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Bishop Spong’s “The Time Has Come” Manifesto and New Conversation Spaces

Eleanor Roosevelt with U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, 1949

In another, wiser version of my life, I would be a more careful collector of those stray tidbits of illuminating discourse we all run across in unexpected places on a daily basis, make a mental note to file away, and then lose sight of.  A case in point:

Research projects sometimes have me scanning back issues of my state’s daily newspapers in periods of crucial social transition like the 1950s and 1960s.  As I do that, looking for the single piece of information I need, I inevitably find myself lured into reading the letters column to see what people were thinking and saying during decades when I was too young to pay attention to public discourse about political and cultural events unfolding around me.  I wish I had had the foresight to clip these letters as I’ve read them over the years, because of their power to illuminate contemporary debates about the bible and its cultural uses.

Invariably, I’m fascinated—and often repulsed—by what I find when I read them.  In my area during the 1950s and 1960s, it wasn’t at all uncommon for fellow citizens to write the local paper and declare confidently that 1) the bible clearly demonstrates that God made some people white and others black, with the intent of keeping the two races separate; 2) the bible shows plainly that God made the black race to serve the white race; and 3) anyone who doubts these “facts” questions God and is probably an immoral socialist.

Oh, and of course, those writing these letters (white folks, it goes without saying, white Christian folks) declare with equal confidence that they love their black brothers and sisters and mean them no harm.  But when the bible says something, what can one do except stand where the Word tells you to stand?  The whole world turns upside down when we let folks question the divine Word of God.

Turn the clock back and dip into letters written during the first decades of the 20th century, as women began entering the workforce and claiming the right to vote, and you’ll find—I know; I read them frequently, when I scan old newspapers—people declaring with equal certainty that 1) God made men and women different and complementary for reason; 2) specifically, God made men strong and women weak; 3) the bible clearly demonstrates that female subordination to males is God’s plan for the created world; and 4) allowing women to do “men’s” work and to vote overturns God’s divine order and subverts the plain meaning of the bible.

Not much seems to have changed in the new century, has it?  Nowadays, though there may still be considerable pockets of American culture that cling to these totally untenable understandings of God and the bible when it comes to matters of race and gender, hardly anyone would dare to voice such declarations in public any longer.* Though many people may whisper their untenable and prejudice-laden readings of the bible vis-à-vis race or gender in private, even within the confines of their church, they seldom dare to bring these readings to the light of public discourse, where they know that light will illuminate an unsavory darkness at the heart of their use of the bible to keep others in subordination to themselves.

But when it comes to gay and lesbian people, many folks still feel perfectly at ease making confident public declarations about God, the bible, and homosexuality that are rapidly being proven as untenable as the preceding equally confident declarations about God, the bible, and race or gender have been proven to be.  We live at a turning point in history at which both careful biblical (and theological) analysis and cultural developments have revealed that the use of the scriptures to bash gay folks is as malevolent as the use of the bible to bash people of color and women was in the past.

Clearly not all of us have caught up to that recognition yet.  Some of us are intent on resisting the turning point as long and as bitterly as possible—just as many of my fellow citizens were committed to resisting the culture’s turning point regarding segregation in the 1950s and 1960s, and about women’s rights at the start of the 20th century.

And so for those of us who discern that a crucial turning point has taken place in our culture in recent years re: God, the bible, and queer folks, what’s to be done, when a segment of the culture is intent on clinging to a homophobic reading of scripture that is simply no longer tenable in light of sound biblical scholarship and the new light that a growing progressive cultural consensus casts on the scriptures?  What’s to be done when that segment of culture wants to thwart productive conversations that will move us beyond the dead stasis of fruitless debate about issues now settled?

Southern Slavery and the Bible, One of Many Works Using Scripture to Defend Slavery

As I think about this challenge in the new year, and with the opening of a new discourse space at Open Tabernacle designed for productive conversations about theological and cultural issues that take for granted the turning point I’ve just sketched, I’ve been revisiting Bishop John Shelby Spong’s “The Time Has Come” Manifesto of 15 October 2009.  Over at my Bilgrimage blog, I blogged about Bishop Spong’s manifesto on 22 October.

