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Remembering John Shelby Spong, Episcopal bishop and LGBTQ champion


This is FRESH AIR. Now we're going to listen to Terry's interview with John Shelby Spong, an Episcopal bishop who championed the acceptance of women and LGBTQ people in the clergy. He also promoted a non-literal interpretation of scripture. He died earlier this month at age 90. From 1976 to the year 2000, he served as the Episcopal bishop of Newark, N.J. In 1977, he became one of the first American bishops to ordain a woman into the clergy. In 1989, he was the first to ordain an openly gay man. Bishop Spong was the author of more than 25 books, and his speaking schedule often included 200 events a year.

Terry Gross spoke with Bishop Spong in 1996 after the publication of his book "Liberating The Gospels: Reading The Bible With Jewish Eyes."


TERRY GROSS: Well, let me ask you about one of your most controversial actions as the Episcopal bishop of Newark. You were ordained a gay man shortly after the Episcopal Church said that it was OK to ordain non-celibate homosexuals. Who was the man, and why did you choose him to to be the first?

JOHN SHELBY SPONG: The first homosexual person that I ordained knowingly was a man named Robert Williams. And this came after I had written a book called "Living In Sin" on the whole gay issue as well as some other patterns in human sexual life that I think we need to look at and reassess from a different perspective than the traditional one. And Robert Williams was a brilliant graduate of the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, which is part of the Harvard complex. He wrote and said, if you really believe what you have written in that book, I wish you would test it on me. And so I invited him to come down to the Diocese of Newark and to be interviewed. And then I ordained him to the diaconate. That was in June of 1989.

There was absolutely no controversy about that. A full-page story on the second front of The New York Times showed what Robert was doing. We had opened a ministry to gay and lesbian people out of Hoboken, N.J., which has a very strong and very large homosexual population. And he began to work among these people, most of whom are deeply alienated from the church because the only message they've ever heard from the church is that God hates homosexual people and that they ought to either be converted to being heterosexuals or be thrown out of the church or even executed, as the Book of Leviticus says.

GROSS: You ended up - yeah.

SPONG: We wound up ordaining him to the priesthood in 1989 in December. And for some reason, the religious right, led by the bishop of Fort Worth, Texas, decided to make that a cause celebre. And so they went to the newspapers. And they called press conferences. And they condemned this action. And they lifted Robert Williams and the Diocese of Newark into an enormous amount of national controversy.

GROSS: Now, you ended up having to ask for his resignation...


GROSS: ...After he said - what? - bad things about monogamy?

SPONG: Well, that was one of the things. Robert Williams became, because of the publicity that surrounded his ordination, he became a media star almost immediately. And he was not very well-equipped by either background or experience to handle the pressures. And he went to Detroit. And he was in a press conference. And he was being badgered by a very hostile reporter. And he blew his cool and began to say things that made his ministry and the Diocese of Newark - we were right far out on a line to support him - almost impossible to defend.

He said that monogamy was a heterosexual practice and should never be imposed upon homosexual people. He went on to say that everybody would profit with sexual activity. And then the reporter said, do you mean to tell me that either - even Mother Teresa would be better off if she had a sexual experience? And Roberts said - I don't know whether I want to say exactly what Roberts said on the radio - but Robert allowed as how Mother Teresa would be better off if she engaged in sexual activity. Well, that just blew headlines across the country.

Now, he had been ordained to open a ministry to gay and lesbian people in the Diocese of Newark so that we could hold up to the gay and lesbian population the model of a faithful, committed lifetime partnership. Robert represented himself as living in that I had met his partner and they had been together for some - something like four years. And that was the basis upon which he was ordained. And then he began to say that he did not think faithfulness to a partner was a virtue that homosexual people ought to be held to, and that he began to prescribe sexual activity sort of random or promiscuous. And there is no way that I, as a bishop or our diocese, was prepared to support promiscuous sexual activity on anybody's part, whether it's homosexual or heterosexual.

GROSS: What was it like for you to go out on a limb to ordain a gay priest and then have to ask for his resignation? Were you embarrassed? Did you think you had made a mistake or had made a bad choice?

