Bishop John Shelby Spong

At the Metropolitain Community Church, Brisbane, Australia. 24th June 2001.

Interview, for community radio program Queer Radio, recorded prior to the 10am Stonewall Service, 24th June 2001.

Bishop Spong had addressed a large group in the city's Albert Street Uniting Church. After that session he specifically asked if there was a local MCC congregation, because that is where he preferred to share their Sunday service. He said he wanted to speak directly to a group of Australian gay and lesbian Christians and to apologise for the recent homophobic outbursts by conservative Australian religious leaders.

You can hear this entire 8 minute 30 second interview as a 2mb mp3 at: http://www.queerradio.org/BishopSpong240601.mp3

Interview by John Frame for Queer Radio and 4ZZZfm, Brisbane. Transcript by John Frame 26th June 2001 jvframe@bigpond.net.au  

John Frame:

Bishop John Shelby Spong, you’re here visiting Australia from America. You’re involved with the Anglican Church, and you’re considered to be controversial. It seems to me that you’re controversial because you accept people who love.

Bishop John Shelby Spong:

I think that’s right. I think Jesus is rather controversial – remember they put him to death for his witness.

I don’t understand how one can be a Christian and discriminate against anybody – and yet in the history of the Church we’ve discriminated against people of colour; we’ve discriminated against mentally-ill people; we’ve discriminated against left handed people; we’ve discriminated against women and we’re still discriminating against gay and lesbian people, and my hope is that we can strike a blow for freedom and not allow that to happen. That is not in touch with who the God I meet in Jesus is.

And I must say that when I come to Australia, I feel like I’m in a time-warp. I mean you have the new Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney saying that gay and lesbian people, who are working for the rights of gay and lesbian people in a political way, aren’t welcome to receive Communion in his church. I think that’s an incredible statement – I think he ought to be ashamed of himself. I think it makes me ashamed of the Gospel.

And when I hear homophobic statements coming out of my own Church, the Anglican Church - particularly in the archdiocese of Sydney - I’m really embarrassed for the cause of Christ.

So I want to come to a gay community and say that there’s another part of the Anglican Church that is not tied up in that homophobia – that accepts the words that Jesus spoke that invite everybody to come unto him just as they are - and that’s a witness that I hope to make.

It does make you controversial in those closed and conservative Church circles.

JF:

It’s been suggested to me that the number of people within the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church who won’t accept gay men or lesbians as part of their community, is actually quite small – and that there’s an encouragement for those to stay with their Churches and weather it out. Would you encourage that?

BJSP:

Well, I think you always do better to work from within than from outside, and I think that’s the only way institutions ever change. The fact is that there are a large number of gay people in the priesthood of the Catholic and Anglican Church – many of them closeted and many of them quite homophobic in their public stances. I find that intolerable, but I still think that’s one of the things that we have to do: - I’m not in favour of "outing" people, I think people have the right to announce who they are, in whatever way they wish. But I must tell you that when people use their closets as a place to attack other gay and lesbian people, I think that they are treading on very thin ice.

JF:

You’ve recently released a book as well, and that’s part of the reason you are here: –What’s that book particularly aimed at?

BJSP:

The book is entitled "Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love and Equality" and it’s basically an autobiography. It’s my personal story. I grew up in an evangelical Anglican church, in a southern part of the United States and that church taught me that segregation was the Will of God. It taught me that women were second class citizens, who couldn’t be priests or bishops. It taught me that Jewish people were evil and all other religions were not to be respected – that only Christianity was a respectable religion. And it taught me that homosexual people were evil, or mentally sick, and needed to be cured or converted.

Now that’s what Christianity looked like to me when I was a child, and it was interesting that every time one of these prejudices was being discussed, the Bible was quoted to prove that the prejudice was right. So you have to fight against this attitude, and then you have to fight against the Bible being quoted to support these prejudices.

The story of my life is the story of how I came out of a segregated world to the honour of being named Public Enemy Number1 by the Ku Klux Klan in Edgecomb County, North Carolina – not a big venue, but it was a powerful venue . And I know what it means to have my children threatened at night by KKK calls: they were gonna rape my daughters the next day and that sort of thing. I know what death threats are all about.

And I also came from being a very "male chauvinist" to supporting women in every area of the Church’s life, and I’m very proud that my branch of the Anglican Church today has nine women bishops and more than 50% of our future clergy, studying for the priesthood today are women. So that battle is over.

And I’m very proud that I’ve led my Church into a new understanding of Jewish-Christian relations and I hope into a better understanding of how to appreciate Buddhists and Hindus and Moslems and all the great religions of the world.

When I retired as the Bishop of Newark, just last year, 35 of my clergy were out-of-the-closet gay and lesbian priests, 31 of them lived openly with their partners – and I’ve yet to have a complaint. And I think we’ve won that battle too, in the United States. In the last general convention of our Church, in America, by about a 75% majority our Church voted that we must reach out and support what they called "non-traditional unions". That’s code language, but that really meant gay and lesbian people. So it’s an enormous step forward.

I ordained the first gay man - who was open and honest about being a gay man - and who lived openly with a partner, in 1989. There was enormous negative reaction around the world, but we set about to change the attitude and we’ve changed that attitude. There are gay clergy who are very open in the United States today, and I’m very proud of that. I hope that’s a mark of what it will be throughout the Church.

We have gay clergy all over the Church today, but they’re not all honest, and I would bet that in the history of the Christian faith, more than fifty per cent of all the ordained people – popes, cardinals, archbishops, priests, pastors – I would bet that more than fifty per cent of them have been gay men.

JF:

That could be an indication also of those people being caring and nurturing, perhaps.

BJSP:

I think that they’ve made an enormous contribution to the life of the Church and I think that the Church ought to honour that and wake up, and stop denigrating it. We still have groups, connected with churches, that say they are in the business of changing gay people – so that they will become heterosexual. There’s not a bit of scientific data to support that point of view, and I think that’s fraudulent. I think that what they’re really doing is treading on the prejudices of others and the fears of people.

You know, when you grow up gay in our society, you grow up knowing that you are looked down upon by the society, condemned by the society, feared by the society. And so the desire to be someone who’s not going to be looked down on, beat up, feared or whatever is powerful and for a church to play on that!

You know, we used to tie the hands of little children behind their backs, so they’d grow up to be normal right-handed people. We didn’t understand the variety of humanity. That’s what the Church needs to recognise, and I think the time has come for us to say that those organisations need to be scrutinised by authorities, so that their claims can be validated or dismissed. I see no evidence that gay and lesbian people can be changed or ought to be changed. It’s part of God’s creation. We don’t try to change left-handed people anymore; we ought not to try to change homosexual people.

I remember when a program was being done on me, in the United States by "Sixty Minutes", that this woman – one of my critics – was being interviewed, and it was really funny. She said that all homosexuals ought to submit themselves to Jesus and be cured. The person interviewing her said: "Do you think you could be changed into being a homosexual?" I don’t think she’d ever confronted that question before, and so she looked like a deer caught in somebody’s headlights, and she sort twisted in the wind there for a minute… and tried to change the subject. But you know it’s that sort of irrationality: - prejudice is always irrational.

JF:

Thank you very much Bishop Spong.

BJSP:

It’s a pleasure to be with you.

 

 

 

 

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