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The Bishop's Unholy Row

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SITTING IN HIS OFFICE IN THE HEART OF Newark, N.J., Bishop John Shelby Spong just can’t stop thinking about sexuality. Not, it should be noted, in the prurient sense. The Episcopal priest is looking toward his church’s national convention in Phoenix from July 11 to 21, when the controversy over ordaining homosexuals—stoked by the recent ordination of a lesbian priest in Washington, D.C.—is certain to explode. What’s just as certain is that Spong, who has made a career of defying the conventional wisdom of his elders, will be heaving a few bombshells himself. “I’m not a lone ranger,” he insists. “There’s a lot of [ferment] out there.”

The 60-year-old head of the Episcopal diocese in Newark has long been a renegade: He favors abortion, the ordination of women and the blessing of homosexual relationships, and in 1989 set off a furor when he was the first to ordain an openly gay priest. Now, with the publication of his latest book, the religious bestseller Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, in which Spong describes St. Paul as a repressed, “self-loathing” homosexual, he has outraged his critics and upset some allies. Says Rev. Ted Nelson, chairman of the conservative Episcopalians United: “For him to say these things and just take off on his own is an enormous insult to the rest of the church.”

Spong begs to differ. He says the Bible cannot be taken literally when it demeans women and deems homosexuality an abomination; instead, he says, Scripture should be read as metaphor embodying deeper spiritual truths. The story of St. Paul, he argues, is just such a metaphor. Two years ago, Spong began an intensive study of the apostle’s life and found the evidence of his homosexuality persuasive—including Paul’s hostility toward women, the fact that he never married and his tormented writings about the conflict raging inside his body. “Paul grew up in a Jewish society where homosexuality was punishable by death,” says Spong. “If he was homosexual, he felt he had to suppress his desires. But in his conversion to Christianity, Paul realized God could love even a part of him that he couldn’t accept. To me, it is a beautiful idea that a homosexual male, scorned then as now, would define grace for Christians.”

Born into a lower-middle-class family in Charlotte, N.C., Spong grew up just down the block from Billy Graham. When he was 12, he became close with Robert Crandall, the new, progressive rector of his family church. Following in Crandall’s footsteps, Spong enrolled at the Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Va., and was ordained in 1955. In 1969 he had his first taste of controversy when he started a series of public dialogues with Rabbi Jack Spiro in which he referred to Jesus Christ not as the son but as the “will” of God; seven years later, when he was elected bishop at the Newark diocese, conservative Episcopalians were still outraged. After he ordained Robert Williams, a sexually active gay, two years ago. the outcry culminated in his censure by the Episcopal House of Bishops. Spong remains defiant: “The reaction was hypocritical. We have gay bishops; I know who they are. When I ordained Robert, all I did was to be honest. The church has been doing this for 2,000 years.”

Spong has already set his sights on the year 2000, when he hopes he will still be steering his church toward change, guided and supported by all those around him. That includes his second wife, Chris, 52, a divorcée whom he married in 1990 (two years after the death from cancer of his first wife, Joan), and his three daughters, Ellen, 36, Katharine, 33, and Jaquelin, 31. Spong wants all Christians to learn the virtues of tolerance, whether they accept his particular theories or not. “I don’t write because I’m convinced I have the final word,” he says. “I do write because there are issues we’ve got to face openly and honestly. I think I’ve succeeded, and I’m awfully proud.”