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John Shelby Spong, 90, Dies; Sought to Open Up the Episcopal Church

John Shelby Spong, a charismatic Episcopal bishop who pushed his followers to accept women and L.G.B.T.Q. clergy, and who later called on them to reject sacrosanct ideas like Jesus’ virgin birth and the existence of heaven and hell, died on Sept. 12 at his home in Richmond, Va. He was 90.

His death was announced by the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, where he had served as bishop from 1976 to 2000.

Bishop Spong combined celebrity with tireless writing and speaking, perhaps more than any other liberal theologian in the late 20th century, to open up the Episcopal Church, and the global Anglican Church of which it is a part. He was the first American bishop to ordain a woman into the clergy, in 1977, and the first to ordain an openly gay man, in 1989.

“He brought so many people back to the church,” Bishop Bonnie Perry of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan said in an interview. “He talked about theological matters in a way that caused people who felt excluded by the church or just bored to sit up and listen.”

Through more than 25 books, as well as speaking schedules that often included 200 events a year and regular appearances on the talk shows of Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donahue and others, Bishop Spong urged his church to reconcile with modernity, even if that meant setting aside supernatural ideas like Jesus’ resurrection. That position drew intense support, but it also drew equally intense criticism from the church’s traditionalist wing.

“If you wanted to see a frown on a traditional Episcopalian’s face, you just had to mention John Shelby Spong,” said Mark Tooley, the president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative think tank.

Bishop Spong became a national celebrity in the mid-1980s, when he began calling on the church to reconsider its position on gay rights. He urged his colleagues not only to accept openly gay clergy, but also to welcome openly gay and lesbian worshipers into their congregations and to bless same-sex unions.

“My sense is if the Episcopal Church can’t stand challenge within its own ranks, then it is not a church I would want to be a member of anyway,” he told The New York Times in 1989.

That year he ordained Robert Williams, an openly gay man, as a priest. (Ellen Barrett, a lesbian, had been ordained about a decade before.) Bishop Spong understood the controversy he was stirring — in fact, he invited every Episcopal bishop in the country to attend.

Nine months later he was censured by his colleagues, but he continued to ordain gay and lesbian priests — at least 35 by the time he retired in 2000, he claimed, including Bishop Perry. The church eventually followed his lead: In 1996 an Episcopal court ruled that homosexuality was not counter to its principles, and in 2015 the church recognized same-sex marriage.

If Bishop Spong’s position on women and L.G.B.T.Q. clergy put him on the edge of the mainstream, his theological views put him well outside it. He taught that the Gospels should be considered artistic interpretations of Jesus’ life, not literal accounts of it, and he called on Christians to reject ideas, like original sin, that could not be explained by science.

Those views, even more than his social activism, attracted millions of followers, as well as countless critics. Writing in National Review in 1988, William Murchison called Bishop Spong “the latest in a long line of right reverend goofballs,” chastising him for calling on the church to bend toward modern society rather than the other way around.

Traditionalists especially disliked his take-no-quarter approach, which they felt made it difficult to have a dialogue.

“He always pushed the envelope, in effect made it hard for other points of view to coexist,” Paul F.M. Zahl, a retired Episcopal priest, said in an interview. “You sort of felt you were being told to grow up, that he was preaching an adult version of Christianity.”

Bishop Spong’s aggressive liberalism frequently got him in trouble. After a prominent Nigerian bishop attempted to exorcise the “homosexual demons” from a gay priest at an Anglican conference in 1998, Bishop Spong denounced African Anglicans as backward.

“They’ve moved out of animism into a very superstitious kind of Christianity,” he told a reporter for an Episcopal newspaper. “They’ve yet to face the intellectual revolution of Copernicus and Einstein that we’ve had to face in the developing world.”

He later apologized for his comment, but he remained outspoken. A month later, writing in The New York Times, he said that the church faced an existential crisis, and that his form of liberalism was the only solution.

“If the Anglican Church becomes dedicated to preserving prejudices, our followers may well vote with their feet,” he wrote. “The time is getting critically near when there will no longer be a following significant enough to turn this tide.”

John Shelby Spong was born on June 16, 1931, in Charlotte, N.C. His father, also named John Shelby Spong, ran a wholesale coffee and tea business but died when his son was 12. His mother, Doolie Boyce (Griffith) Spong, was a strict Calvinist who refused to sing hymns because they were not the word of God — a fundamentalism that Bishop Spong later said offered a firm basis for his rejection of Christian orthodoxy.

He graduated from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 1952, and married Joan Lydia Ketner a few months later. She died in 1988.

He is survived by his second wife, Christine Mary (Bridger) Spong, whom he married in 1990; his sister, Betty Marshall; his daughters, Mary Katharine Spong, Ellen Elizabeth Spong and Jaquelin Ketner Spong; a stepdaughter, Rachel Carter; a stepson, Brian Barney; and six grandchildren.

He received a master’s degree in divinity from the Virginia Theological Seminary in 1955 and, after his ordination, served as rector for churches in North Carolina and Virginia.

As a white progressive minister in the South during the civil rights era, he often found himself at odds with his community, especially when he insisted on preaching to Black congregations. He and his family faced regular threats and harassment, and he later claimed that the Ku Klux Klan of eastern North Carolina had labeled him their No. 1 enemy.

In 1969 he became the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, a storied institution known as the cathedral of the Confederacy because both Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis had worshiped there.

Among the changes he instituted was to remove the Confederate flag that flew over the church — “a symbol,” he later said, “of the K.K.K. and racial oppression and segregation and Alabama football and all sorts of things I did not support.”

In 1976 he moved to New Jersey, where he was elected bishop and assumed the leadership of the Newark diocese, a region covering seven counties and some 64,000 congregants. (His critics pointed out that the number declined precipitously under his tenure, to about 36,000 by the time he left in 2000, a much faster decline than the church saw overall.)

After he retired, Bishop Spong went on a two-year global speaking tour. He was not always welcome: In 2001 the bishop of Brisbane, Australia, barred him from speaking in his diocese.

He also continued to preach, primarily at St. Paul’s in Richmond. In a 2013 sermon, he said that several of the apostles were “mythological” and claimed that the notion that Jesus’ blood had washed away the sins of Christians was “barbaric theology.”

“As evolving creatures, the problem is not that we have fallen, but that we are not yet fully human,” he said. “We are not sinners, the church got that wrong; we are rather incomplete human beings.”

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