Since I made a statement about “The Time Has Come” in the blog posting to which I just linked, I won’t belabor what I have already said about the Spong manifesto.  I encourage interested readers to link to the manifesto itself and read it carefully, and if you want my take on it, please check out what I say about it on Bilgrimage.

Here, I’d like to make note of the pertinence of Bishop Spong’s manifesto for those of us who have been longing for new discourse spaces within our various religious (or political, or both) traditions, which permit us to move beyond the dead stasis created by fruitless arguments re: biblical and theological interpretations of homosexuality that have been proven wrong.  It seems to me that the Spong manifesto is addressing that longing, and clearing a path for any of us who want to build such conversation spaces.

Bishop Spong begins his manifesto with a flat declaration—a flat avowal that he will simply no longer engage the stop-the-train arguments of those who want to resist a cultural turning point that has now moved us to a new level of understanding of gay people, gay lives, and the relationship of those lives to scripture and tradition:

I have made a decision. I will no longer debate the issue of homosexuality in the church with anyone.  I will no longer engage the biblical ignorance that emanates from so many right‐wing Christians about how the Bible condemns homosexuality, as if that point of view still has any credibility. I will no longer discuss with them or listen to them tell me how homosexuality is “an abomination to God,” about how homosexuality is a “chosen lifestyle,” or about how through prayer and “spiritual counseling” homosexual persons can be “cured.” Those arguments are no longer worthy of my time or energy.

What justification does Bishop Spong provide for this position?  I hear two primary justifications for the opening declaration as I read the manifesto.  In the first place, it is time to move on:

I make these statements because it is time to move on. The battle is over. The victory has been won.  There is no reasonable doubt as to what the final outcome of this struggle will be. Homosexual people will be accepted as equal, full human beings, who have a legitimate claim on every right that both church and society have to offer any of us.

And, in the second place, it’s time to move on because a new consciousness has arisen:

The battle in both our culture and our church to rid our souls of this dying prejudice is finished. A new consciousness has arisen. A decision has quite clearly been made. Inequality for gay and lesbian people is no longer a debatable issue in either church or state. Therefore, I will from this moment on refuse to dignify the continued public expression of ignorant prejudice by engaging it. I do not tolerate racism or sexism any longer. From this moment on, I will no longer tolerate our culture’s various forms of homophobia. I do not care who it is who articulates these attitudes or who tries to make them sound holy with religious jargon.

I do not tolerate racism or sexism any longer: a key underlying argument in Bishop Spong’s manifesto is that our culture has moved on in the past as a new consciousness arose about other issues re: which many Christians believed the bible was clear.  None of us can imagine, Bishop Spong proposes, continuing to carry on debates with those who think we should treat epilepsy by casting out demons, or that bleeding a patient with an infection is a feasible way of treating the infection.

Nor do the vast majority of us any longer imagine—we have moved on; a new consciousness has produced a new cultural consensus that reveals our previous reading of scripture about these matters as wrong—that we should revive the enervating cultural debates and misguided exegesis of the past that supported racism, sexism, and anti-semitism in many Christian cultures:

I will no longer temper my understanding of truth in order to pretend that I have even a tiny smidgen of respect for the appalling negativity that continues to emanate from religious circles where the church has for centuries conveniently perfumed its ongoing prejudices against blacks, Jews, women and homosexual persons with what it assumes is “high-sounding, pious rhetoric.” The day for that mentality has quite simply come to an end for me. I will personally neither tolerate it nor listen to it any longer. The world has moved on, leaving these elements of the Christian Church that cannot adjust to new knowledge or a new consciousness lost in a sea of their own irrelevance. They no longer talk to anyone but themselves.

We do not seek to revive those debates and the aberrant exegesis and theology that gave rise to them because they are:

  1. Enervating
  2. Enmeshed with political movements and commitments that have proven toxic for our culture and, for believers, antithetical to the gospel.

