Bishop John Shelby Spong has been called the devil incarnate and the Antichrist — a clergyman and author vilified for pressing for modernity in the church and full acceptance of homosexuals.
No higher-ranked American church leader has more influenced the debate or directly acted to give homosexuals a place in the church.
When he ordained an openly gay man to the Episcopal priesthood in 1989 — noting there was no canonical authority forbidding it — he became hero and demon. He received about 5,000 letters, of which "99 percent were hostile," he said.
"I am probably the most unlikely person that you can imagine " to be championing the cause for gays in the church, Spong told the No Longer Silent/Clergy for Justice group this week at Scottsdale Congregational United Church of Christ. He shared a litany of stories from his years as a priest and 24 years as a bishop that led to his change of heart about gays.
His native Charlotte, N.C., neighborhood also produced evangelist Billy Graham; the Graham home was the last one on Spong’s newspaper route when he was 12. His parents and Graham’s attended the same "evangelical, fundamental Episcopal church," he said.
"I grew up in a home that was very fundamentalist," he said.
"I would tell you that I never heard the word ‘homosexual,’ " Spong said. "Maybe we just didn’t have homosexuals in the South."
Spong said he first heard the word when he was 18, and "I did what people in my religion would do: I accepted my cultural definition, which was certainly reinforced by my church — gay people were either mentally sick people who needed to be cured, or they were morally depraved people who needed to be converted. And that definition was never challenged."
"I lived with that definition, and I never raised that question through most of my adult ministry," Spong said.
When he was elected bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, N.J., in 1976, Spong became familiar with nearby Hoboken, N.J., which has a large gay community.
"It was the first time in my life that I ever had to confront an openly gay community, people who were not embarrassed or ashamed, who were ethical people," he said.
The new bishop conversed with one of his priests, who told him, "I have never been dishonest with my bishop before, and I am not going to start with you. I want to tell you up front that I am a homosexual. I have been homosexual all my life. I am perfectly comfortable in my homosexuality. I don’t deny it. I don’t broadcast it. I just want you to know
that that is who I am."
Months later, Spong went to another priest’s home to inform him that his parish was no longer viable and had to be closed. Spong discovered the priest was sharing his rectory with a man. When questioned, the priest told Spong, "The man I live with has been my life partner for 14 years. I love him as much as you love your wife. If I ever have to face a decision of whether I will give up my partner or give up my priesthood, I want you to know I give up my priesthood. My commitment to my partner is the deepest commitment of my life."
Spong told the priest he would allow neither an unmarried heterosexual couple nor a gay couple to live together in a diocesan rectory.
"He looked at me as straight as one can look and said, ‘Bishop, the heterosexual couple has a choice. They can get married any time they want to. My partner and I did not have a choice. Neither my church nor my country has given me that option.’ "
For Spong, it was an epiphany.
The bishop said repeated conversations with gays who "were exercising responsibility" drove him to research sexuality in cooperation with Cornell Medical Center in New York City. Out of the studies, Spong determined in 1987 that the church must "invest its love, care and authority in any human, adult relationship that enhances life instead of denigrating life — whether they are officially married. It stretched to include unmarried people, postmarried (divorced and widowed) people, gays and lesbians."
Spong’s plan drew wide media coverage and set off a debate. The study, he said, convinced him that "homosexuality, in the overwhelming number of instances, is not a chosen way of life. It is a given way of life."
"I suddenly realized that I had not chosen to be a heterosexual," though he recalled suddenly being attracted to girls. "It raised the obvious question: If I didn’t choose to be heterosexual, why do I continue to think that gay and lesbian people choose to be homosexual? "
Spong said research shows rates of homosexuality are fairly uniform across cultures.
"Homosexuals are not born on the planet Krypton," he said. "They are your sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters. Every now and then they are a mother and father. They are your aunts and uncles, they are your clergy and your policemen. . . . They are in all walks of life and in all levels of society and all professions."
"When you put these learnings together, it is clear that sexual orientation is much more like being left-handed than it is something you choose to do or be," he said.
But a retired United Methodist pastor from Mesa, the Rev. Nathan Holt, said Spong and others are trying to perpetuate what he called the erroneous position that the "verdict is in" on how people come to decide they are gay.
It’s a "misguided assumption that God created homosexual persons with same-sex orientation," said Holt, who is convenor of UM Unity, which has resisted moves to open the Methodist Church to gay pastors or to allow same-sex unions.
He pointed to "wellrespected evidence " from National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, an Encino, Calif.-based program that "treats" gays and lesbians. Those findings have "irrefutably showed that same-sex inclinations can be overcome by those who desire that they be overcome," Holt said.
In answer to a declaration released Monday by No Longer Silent clergy and signed by more than 85 pastors, a new Phoenix pastoral group has formed: "Clergy in Support of Courage, Clarity and Charity: A Phoenix Declaration." Fifty-eight pastors from 25 churches initially signed it.
That declaration cites 26 biblical passages and asserts that "the Word of God must not be held prisoner to alien philosophical or cultural agendas.
If allowed to speak with its own authority, the biblical teaching is seen to be utterly opposed to homosexuality and its attendant practices."