This column first appeared on johnshelbyspong.com on Dec. 1st, 2016. It is re-posted here with permission.
When I learned of your stroke in September, I was en route to the fourth Common Dreams Conference in Brisbane, Queensland. Having no details at that point and being a half-a-planet away, I was anxious about having to endure the uncertainty of this news on my own. I needn’t have worried, though. As it turns out, I couldn’t have found myself in a more supportive and equally concerned crowd anywhere in the world.
Few people know as well as you the peculiar feeling of being both reviled and beloved around the world. But it seems to me that nowhere are you more respected than in Progressive Christian circles Down Under.
I look back with fondness on the inaugural Common Dreams event in Sydney back in 2007. Although it wasn’t your first trip to Australia, CD1 was a seminal event I feel fortunate to have attended. As you’ll recall, when news broke that this “rogue heretic” (that would be you) was once again descending on Australia, the Archdiocese of the Sydney Anglican Church sent out a press release banning you from setting foot on any Anglican property while in their city. This was, of course, the best publicity the organizing committee of Common Dreams could have ever hoped for. I recall the delight (tinged with sadness) you expressed in having your infamy splashed across the pages of The Sydney Morning Herald. While providing further proof to the non-religious that the church (or at least the Sydney Anglican Church) was hopelessly irrelevant in its obsession with the past, your notoriety resulted in interviews and other media exposure that drew a crowd exponentially larger than expected. I remember your presentations being both inspiring and encouraging to a crowd that was yearning for new directions. Looking back, your trademark tenacity in the face of controversy seems to have been one of the catalysts for what continues to grow as a broad and evolving network of Progressive Christians in Australia/New Zealand.
And so it goes – all across the globe – a legacy of certainties called into question, death-dealing dogmas called out, exclusive and privileged institutions put on notice. You are at one and the same time one of orthodoxy’s worst nightmares and a cup of cool water to the beloved community of “church alumni/ae” – and all of this with a focus, a grace, and a humility that confounds your critics.
Those very traits were foremost in my mind when, as you may remember from last summer, eight churches in our town decided to preach a six-week sermon series on whether “Progressive” Christianity was “fact or fiction.” As the only progressive church in Fountains Hills (one that welcomes the LGBTQ community and shares its space with a synagogue and a Buddhist Center), there was really no doubt in anyone’s mind who this smear campaign was directed towards. As it turns out, the whole episode turned out to be the best advertising campaign we could have never otherwise afforded. The advice you shared with me from your cousin, U.S. Senator William Spong, couldn’t have been more apropos:
“The way you really get to the public is by having the right enemies, not the right friends. The friends don’t do you that much good, but the right enemies attacking you really do open up the possibilities.”
Our attendance that summer was the highest The Fountains had ever had – with lots of first-time attendees who had never heard of “Progressive Christianity” before their pastors started preaching against it. It remains to be seen what the long-term effect of this episode will have on people’s overall impression of Christians. I fear that for many, witnessing a gang of conventional Christian churches essentially bullying a theological minority was just more proof that the American practice of Christianity is hopelessly damaged and irredeemable.
In fact, Jeremy Greaves (the Venerable!) and I were just reflecting on that sentiment earlier today. You might remember that Jeremy is serving as the Rector at St Marks, Buderim and the Archdeacon for his area of Queensland. We were Skyping today about his having been chosen to become the new Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Brisbane. No sooner had the announcement been made than the denunciations began — including enough hateful phone calls that Jeremy is considering changing his phone number!
Jeremy said, “It’s strange how people who I’ve never met feel like it’s important to ring me and tell me why I’m wrong. And what takes me by surprise is not that people want to ring me and disagree, but the level of anger, venom, and nastiness. It must be exhausting being that angry. It certainly is exhausting being on the other end of it.”
Jeremy’s friends outside the church see this all happening and say, “Really?!?” They’re bewildered because they know the sort of person Jeremy is and don’t care much about what doctrines he holds to be true. It simply confirms the suspicions they’ve had about the church and Christians for most of their lives.
So for Jeremy, Jeff Procter-Murphy, me, and so many others like us, you remain a profoundly important role model. Despite all its flaws, its backwardness, and downright mean-spiritedness, we are still drawn to the promise of “the church” and its potential to be a force for good in the world. We resist the urge to throw up our hands in frustration or sink into a funk of inaction. We have seen in you the example of one who refuses to abandon the church to those who would turn back the clock and leverage the institution to legitimate their fears and prejudices.
The challenge for many Progressives, both clergy and laity, is daunting: to stay in the institution and not be broken by it. In you we’ve seen what it takes and are inspired to rise to the challenge.
No matter how controversial, it is crucial for those of us who are clergy to follow your lead in translating the often esoteric theological musings of academia into language that is both understandable and relevant to thoughtful lay people. We need to muster the courage to be outspoken social critics, ecclesiastical whistle-blowers, and prophetic voices calling discrimination and injustice what it is, even in the face of a persistent status quo. All the while being able to express a genuinely pastoral ethos in the advocacy of the most radical of ideas. Sheesh. I don’t think you realize how high you’ve set the bar for us.