I lived through the turning point at which the formative culture of my childhood decided (when judicial and legislative decisions reflecting a new consciousness forced change) that it was time to move on, re: the use of the bible to support racism and subordination of people of color to white people.  And here’s what I remember about that cultural turning point: it would not have taken place if a number of people, a critical mass, determined to move the conversation in a new direction had not simply said, Enough.  It’s time to stop the enervating debate.  It’s over.  It’s no longer doing anyone a bit of good.

Continued debate about what the bible says re: gay people and gay lives is enervating because it ties up energy needed to build a better world.  The enervating debate about what the bible says re: gay people and gay lives ties up energy keeping productive change at bay in many areas.  It ties up energy as it tries to solve and re-solve a theological and cultural problem that has already been solved.  It ties up valuable energy that needs to be used to build a better world for everyone, straight and gay and alike.

A fundamental theological presupposition of many religious traditions is that the divine Spirit moves constantly through the world and through historical and cultural events to effect change—change for the better.  The theological framework within which Christians (who inherit this from Judaism) talk about this movement of the Spirit and its relationship to historical and social developments is called the reign of God.

The Christian understanding of the reign of God is centered on the affirmation that the Spirit is at work constantly, throughout history and in all cultures, to call the world to a vision of a more humane and inclusive society towards which we keep trying to move (and which we keep failing to realize) as we listen collectively for the voice of the Spirit at our point in history.  We waste the energy with which the Spirit keenly wants to imbue us—energy for necessary social change—when we continue to fight enervating battles about social issues after the emergence of a new consciousness has shown us the path along which a more humane society lies, as we deliberate about those social issues.

Unfortunately, there are groups within both faith communities and the culture at large who actively promote precisely the kind of enervation I’m describing here, as a new consciousness about an issue arises, and, on its basis, a new cultural consensus.  This is the point I want to get at when I say that I hear Bishop Spong telling us it is time to move on both because the conversation about homosexuality in which we have been involved is enervating, and because resistance to the new cultural consensus is enmeshed with toxic political movements and commitments that are antithetical to the gospel.

Many of those who promote continued enervating fights about homosexuality in our culture today are doing so not so much because homosexuality is their key issue, as because this issue remains instrumentally useful to political groups seeking to halt (and destroy) social changes designed to create a more just and humane social order in general.  In all areas—economic as well as social.  To the extent that we permit those promoting the enervating, going-nowhere discussion of homosexuality and the bible to continue occupying our attention and tying up our energy, to that extent, we also permit those promoting this behavior to thwart social and political changes necessary to build a more humane world.

To move our world closer to the vision of the reign of God . . . .

And for that, in my humble opinion, we very much need new conversation spaces like The Open Tabernacle, in which believers (and people of good will without any faith commitment) can gather to talk respectfully, perhaps raucously, even cantankerously, but always with the vision of that more humane society pulling us forward as we discuss the significant tasks ahead of us in the human community.  The tasks ahead of us as we work to build that more humane society . . . .

*I do suspect that it remains more culturally acceptable in some quarters to voice open “biblically based” support for misogyny than for racism.

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9 Responses

  1. Amen to your assessment of the replication patterns of bigotry and prejudice in recent Christian church history. Why is it that our very church institutions to which we turn for spiritual leadership, wisdom and social/human insight fail us again and again?

    Why is it that our mainline churches, on the whole, are not the reliable places to which we might turn when we find ourselves in crisis, in eras of social upheaval and change?

    I suppost Augustine’s adroit theological insight and nuance “city of God” (vs. church) applies today as easily as he saw the fit in the fifth century milieu.

    Keep up the great dialogue!
    SJS

  2. Thanks, Dimidium Animae Meae.

    I agree, both about the question and the pertinence of Augustine’s ecclesiology.

    Another way to put your question is to ask why churches imagine they will be credible when they claim to stand for human rights, but at the same time selectively target particular groups of human beings and refuse to support those folks’ full range of human rights?

