Bishop John Shelby Spong, RIP

I was saddened to learn today of the death of John Shelby Spong, Bishop Emeritus of the Newark, New Jersey diocese of the Episcopalian Church. Though I can’t claim to have known Bishop Spong very well, he was a close friend of my parents’, and a constant presence in our family home. He was for decades Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Christ Hospital in Jersey City, where both of my parents worked–my father for forty, and my mother for thirty years. So we knew Bishop Spong less as a bishop than as a hospital trustee. The stories–or legends–I heard about him for decades were about health care, not theology.

Spong speaking in England; photo credit: David Gibson/RNS

Christ Hospital started its life as an Episcopalian institution. It later merged (or attempted to merge) with St Francis Hospital across the city, a Catholic institution. The merger initiated an apocalyptic sectarian battle for the mortal souls of both hospitals, a battle in which (I’m told) Bishop Spong did a fair bit of the fighting. Eventually, after a series of Jesuit-worthy legal complications I’ve never been able to grasp, Christ Hospital was consumed by the godless and soulless CarePoint Health System. By then, Bishop Spong had had the good sense to leave the hospital behind; Jesus Christ may or may not have been resurrected, depending on your theology, but Christ Hospital was not going to be resurrected, at least not in the form it originally took as an urban community hospital in the Episcopalian tradition.

Many people have accused Bishop Spong of abandoning Christianity and Episcopalianism; fewer, I think, have grasped the tenacity of his loyalty to Episcopalianism as a civic force, embodied in institutions like his beloved Christ Hospital (and ours). It may not have been very Christian of Bishop Spong to have given higher priority to the health of the mortal body than the salvation of the immortal soul, but the people of Hudson County and environs can be glad that he did.

That said, the Khawaja Family owned the entire library of (seemingly dozens) of theological books Bishop Spong had written, and I’m certain my father at least had read several of them through, cover to cover, pencil in hand, underlining the salient bits. I regret to say that despite sincerely intending to read Bishop Spong’s works, I so far haven’t: I browsed Living in Sin? (1988), Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (1991), and Here I Stand (2001), and found them interesting enough, but never made time for the serious study I knew they’d require.

It just seemed hard to integrate the quarrels of Episcopalianism into a life so distant from those quarrels. It didn’t help that Bishop Spong’s period of greatest writerly productivity coincided with my need to write a doctoral dissertation in the analytic philosophical tradition, and to do so for his nemesis institution, Notre Dame. (He made no secret of his hatred for Notre Dame.) In other words, when Bishop Spong was focused on fundamentalism, I was focused on foundationalism. There is in fact an attenuated connection between those things, but it’s very attenuated. I now wish I’d discussed it with him despite that, but I never did.

My first “encounter” with Bishop Spong was electronic: I saw him on TV, in 1987, on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” TV show on PBS. I instinctively sympathized with the embattled man, despite lacking a single clue as to what he was talking about, and (as a devout Muslim) while lacking a dog in any of the fights he was fighting. I only met him twice, I think–once for Christmas dinner at his house in 2000, and once for dinner at my parents’ house a few years later. He was gracious and kind on both occasions. Uncharacteristically (for me), I was a bit awed by his presence, particularly by his outsize role in the Civil Rights movement, and took a back seat in both conversations. I can’t explain it, and regret it, but that’s what happened. We exchanged no more than pleasantries on both occasions. It now seems a missed opportunity.

I don’t know enough, or honestly, care enough, to adjudicate or comment on the specifically theological quarrels that consumed so much of Bishop Spong’s life, and consumes so much of the commentary about him. I like Episcopalians, but I’m not an Episcopalian, and never will be. So their internecine theological quarrels don’t mean much to me.

What struck me about John Spong was the man’s elemental decency, his willingness to fight for all the right secular causes, his sense of justice, and his devotion to the task of healing the sick and injured. Whether he sacrificed Christian theology or Episcopalian doctrine in the process is neither here nor there for me, and at any rate, not something I can judge. That said, if theology or doctrine come into conflict with justice, generosity, or decency, I think it’s clear which set of things has to give way to the other. I couldn’t begin to tell you whether there was any such conflict in John Spong’s case. All I can tell you is that he got his priorities right.

My condolences to his family and friends. RIP.

Thanks to Ryan Neugebauer for bringing news of Bishop Spong’s passing to my attention.

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