SPONG: No, I don't think I've made a mistake on that yet. I think both decisions were appropriate decisions, and I believe I would do both of them over again. Robert Williams taught me far more about the meaning of homosexual persons and the value that they have to bring to the life of the church than he ever hurt me. And I honor him. Robert died of AIDS about two years after I ordained him, which was another piece of our life because Robert had indicated in the interview that he was not - that he was in complete health. And he was clearly HIV positive and headed toward his soon to be death.

So that Robert, for me, was symbolic of the fact that gay and lesbian people have been so abused by the church. And yet, despite that abuse, they still yearn to be part of it, and they will do almost anything to become part of it. And Robert opened the door to enormous numbers of gay and lesbian people to find their way back into the church that will be an accepting community. And we today have a significant number of gay and lesbian priests serving the Diocese of Newark with incredible distinction.

The most recent one that's been involved in the controversy was Barry Stopful (ph), who was ordained priest by me, but ordained deacon by Bishop Reiter (ph). And some bishops of the church tried to put Bishop Reiter on trial for heresy for ordaining him to the diaconate. They did not seem to want to put me on trial for heresy for ordaining him to the priesthood, though I would have welcomed that opportunity to defend that point of view.

GROSS: Now, I believe you first saw or initiated a church study on how changing ideas and changing sexual practices should affect the church. Could you sum up some of the things that you found in that study?

SPONG: Sure. That was done in the Diocese of Newark in 1986 and 1987, and it was a profoundly shaping experience for the whole of the Episcopal Church and maybe even for the whole of Christendom.

What we did was to begin to study changing patterns in family life. It was a rather innocuous beginning. But in this changing patterns of family life, we began to be aware that a vast majority of our young people today do not wait until they are married to initiate their sexual activity. That's just a fact. People might like it or dislike it, but it's just a fact. Another aspect of life that we wanted to look at was, what do you do with post-married people? By that, I mean, people who are divorced or people who are widowed. Are they supposed to either remain sexually celibate or to immediately get married again so that they can have a legitimate partner with which they can exercise their sexual lives? And then we looked at the gay and lesbian population that under the laws of the states of the United States of America and every country of the world are not given the privilege of a legal relationship. And we raised questions about that.

I think the first issue was that I became aware that sex inside marriage is not always holy. Rape takes place inside marriage. Sexual abuse takes place inside marriage. It is not marriage that makes sexual activity holy. It's the quality of the relationship. So if sex inside marriage is not always holy, we had to face the question that sex outside marriage might not always be sinful. We began by looking at the young people. When you go back to the Middle Ages, when the standards of the church were proclaimed that sex was to be exercised only inside the marital relationship, people entered puberty in that era at ages 15, 16 and 17. They didn't live much past 30 or 40. They tended to get married within a year or a year and a half of puberty.

We don't live in that kind of world. Through better diet and many other things, we have run the age of puberty back to 11, 12 and 13 because we honor women with the understanding that they are equal and that they have brains that are capable of being educated. University-educated women like you, Terry, are a 20th-century phenomenon in the Western world. There were very few university-educated women before the turn of the century.

But because of that, we've pushed the age of marriage for women into the mid-20s so that we've created a 10- to 15-year gap between puberty and marriage in this society. And we've not bothered to recognize that the standard of the Middle Ages was applied in a world where there might be a one- to two-year gap between puberty and marriage and a whole different set of circumstances. Now, I don't know anybody that's suggesting that people ought to get married at age 13 and 14 so that they can be sexually celibate until they're married. But that's the reality that we're dealing with. The only way you can keep people sexually celibate, it seems to me, for 10 to 15 years after puberty is to impose upon the activity of sex enormous controls like guilt and fear. And that's exactly what the Christian church has done through the years. And I do not think that that is loving, and I do not think that that's an appropriate way to proclaim the fullness of life for God's people.

BIANCULLI: Bishop John Shelby Spong speaking with Terry Gross in 1996. He died earlier this month at age 90. After a break, I review the new Netflix series "Maid." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GERALD CLAYTON'S "SOUL STOMP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Terry Gross
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.