Speaking about liberal theology and an inclusive church to a packed house, author, biblical scholar and retired Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong stirred the crowd on the topic "Homosexuality: The Battleground for a Dying Form of Christianity." The event was held as a part of the Still Speaking: Conversations on Faith Lecture Series April 6 at the Founders Lounge of the Frick Center at Elmhurst College.
Reverend H. Scott Matheney, the college's chaplain, reminded people of the colleges strong emphasis on faith rooted in their affiliation with the United Church of Christ. Then Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty Dr. Alzada Tipton told readers of the Bible that they "are active agents in shaping the meaning of that pivotal text" to combat homophobia in their lives.
Spong started off with the role that religion plays in fostering prejudice, using his own life as an example of how one overcomes prejudice. He was raised in an evangelical Episcopal church in the Bible Belt of the southjust one block away from the Rev. Billy Graham. While at church he was told that "segregation was the will of God." The church also preached that women were inferior, using that as an argument to explain why women were property and could not be church leaders, much less ordained ministers.
What changed his views on segregation, Spong said, was the civil-rights movement. His attitudes about women were reversed when he became the father to four daughters, all of whom are accomplished in a variety of professions. "It was a very feminine household. We had a male cat but they operated on him," Spong said to the crowd, who roared with laughter. The laughter continued throughout his speech as he poked fun at himself and church doctrine.
It was not just Spong's position on segregation and women that changed over the years. While in Sunday school they were taught that anti-Semitism was perfectly fine since, according to his church, Jews were evil.
"It amazes me how religion demonizes anybody that is not a part of its particular point of view," Spong said before going into how his church taught him that gay people are also evil. He accepted his religion's position on gays and lesbians early on including the theory that homosexuals can be cured and they are morally depraved. Spong emphasized that his church was responsible for his former homophobic beliefs just like it fostered his former racist, sexist and anti-Semitic views of the world.
Only when he was elected bishop for the Northern New Jersey Episcopalian diocese of Newark, which included Hoboken (also known as Greenwich Village West), at the age of 44 that he began to change his homophobic ways. This was the first time he had ever lived in a community where people lived as openly LGBT people.
One of his goals was to meet the priests who served in his diocese. During one of his meetings the priest announced to Spong that he was gay. While they talked Spong realized this priest was not mentally ill or morally depraved which belied his earlier stereotype about LGBT people. He met another priest who was in a relationship with a man. When Spong told the priest he couldn't do anything to protect him if it got out that he was living with another man while unmarried the priest asked Spong, "you can't or you won't?" The conversation with the priest stayed with him like "a pebble in his shoe" so after a while, in an effort to be an effective bishop in his New Jersey diocese, he sought a friend who was on the faculty of the Cornell School of Medicine to learn more about sexual orientation.
It took about six months of study to change his mind. Spong came to the conclusion that "sexual orientation is a given. We don't choose it; we awaken to our identity." The doctors at the university told him that "homosexuality is present in the animal kingdom particularly among mammals so it's hard to argue that something is unnatural if it appears in nature," Spong said.
After reminding the audience that LGBT people are in everyone's families and in all professions, Spong talked about the fear that still resonates with LGBT people about coming out of the closet. This fear, Spong said, exists due to homophobic people using the Bible to argue against homosexuality. Spong said that the Bible really teaches that "the heart of the story is no one is separated from the love of God. … If we denigrate a part of humanity then we destroy all humanity," which is not what God wants.
For more information on Spong, visit his website ( JohnShelbySpong.com ) or his Facebook page. To find out more about the Still Speaking series, visit public.elmhurst.edu/projects/stillspeaking.