    This is, in my view, a profound credibility question about the churches. Much that most churches want to say about human rights (and love) and justice and repairing the wounds of the world seems beside the point to me, as long as those same churches do not unambiguously support the human rights of LGBT persons.

    Re: Augustine, yes again. I suspect Augustine is correct when he notes in City of God that many folks who are certain they belong to the divine city may find themselves in the city of this world at the eschatological separation.

    And vice versa.

  3. I recently submitted a comment that had the appearance of a gay hatred speech, It was not my words, nor marijane G’s, I contacted the persons in charge of the site and to have it removed, what i did was transferred the word Christian for Gay rights activist.
    I personally do not HATE gay people, although I do not agree with thier personal choices, I am not a hater nor am I Homophobic.
    It is in fact Bigotry to claim that Christians hate, are bigots or homophobic FUNDIES Just because we are christian>
    Not all Christians hate gay people, even though we don’t agree with their behavior, to claim they all hate gays is BIGOTRY!
    I also believe the westboro church is wrong ,They are not acting on the behalf of Christians and to associate all Christians with that CULT , Is bigotry!
    Name calling , bigotry and hatred are wrong no mater what side of the cause you are on, I am having a hard time understanding why a Christians is called a bigot and a hater, And Homophobic, But SOME activist live by a double standard!
    These original comments were IN FACT MADE! See if it is any less of a hate speech in its original language!
    These are all comments made at Christians, Mostly in conservative forums. By the same individual .
    The comments were as follows,
    I am not remotely grateful for being annoyed by christian zealots who have an irrational need to make everyone agree with them.
    If someone shows a modicum of interest in hearing about your religious views, then by all means share it with them
    It is overbearing Christians such as yourselves that make people turn away from churches in droves.
    Leave people alone unless they ask about it!
    When people don’t agree with me I’ll shake my head at their ignorance and feel morally and spiritually superior instead of respecting the fact that people have different views. Since this is what Christians do all the time I’m just going to play their game right back at them.
    I’m not preaching, as I’m not trying to convert anyone, just calling for Christians to stop thinking they need to recruit everyone. Got off on some tangents, but my main point is to be respectful and not assume that those in religion are amoral heathens, and stop trying to push your religion on other people. By all means one has the right to believe what they want to, but show some respect for others by not trying to push christian beliefs on them.
    I don’t think everyone is wrong- I just think they need to not force their religious viewpoint on other people.
    I have actually heard that dinosaur bones were placed here by God as a test of faith…LMAO!!!!
    When you say that others beliefs belong to them, you are right. I just wish they’d keep it to themselves and stop trying to convert and condemn everyone else.
    Morality is subjective anyway, and no one has the right to impose their interpretation of morals on anyone else.
    You keep saying “christian would force you” but YES I have had them try to do just that. Constantly. You can not say decoratively what ‘no” christian would do…because they do it all the time.
    NOT everyone is Christian, so we should not be subjected to your rules and beliefs!Religion needs to be kept out of public policy, out of legislation, and out of public schools. Your religion is not what I believe, so why should I have to follow the rules that it sets?
    It is the height of arrogance to presume that not only do you know the nature and intent of God, but that you are any kind of authority to be preaching it to someone else. If there is a God, I’d like to think that these bully Christians are going to be held accountable for having the arrogance to proclaim to know what God wants.

    Todd, do you not realize that people like that are the exact reason so many turn their backs on Christianity? The behavior of Christians, constantly proselytizing and condemning and not even understanding their own religion is why people like me want nothing to do with it!!!
    Stop trying to recruit people to your view point . It’s annoying, it’s obnoxious, it’s bullying and it does more to TURN PEOPLE AWAY from your cause because they don’t want to be like that, don’t want to be associated with people who constantly harangue other people about their beliefs or lack thereof. Keep it to yourself.
    I will argue, cajole, debate, and bring it up at every opportunity that this is what you must do. I imagine you would be offended, insulted, annoyed, and not want to be around me were I to do this. That’s how we feel about Christians EVERY DAY.
    If someone shows a modicum of interest in hearing about your view point, then by all means share it with them.
    I am quite happy and content with what I believe, and as I’ve stated before, it is overbearing Christians such as yourselves that make people turn away from churches in droves.
    Leave people alone unless they ask about it!
    Marijane G- Richard, you are an embarrassment to Christianity.
    If ignorance is bliss, then you must be euphoric.

