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Bishop John Shelby Spong has Died

His Leadership Resulted in National Notoriety, But Dramatic Declines, In Episcopal Church

Bishop John Shelby Spong, a bestselling author and cleric known for his progressive theology, support of LGBTQ clergy, and dramatic declines in membership and influence for the Episcopal Church, has died.

He was 90.

“It is with great sadness that we announced the death of the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong. He died peacefully in his sleep on Sunday morning,” St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, where Spong had once been pastor, announced on Sunday (Sept 12).

Spong made headlines as the bishop of the Diocese of Newark, where he served for more than two decades, when he ordained the first openly gay male priest in the Episcopal Church in 1989. He would later go on to ordain about three dozen LBGTQ clergy in the diocese by the time he retired.

He also championed women clergy, requiring any church in his diocese that was searching for a new priest to interview at least one female candidate, said Bishop Bonnie Perry of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan.

However, though Spong preached tolerance and inclusion, during his tenure as bishop, the Episcopal Church became increasingly a liberal, white enclave.  During his tenure as bishop, membership in his diocese fell by 43 percent.  Conservative clergy were driven out of the Episcopal Church, many affiliating with the Anglican Church of North America, which has grown dramatically as the Episcopal Church has continued to decline.

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Spong was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1931, and attended fundamentalist churches as a child. After his father died when Spong was 12, he found a mentor in an Episcopal priest named Robert Crandall, under whose influence he attended Virginia Theological Seminary, graduating in 1955. He worked at Episcopal churches in North Carolina and Virginia until being named head of the Newark diocese in 1979.

Perry recalled Spong as a “wonderful, amazing, Southern gentleman” who used his position and privilege for the benefit of others and believed in both inclusion and fairness.

An author of more than a dozen books, Spong had a knack for communicating complex theology to lay readers, said Kelly Hughes, president of DeChant-Hughes & Associates public relations and a longtime book publicist specializing in religious thought. 

However, his critics say he also misrepresented or re-interpreted important Christian doctrines, including the doctrine of the virgin birth, many of the miracles of the New Testament, even the Resurrection itself, which he questioned in his 1995 book Resurrection:  Myth or Reality?

Retired Episcopal Bishop Fitz Allison often sparred publicly with Spong on matters of doctrine.  He said was “ashamed” that Spong and others in the leadership of the Episcopal Church had denied the Christian faith.  He said Spong “perjured himself each time he recited the Creed.”

Still, on book tours, Spong would draw crowds of hundreds of people, said Hughes, many of them self-identified LGBTQ Christians and seekers or their parents.

Spong is survived by his wife Christine and three daughters.

Mark Tooley, president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, a group that reports on the mainline Christian denominations, summed up Spong’s life this way:  “He did great harm as Episcopal bishop over decades mocking traditional Christianity. His diocese lost 40% of members under his reign as he “modernized” faith by gutting it. But we can hope at end he found peace and is now [with the] Savior Whose identity he denied but Whose mercy is wide.”

Warren Cole Smith contributed to this article.

Bob Smietana

Bob has served as a senior writer for Facts & Trends, senior editor of Christianity Today, religion writer at The Tennessean, correspondent for RNS and contributor to OnFaith, USA Today and The Washington Post.