Thursday, November 20, 2014

Yet Churches Do Move

by John Shelby Spong

Institutions generally and churches in particular are by their very nature conservative. They exist to conserve the past. Churches tend to believe they have the truth in some kind of biblical, creedal or doctrinal form and they intend to keep it intact, even convincing themselves that they do God a service when they burn heretics at the stake!

Yet churches do move. The more hierarchical ones move more slowly than the more democratically organized ones. The Roman Catholic Church under Pope John XXIII moved significantly and that Church in his day developed some outstanding biblical, theological and ethics scholars. The fact is, however, that when Pope John XXXIII died after only four years and seven months in office a fierce reaction set in and these scholars were soon to be harassed, silenced and removed from their positions and generally marginalized by the Catholic hierarchy. That was, you might be interested to learn, also the fate of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century before he came to be recognized as the “Master Theologian of the Church.” Churches do not welcome change that challenges the status quo to which they are significantly committed.

Change, however, does occur whether the church likes it or not. We do not live in a static world. In the Anglican Communion I have seen us move from segregated racism to the place where we today have outstanding African-American bishops like Michael Curry in North Carolina, the diocese in which racism reigned supreme during my childhood. In the Episcopal Church in which I was raised, girls could not be acolytes and women could not sit on vestries or take part in any aspect of the liturgy. Today, more than half of our clergy are female and our Presiding Bishop, the former bishop of Nevada, is named Katharine.

In the church in which I was raised, homosexuals were invisible. Today we have two openly gay, partnered bishops in my church and being openly gay or lesbian is no longer a bar to ordination. Those are the things that show me that progress is possible and that the fight is worth it.

Finally, in 1834, David Friedrich Strauss, a young twenty-seven year old New Testament professor at the University of Tubingen, wrote a book entitled The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. It was the first time that critical studies of the New Testament had been published in a popular form for the general public to read. The result was that Strauss was fired from his professorial post and was never employed in that capacity again.

When you read him today, however, almost everything he wrote is commonplace in our church; indeed, his insights sound almost childlike. Both the church and the world have moved a long way since Strauss. This is where I find hope.


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