, thus, a signal victory for a caring society.
Third, the next day the Supreme Court, this time by a 5-4 majority, confirmed the fact that every citizen in every state of this nation, regardless of their differences in sexual orientation, has the same guaranteed right to marriage and family life. No state can now deny either the privilege of marriage, or any of its obvious legal advantages, to any citizen. It was a decision that declared that from this moment on, before the law and the Constitution, there will be no second class citizenship.
When I heard the breaking news announcing this historic decision, tears literally flowed down my cheeks. Memories of a struggle long engaged flooded my mind. I hope you will indulge me as I share some of these with you.
When I was the Bishop of Newark from 1976-2000, I worked, together with the clergy and the people of that diocese, for this day to come. It was a long but tireless struggle. A task force in our Diocese, headed by the late Rev. Dr. Nelson Thayer, an Episcopal priest and a member of the faculty of the Theological School of Drew University, called for this step to be taken as long ago as 1985! After a year of study in our congregations our diocese then affirmed this step by majority vote of its clergy and lay people in our convention of 1986. Our clergy from that moment on were encouraged to “bless the sacred vows of gay and lesbian Christians,” at a time when the State of New Jersey would not allow that to be called marriage. That was also a time when the larger Episcopal Church still sought to discipline or remove those clergy who dared to take these steps. Those years were the context out of which I wrote my book on changing attitudes toward human sexuality, entitled: Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality. That book, commissioned by Abingdon Press of the United Methodist Church was then dropped under pressure from conservative Methodist sources just four weeks before its publication. It was subsequently picked up and published in September of 1988 by Harper/Collins. In the first six months of that book’s life it sold more copies than every book I had ever written before had done in their total published life. It also helped to fuel the debate that began to be engaged in all of America’s churches.
On December 16, 1989, I took the next step in what I believed was a prophetic witness. In a packed All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Hoboken, New Jersey, encouraged by the leaders of this diocese and on behalf of the clergy and people within it, I ordained the Rev. Robert Williams to the priesthood of my church. He was the first openly gay man, living in a publicly acknowledged and committed partnership, ever to be ordained in the Episcopal Church or in the Anglican Communion. It was a courageous and an obviously controversial decision. To conduct this ordination service we had to walk through lines of angry, shouting, placard-carrying picketers. The loudest and angriest of these picketers was a Pentecostal preacher. We also rode the storm of controversy in the aftermath of that ordination. It came from both ecclesiastical and political sources. The next day this action and our diocese were covered in front page newspaper stories across the land. This ordination played every thirty minutes on cable television’s Headline News channel for twenty-four hours. The next week it was the national religion “story of the week” in both Time and Newsweek. The presiding bishop of my church, the Right Reverend Edmund Browning, responded by writing me a condemning letter, despite the fact that I knew that he agreed with me on this action. From January until September of 1990 my wife and I crisscrossed this nation, appearing on every radio and television show to which we could secure an invitation and being interviewed by the print media wherever possible. It was a specific effort to build public support with which to counter the leadership of my church. I used every available political tactic to win this ecclesiastical battle.
In September of that year in a vote taken at a meeting of the Episcopal House of Bishops in Washington, D. C., my diocese and I as its bishop, were officially condemned for taking this action. The vote, however, was a startling one to those who were so deeply upset and angry and it was also a turning point. The resolution of the bishops “to disassociate themselves from the Bishop of Newark and his Diocese for carrying out this ‘irregular ordination” was only passed by a vote of 78-74 with two abstentions! That was far closer than anyone had believed possible. I was one of the two abstentions. I guess I did not know how to vote on whether I wanted to associate with myself or not! Following that vote, by a previous arrangement with the Presiding Bishop of my church, who had by now voted for me rather than against me, I was recognized to speak. I did so for forty-five minutes. It was purple-passionate oratory in which I traced my own changing attitudes from the overt homophobia taught to me by the church of my youth and undergirded by quotations from the Bible lifted primarily out of the book of Leviticus, to the place where I was willing to put my career on the line in order to be an advocate for the full inclusion of homosexual people in the life of both our nation and my church. I asserted my firm belief that the only “sin” of which homosexual people might be held to be guilty was that they were born with a sexual orientation different from the majority. Homosexuality, I informed my fellow bishops, had come to be newly understood by me, chiefly through the work and the friendship of Dr. Robert Lahita, a member of the faculty at the Cornell School of Medicine in New York City. I now saw it as a “given” not a “chosen.” Homosexuality, I continued, is something that one “is” not something that one “does.” Homosexuality thus was no different in its moral character from being left handed or having a particular skin pigmentation or a particular eye color. To discriminate against other human beings because of a “given” in their lives could never be moral. As a Christian I too sought to undergird my new attitude with biblical quotations. Jesus was quoted in the Bible as having said: “Come unto me all ye.” He did not say: “some of ye.” No one was ever portrayed in the Bible as rejected by him. Jesus was also quoted as having said: “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly.” No one can give life by being prejudiced against who or what a person is. The world might judge a person’s doing, but not a person’s being. No church should ever sing: “Just as I am without one plea, O Lamb of God, I come,” unless the members of that church are prepared to welcome those who presented themselves in response to this invitation. Anything else is sheer hypocrisy.
Following that speech, between ten and twelve bishops crowded around my desk to tell me that if they had heard what I had to say before they voted, they would have changed their vote. At that moment in September of 1990, I knew that the majority of the Episcopal bishops had now walked beyond this dying cultural prejudice. That majority has never been lost in the House of Bishops from that day to this. Later that night, two bishops came out of the closet to me. Both of them were married. One had voted to disassociate from me. The other had voted against doing so.
When I retired as the bishop of this diocese in 2000, I had thirty-five out of the closet, ordained gay and lesbian clergy serving in the ranks of our priesthood. Thirty-one of them lived openly with their partners. They were wonderful, effective, loving priests and pastors. I was proud to be their bishop. I still am. They helped to make me whole.
So, on June 26, 2015, by a majority vote of the highest court of this land, the struggle for full equality for the LGBT community has now been established. The question is now asked as to whether clergy will be “forced” to do gay marriages. In the diocese I once represented but which is now under the leadership of our bishop, and my close friend, the Rt. Rev. Mark Beckwith, I think the world can be certain that the Episcopal clergy there are ready, willing and able to offer the sacrament of Holy Matrimony and all of the other ministries of the church to all our people without exception. The Christian Church is and must always be a “Come as you are” party. This prejudice of the ages has now been thrown onto the scrapheap of history.
It was a very good week for our nation. I rejoice in it, welcome it and give thanks to God for it. The world and the church have the opportunity today to be more profoundly Christian than we were able to be just last week. That is a powerful and a welcomed realization.
John Shelby Spong