    Now lets see how it sounds! as the sentences were originally said.

    I am not remotely grateful for being annoyed by christian zealots who have an irrational need to make everyone agree with them.
    If someone shows a modicum of interest in hearing about your religious views, then by all means share it with them
    It is overbearing christians such as yourselves that make people turn away from churches in droves.
    Leave people alone unless they ask about it!
    When people don’t agree with me I’ll shake my head at their ignorance and feel morally and spiritually superior instead of respecting the fact that people have different views. Since this is what christians do all the time I’m just going to play their game right back at them.
    I’m not preaching, as I’m not trying to convert anyone, just calling for christians to stop thinking they need to recruit everyone. Got off on some tangents, but my main point is to be respectful and not assume that those in religion are amoral heathens, and stop trying to push your religion on other people. By all means one has the right to believe what they want to, but show some respect for others by not trying to push christian beliefs on them.
    I don’t think everyone is wrong- I just think they need to not force their religious viewpoint on other people.
    I have actually heard that dinosaur bones were placed here by God as a test of faith…LMAO!!!!
    When you say that other’s beliefs belong to them, you are right. I just wish they’d keep it to themselves and stop trying to convert and condemn everyone else.
    Morality is subjective anyway, and no one has the right to impose their interpretation of morals on anyone else.
    You keep saying “christian would force you” but YES I have had them try to do just that. Constantly. You can not say declaratively what ‘no” christian would do…because they do it all the time.
    NOT everyone is Christian, so we should not be subjected to your rules and beliefs!Religion needs to be kept out of public policy, out of legislation, and out of public schools. Your religion is not what I believe, so why should I have to follow the rules that it sets?
    It is the height of arrogance to presume that not only do you know the nature and intent of God, but that you are any kind of authority to be preaching it to someone else. If there is a God, I’d like to think that these bully christians are going to be held accountable for having the arrogance to proclaim to know what God wants. Stop trying to recruit people to your view point . It’s annoying, it’s obnoxious, it’s bullying and it does more to TURN PEOPLE AWAY from your cause because they don’t want to be like that, don’t want to be associated with people who constantly harangue other people about their beliefs or lack thereof. Keep it to yourself.
    I will argue, cajole, debate, and bring it up at every opportunity that this is what you must do. I imagine you would be offended, insulted, annoyed, and not want to be around me were I to do this. That’s how we feel about christians EVERY DAY.
    If someone shows a modicum of interest in hearing about your view point, then by all means share it with them.
    I am quite happy and content with what I believe, and as I’ve stated before, it is overbearing christians such as yourselves that make people turn away from churches in droves.
    Leave people alone unless they ask about it!
    Marijane Gray Richard, you are an embarrassment to Christianity.
    If ignorance is bliss, then you must be euphoric.
    MY QUESTION IS ARE THESE WORDS ANY LESS HATE THAN IF IT WAS DIRECTED TOWARDS GAY RIGHTS ACTIVIST?

