Controversial bishop advocates sex, questions Christianity

When a bishop makes public appearances to talk about sex, one might sense conflict. Bishop Jack Spong, best-selling author and retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, New Jersey, visited Anchorage last week for a series of lectures. On Valentine's Day, he spoke at the UAA Arts Building, courtesy of the College of Arts and Sciences and the philosophy department.           

Spong advocates premarital sex, accuses Christianity of promoting racism, sexism, homophobia and intolerance, and never greets anyone without a kind word.

“Everything I know about Jesus is that he wanted to make people live life to the fullest,” asserts 69-year-old Spong. “Jesus didn't say `I've come to make you all religious and make you go to church.'”

“It counters the prevailing fundamentalist voice that we're all living in sin,” said Christine Spong, the bishop's wife of 11 years and devoted travel and spiritual companion. “He's able to put into words what people know is right.”

The two travel between 50 and 60 thousand miles per year to address welcoming and sometimes hostile audiences worldwide.

“In the English-speaking world, he is pretty well known,” she said in her mild British accent. The couple's extensive travels allow her to visit her home country of England, where she left in 1962, on the average of twice a year. “Particularly Canada and Australia have very progressive people. England is just waking up to it.”

Spong's 1998 bestseller “Why Christianity Must Change or Die” reflects his undying efforts to reform the church rather than abandon it.

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“I am amazed at the number of people who are using it as a study resource,” said Mrs. Spong.

Still, there are a number of detractors. Some of their testimonials appear in Spong's newly released autobiography “Here I Stand.”

“Bishop Spong, you are full of shit. We are going to clean you up,” says an Orthodox Christian in an enraged letter.

Spong, with a slight grin, responds, “My grandson couldn't believe somebody had written that one.”

Another letter suggests that “burning you at the stake would be too kind.”

The death threats and hate mail appear to be drops in the ocean of praise that the retired bishop has received.

“They come in the mail all of the time,” she said. “Most of them don't even read the books.”

Spong released his first book in 1973, called “Honest Prayer.” At a time when his actions were conservative in comparison to today, it was inspired by a mother of three in died of cancer while in her forties.

“I was trying to make sense of her death,” he said. Torn by the notion that the woman's death might have been a punishment, or prayers were not answered, Spong induced that “Prayer is my telling God what to do.”

He resolved that the woman's death was neither a punishment nor a divine will.

Jack, widowed in 1988, and Christine, divorced in years prior, married in 1990. Christine has since taken an active role in her husband's public life. As an editor, she said she reads his books 10 times before they are published. In 1998, the bishop contracted a case of viral meningitis and Christine took the reigns for speaking engagements in Houston, Little Rock, Ark., and Princeton NJ.

“I gave people the option of canceling or having me speak,” she said.

She explained that their audiences are more diverse than those who attend regular services, because the messages are more universal than traditional mass.

“The biggest religious group is the secular people. There's an incredible spiritual yearning in them. We have people who haven't set foot through a church door in years who are still looking for spirituality,” she said. “Religion has to be relevant to the world you live in or else you have to shut your mind off. Most people don't want to do that.”

The couple last visited Anchorage five years ago, and hopes to return in another five years. “Your Frontier people are very open-minded,” said Christine.

As an author of 14 books and controversial clergyman, Bishop Spong has been featured on the Phil Donahue Show, Nightline, Good Morning America and perhaps even more impressive, in the Anchorage Press. Their rigorous travel schedule is booked through the year 2003.