In 1976, the Episcopal Church revised its canons to allow women to be ordained as priests. That same year, the Episcopal Diocese of Newark consecrated Rev. John Shelby Spong to be its bishop. For the next twenty-five years, Bishop Spong would be an outspoken leader of the progressive wing of the Episcopal Church, especially regarding LGBT issues.
Bishop Spong’s advocacy as a straight ally came to the fore in the late 1980s when he penned the progressive view in a running dialogue in the official Episcopal magazine, The Episcopalian. A gay man from Texas responded to the series by challenging the bishop to ordain him. Although there had been previous gay ordinations by sympathetic bishops, this one would prove different. Never a shrinking violet, Bishop Spong encouraged press scrutiny, and he carefully stepped over television camera cables during the December, 1989 ordination. CNN looped the story as its lead every half hour.
The following year was marked by reaction and fallout. “The seeds of anarchy are sown,” charged eight bishops in the Midwest. An “open and deliberate violation … a blatant disregard of the teaching of the Church Catholic,” cried a Texas bishop. A Florida bishop accused Spong of “an act of arrogance,” and the bishop of Northern Indiana suggested Bishop Spong was motivated by “publicity and little else.” At their fall meeting, the House of Bishops voted to disassociate from the ordination, but the four vote margin proved to be much closer than the conservatives expected. Following the vote, Bishop Spong blistered his opponents in a speech to the House of Bishops that he characterized as “forty-five minutes of what surely must be described as passionate purple oratory.” Late that night, two of his fellow bishops separately appeared at his hotel room door to confess that they were closeted gay men, one of whom had actually voted against Bishop Spong. “I am so afraid,” he said, “that I will be exposed. I cover that fear by being negative and harsh on this issue on every public occasion.”
At the 1994 General Convention, conservatives succeeded in watering down a document called the “Pastoral,” and Bishop Spong encountered the tearful leaders of Integrity (including Dr. Louie Crew) in the hallway outside his hotel room. Bishop Spong spent the night penning a response in longhand on a legal notepad. As dawn creeped through his hotel window, he awakened his wife and asked her to go the hotel business center to type up the document, which he called a “Statement of Koinonia.” At the plenary session of the House of Bishops the following day, Bishop Spong asked to raise a point of personal privilege. When the presiding officer recognized him, he strode past the floor microphones and proceeded to the main microphone at the platform, and he began to read the document as his wife and others distributed copies to the floor and to the press and visitors. After a few minutes, the presiding officer attempted to cut him off, but Bishop Spong held up his hand like a traffic cop and continued reading. When he finished, Bishop Mary Adelia McLeod of Vermont stepped forward saying she wanted to sign the document. Other bishops did the same disrupting the business of the day. Eventually eighty-five bishops signed the document, representing the largest dioceses in the nation and the greatest number of church members.
There is so much more to be told, and my book, Queer Clergy, does precisely that. Bishop Spong has written one of the endorsements that appears on the book’s back cover, and he states, “It is a story that had to be written … Obie Holmen tells this story in a gripping and fascinating way.”
This is the fifteenth installment in the series Cast of characters countdown. I will continue to post biographical notes about the iconic pilgrims and prophets on the road to full inclusion who are featured prominently in my soon-to-be-released book, Queer Clergy.
Here’s the list of prior posts:
1968 Troy Perry (founder of the MCC)
1970 Robert Mary Clement (gay priest who marched in the first Gay Pride parade)
1972 William Johnson (first out gay man to be ordained by a traditional denomination)
1974 James Siefkes (Lutheran pastor behind the formation of Lutherans Concerned)
1974 David Bailey Sindt (founder of More Light Presbyterians)
1975 Steve Webster (organized the first gathering of gay Methodists)
1975 Dr. Louie Clay (founder of Episcopal Integrity)
1976 Chris Glaser (longtime Presbyterian activist)
1977 Ellen Marie Barrett (first out lesbian ordained to the Episcopal priesthood)
1978 Loey Powell (early UCC lesbian pastor and activist)
1980 Mark Bowman (founder and leader of RMN and editor of Open Hands Magazine)
1982 Melvin Wheatley (Methodist bishop and straight ally)
1987 Ann B. Day (Led the UCC ONA for twenty years)
1990 Jeff Johnson, Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart (Extraordinarily ordained Lutherans)