  4. I am not remotely grateful for being annoyed by gay activist zealots who have an irrational need to make everyone agree with them.
    If someone shows a modicum of interest in hearing about your gay rights, then by all means share it with them
    It is overbearing activist such as yourselves that make people turn away from gays in droves.
    Leave people alone unless they ask about it!
    When people don’t agree with me I’ll shake my head at their ignorance and feel morally and spiritually superior instead of respecting the fact that people have different views. Since this is what Gay rights activist do all the time I’m just going to play their game right back at them.
    I’m not preaching, as I’m not trying to convert anyone, just calling for gay rights activist to stop thinking they need to recruit everyone. Got off on some tangents, but my main point is to be respectful and not assume that those in religion are amoral heathens, and stop trying to push your gay rights activism on other people. By all means one has the right to believe what they want to, but show some respect for others by not trying to push your pro gay beliefs on them.
    I don’t think everyone is wrong- I just think they need to not force their socio/political viewpoint on other people.
    I have actually heard that Gay activist were placed here by God as a test of faith…LMAO!!!!
    When you say that other’s beliefs belong to them, you are right. I just wish they’d keep it to themselves and stop trying to convert and condemn everyone else.
    Morality is subjective anyway, and no one has the right to impose their interpretation of morals on anyone else.
    You keep saying “No Gay activist would force you” but YES I have had them try to do just that. Constantly. You can not say declaratively what ‘no” Activist would do…because they do it all the time.
    Gay rigths needs to be kept out of public policy, out of legislation, and out of public schools. Your rights is not what I believe, so why should I have to follow the rules that it sets?
    It is the height of arrogance to presume that not only do you know the nature and intent of God, but that you are any kind of authority to be preaching it to someone else. If there is a God, I’d like to think that these bully Gay activist are going to be held accountable for having the arrogance to proclaim to know what God wants.
    Do you not realize that people like that are the exact reason so many turn their backs on homosexuals? The behavior of homosexuals, constantly proselytizing and condemning and not even understanding their own lifestyle is why people like me want nothing to do with it!!!
    Stop trying to recruit people to your view point . It’s annoying, it’s obnoxious, it’s bullying and it does more to TURN PEOPLE AWAY from your cause because they don’t want to be like that, don’t want to be associated with people who constantly harangue other people about their beliefs or lack thereof. Keep it to yourself.
    I will argue, cajole, debate, and bring it up at every opportunity that this is what you must do. I imagine you would be offended, insulted, annoyed, and not want to be around me were I to do this. That’s how we feel about Gay activism EVERY DAY.
    If someone shows a modicum of interest in hearing about your view point, then by all means share it with them.
    I am quite happy and content with what I believe, and as I’ve stated before, it is overbearing Gay activist such as yourselves that make people turn away from homosexuals in droves.
    Leave people alone unless they ask about it!

    • And what do you say about the heterosexual activists who have forced their personal beliefs into public policy regarding marriage, adoption, and numerous areas of financial and hospital visitation rights, let alone the declared beliefs of so many churches that force their hetero beliefs on to their adherents – and for several centuries burnt at the stake those who did not conform to heterosexual norms?

      • I say hate is hate no matter what face you put on it, Hating on Christians is the same as Hating on Gays, but Gay hatred is tolerated and christian s(supposed) hatred is accepted, are you so blinded by your
        lifestyle you cant see thats the whole point of thew above?

        • Thanks for your reply, Souper.

          But how on earth is Bishop Spong, who’s an Episcopalian bishop, “hating on Christians”?

  5. I am making reference to the original hate speeches in the post above did you read the original and the second one?

    • I’m assuming you are the Souper who replied to Terry Weldon way back on February 29, Steve. Your original comment: “Hating on Christians is the same as Hating on Gays, but Gay hatred is tolerated and christian s(supposed) hatred is accepted, are you so blinded by your lifestyle you cant see thats the whole point of thew above?”

      First of all, let’s begin with the last part of your statement. You are making an assumption about someone I doubt seriously you know in the least: namely, that he has a “lifestyle” that “blinds” him.

      In my view, this is hateful behavior on the part of someone else–to make an unfounded assumption about the “lifestyle” of someone he doesn’t even know, and then to call that lifestyle “blinding.”

      It’s especially hateful, in my view, when Christians engage in this kind of “lifestyle” attack on those who are gay, while they remain totally silent about those involved in, say, lifestyles of greed, militarism, racial hatred, oppression of others, economic exploitation of the poor, and so forth–all of which are lifestyles on which I find abundant information in the scriptures, where I find nothing about the gay “lifestyle.”

      So can and do some Christians engage in hate speech about those who are gay? They can and they do–to their discredit.

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