By David Skidmore
Lambeth Conference Communications
An escalating rift between conservative African bishops and Bishop John Spong of the Diocese of Newark (USA) appears headed for a truce. In an interview Saturday, Bishop Spong expressed regret for his earlier statements characterizing African views on the Bible as "superstitious."
Bishop Spong came under fire early in the conference because of his strong support for the full acceptance of gays and lesbians in the church, and his criticism of African bishops' understanding of Scripture, which he saw as out of touch with modern scholarship and scientific theory.
Bishop Spong has been in the crosshairs of conservatives since last November when he engaged in a caustic exchange of letters with the Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey over homosexuality. In May, he published his latest book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, which questions the validity of a physical resurrection and other central principles of the creeds.
As bishop in a metropolitan community near New York City, his concern is to reach an unchurched, "post-modern" community that is deeply skeptical of traditional church practices and symbols, he said. In the process of communicating with those members, he said, he seems to have unintentionally alienated his African colleagues.
"I don't know what to do about that," he confessed. "Religion is a deeply emotional thing. It gets into the very fibre of our soul. It is part of our security system."
His criticism of attitudes in the developing world, said Bishop Spong, was not intended to denigrate the personal faith commitments of the bishops nor of their churches. His point was that cultural differences between the church in the developed and developing worlds require the Gospel to be communicated using different language and symbols.
"In the process of saying that, I've been heard to insult Africans, for which I am really sorry. That is certainly not my intention," said Bishop Spong. In using the word "superstitious" to refer to African views on theological issues, he was misunderstood to be labeling Africans as superstitious. That is not the case, he said.
"That was an unfortunate word and I think it communicated an unfortunate message," he said.
Bishop Spong said he had paid two visits to Africa and was impressed with the vitality of the churches' witness and ministry, particularly given the economic hardships and human rights violations they must deal with.
Though the section group dealing with sexuality is presently at a stand-off on how to constructively address the issue, Bishop Spong expressed hope that the section would consider the process proposed in the paper he coauthored with Bishop Peter John Lee of South Africa. Written at the request of the Archbishop of Canterbury, A Catechesis on Homosexuality recommends that the conference undertake a study of the three issues on which there is deep division: the blessing of same sex couples, the ordination of gays and lesbians, and the authority of the Bible.
"I would be delighted if we could at least say that we think gay people ought to be treated with justice before the law; that we think marriage is an institution worthy of our full support; and that we think predatory and promiscuous sexuality dehumanizes the victim," said Bishop Spong.