John Shelby Spong, 90, Liberalizing Episcopal Leader

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tags: religion, Christianity, Episcopal Church

John Shelby Spong, a charismatic Episcopal bishop who pushed his followers to accept women and L.G.B.T.Q. clergy, and who later called on them to reject sacrosanct ideas like Jesus’ virgin birth and the existence of heaven and hell, died on Sept. 12 at his home in Richmond, Va. He was 90.

His death was announced by the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, where he had served as bishop from 1976 to 2000.

Bishop Spong combined celebrity with tireless writing and speaking, perhaps more than any other liberal theologian in the late 20th century, to open up the Episcopal Church, and the global Anglican Church of which it is a part. He was one of the first American bishops to ordain a woman into the clergy, in 1977, and the first to ordain an openly gay man, in 1989.

“He brought so many people back to the church,” Bishop Bonnie Perry of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan said in an interview. “He talked about theological matters in a way that caused people who felt excluded by the church or just bored to sit up and listen.”

Through more than 25 books, as well as speaking schedules that often included 200 events a year and regular appearances on the talk shows of Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donahue and others, Bishop Spong urged his church to reconcile with modernity, even if that meant setting aside supernatural ideas like Jesus’ resurrection. That position drew intense support, but it also drew equally intense criticism from the church’s traditionalist wing.

“If you wanted to see a frown on a traditional Episcopalian’s face, you just had to mention John Shelby Spong,” said Mark Tooley, the president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative think tank.

Bishop Spong became a national celebrity in the mid-1980s, when he began calling on the church to reconsider its position on gay rights. He urged his colleagues not only to accept openly gay clergy, but also to welcome openly gay and lesbian worshipers into their congregations and to bless same-sex unions.

Read entire article at New York Times

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