And that doesn’t even begin to acknowledge the challenges posed by our presidential election. What’s a self-respecting Spongophile to do? How do we face the coming whirlwind of priorities, policies, and actions that discredit, disrespect, and cast disdain on the very people and ideals that you’ve spent a lifetime defending?
In light of the confusion, fear, vengeance, and violence that seems to have been unleashed in our midst, I ask myself how I can possibly resist the urge to despair. But then I turn to my own personal canon of texts that serve to renew me in challenging times. One of those for me is an excerpt from your talk in Session 12 of LtQ’s series, “Saving Jesus Redux.”
In it, you remind us why our mission as followers of Jesus is so crucial in our day:
“Those of us who want to constitute ourselves as disciples of this Jesus have a single responsibility and that is to try to build a world in which every person in that world has a better opportunity to live fully and to love wastefully and to be all that they can be in the infinite (variety) of our humanity. And when the world learns that that’s our message — and we begin to be faithful to that message — then there will come forth from the disciples of Jesus such a mighty reformation that the whole world will begin to find in the body of Christ life and love and wholeness. That’s what God is all about. That’s what you and I as disciples of Jesus must also be all about. It’s a universal message that transcends the boundaries of that religious enterprise that so often sets us at odds, one against another.”
Over and over again, you’ve reminded us that Jesus’ call is for us to be whole and real, not religious; loving, not moral and righteous; inclusive, not hating everybody that disagrees with us and claiming superiority over them. You’ve proclaimed it wherever there are ears to hear: the mark of Jesus’ disciples is to be loving. A call to life. A call to love. A call to be all that we can be.
I don’t know if you read the pep talk that President Obama gave his daughters after Donald Trump was elected, but it seemed to be of a piece with what you have said and demonstrated in so many ways:
“You should anticipate that at any given moment there’s going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or maybe inside you that you have to vanquish. And it doesn’t stop. You don’t get into a fetal position about it. You don’t start worrying about apocalypse. You say, OK, where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward?’”
And that’s really the motive for this note to you – expressing my gratitude (and maybe a little aggravation!) at your having pointed out SO many places that need to be pushed to keep things moving forward. It is downright daunting.
But perhaps one of the things I’m most grateful for is your expectation of not just me, but of all of us, clergy and laity alike. It’s a kind of unspoken summons where, in so many different circumstances, you have demonstrated the importance of standing up and speaking out — not just as “professional” public theologians, but as informed lay people in particular.
I’ve seen it at work. It happens around kitchen tables and in coffee shops, on long drives and quiet walks where conversations turn to the things that really matter in life – and often those “things” are weighed down by the burden of long obsolete religious ideas and assumptions. Through your books, lectures, and columns, you provide the vocabulary and give permission to ordinary people to struggle, doubt, and even reject the dogma of their birth. You’ve opened new spiritual vistas for them. You’ve shown the power of simply sitting with and encouraging the hurting and the fearful without burdening them with platitudes or the weight of long-irrelevant theologies. And taking all of it together and holding it up to the light, one of your greatest gifts becomes clear: the ability to stir even those who consider themselves the “least of these” into action.
Let’s be honest. People cannot not have an opinion about Jack Spong.
Whether you’re stirring people up to totally reevaluate everything they’d ever thought they knew or steeling a Fundamentalists’ resolve to maintain the status quo, your life and teachings demand a response. And THAT’S what I’m going for. That’s a legacy worth pursuing. And insofar as I’m able to achieve even the tiniest sliver of that goal, I can say without hesitation that it is all your fault.
Working with Jeff to develop Living the Questions has had a lot of unexpected benefits, not the least of which has been your friendship and mentorship. I will always be grateful for your wisdom, your support, and your encouragement. I look forward to connecting with you and Christine in person sometime soon.
In the meantime, best wishes to you in your continued recovery. We who seek to live, love, and be all that we can be offer our love and gratitude!
PS: Tell Christine I’m grateful for her encouraging note. She must be taking lessons from you. All it said was, “We hope you are still raising a ruckus!” Tell her she can rest assured, there’s plenty to raise a ruckus about. I’m on it!
Thanks to the Rev. Dr. Jeff Procter-Murphy, the Venerable Jeremy Greaves, and Penny Davis, Director of the Arizona Foundation for Contemporary Theology for their input.
David Felten is a full-time pastor at The Fountains, a United Methodist Church in Fountain Hills, Arizona, a musician, and with Jeff Procter-Murphy, is one of the co-creators of Living the Questions. He is also a co-founder of the Arizona Foundation for Contemporary Theology and a founding member of No Longer Silent: Clergy for Justice, an outspoken voice for LGBTQ rights both in the church and in the community at large.