One of America’s best-known spokespersons for an open, scholarly and inclusive Christianity, the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, died Sunday, September 12, 2021 at his home in Richmond, VA, after a period of declining health. He was 90 years old.
“Bishop Spong’s loss will be mourned by family, friends, and this diocese,” said Bishop Carlye J. Hughes, XI Bishop of Newark. “Since receiving the news on Sunday, I have heard stories and remembrances of him that are touching and full of respect for his great love of all God’s people, his fine intellect, and his ceaseless encouragement for those seeking new ways to encounter God. His friendship and pastoral care were as important to youth and young adults as it was to diocesan clergy. Most of all, I have heard his great desire to see a place in our church for all people. His legacy is deep and wide. We will continue to be blessed by his ministry in our diocese and beyond.”
Bishop Spong was ordained to the priesthood in 1955 and served for 20 years as a priest in Episcopal Churches in North Carolina (St. Joseph’s, Durham, and Calvary Parish, Tarboro) and in Virginia (St. John’s, Lynchburg and St. Paul’s, Richmond). In 1976 he was elected VIII Bishop of Newark where he served for 24 years.
A deeply committed Christian, he insisted that he must also speak as an informed citizen of the 21st century. He equipped himself for his task by studying at major centers of Christian scholarship: Union Theological Seminary in New York, Yale Divinity School, Harvard Divinity School and the storied universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Edinburgh. He was named the Quatercentenary Scholar at Cambridge University (Emmanuel College) in 1992 and the William Belden Noble Lecturer at Harvard University in 2000. He taught at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA; Drew University, Madison, NJ; Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, MA; The Pacific School of Religion Berkeley, CA; the University of the Pacific, Stockton, CA; and at Trinity College at the University of Toronto.
He lectured across the English-speaking world, including at events in New York, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Thailand and Indonesia. After retirement from the Diocese of Newark in 2000, Bishop Spong regularly delivered between 175 and 250 public addresses a year, appearing, among many other places, at over 500 colleges, universities and theological seminaries across the world. Bishop Spong was one of Desmond Tutu’s co-consecrators in 1976 in South Africa.
He ordained to the priesthood the first English woman, the Rev. Elizabeth Canham, long before the Church of England was willing to ordain women. On December 16, 1989, he ordained the first openly gay man, the Rev. Robert Williams, living in a publicly acknowledged committed relationship. That ordination opened a great debate and led to the church’s willingness to bless committed gay unions and finally to the Supreme Court, declaring that marriage was a human right, which must be extended to all people gay or straight.
While serving at St. Paul’s Church in Richmond, VA, Spong, together with Rabbi Jack Daniel Spiro and the University of Richmond’s Department of Religion Chair, Dr. Frank Eakin, led a citywide Jewish-Christian dialogue, which achieved national attention.
Bishop Spong received numerous honors. The Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary in Virginia, St. Paul’s College and Lehigh University conferred on him Doctor of Divinity degrees. Muhlenberg College, Holmes Institute of Consciousness Studies, the University of North Carolina and Drew University conferred on him Doctor of Humane Letters degrees. In 2004, the Jesus Seminar gave him the John A.T. Robinson Award for “Courage and Integrity in Theology” and, in 2006, he was made an Honorary Fellow at the Gladstone Library in Hawarden, Wales. He was inducted into the Martin Luther King, Jr. Board of Preachers and Collegium Scholars at Morehouse College, Atlanta, Ga., in 2004. In 2010, Morehouse commissioned the painting of his portrait to hang in their Hall of Honor alongside other noted civil rights leaders.
Well-known in radio and television circles, he appeared on such diverse programs as Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, The O’Reilly Factor with Bill O’Reilly, Late Night with Tom Snyder, Good Morning America with Charles Gibson, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Phil Donahue Show and on NPR radio with both Diane Rehm and Terry Gross. He has also been featured on CBS’s Sixty Minutes with Leslie Stahl. He is the author of 26 books, which have sold all together over 2,000,000 copies. They have been translated into every major language of Europe including Russian, Arabic, Korean, Japanese and Swahili. His published articles have been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the London Times and others.
From 2000 to 2016 he was a weekly columnist online, published first by EverydayHealth.com and then by The Center for Progressive Christianity. Copies of his columns have appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Vancouver Sun, the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail and countless other newspapers across the world. In a Spanish translation, these columns are still running today in Spain and across Latin America. He has been the subject of stories in Time, Newsweek, People, Vanity Fair, Playboy, and New Jersey Monthly.
Because of his views, Bishop Spong cultivated many enemies and was harshly criticized by Bill Buckley, George Will, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and two Archbishops of Canterbury. He received death threats from right wing religious and political groups and was once named “Public Enemy Number One” by the Ku Klux Klan in Eastern North Carolina. He and his wife walked through angry picketers to deliver lectures in the United States and abroad.
He is survived by his wife Christine Mary Spong, who also served as his editor; their five children, Ellen Elizabeth Spong (Augustus Charles Epps, Jr.), Mary Katharine Spong (John Baldwin Catlett, Jr.), Jaquelin Ketner Spong, Brian Yancy Barney (Julieann), and Dr. Rachel Elizabeth Carter (Scott); and their six grandchildren, Dr. Katharine Shelby Catlett, John Baldwin Catlett, III, John Lanier Hylton, Lydia Ann Hylton, Colin David Barney, and Katherine Barney.
Funeral services will be held at St. Peter’s, Morristown and at St. Paul’s, Richmond, VA. Dates and times will be announced as soon as they are available.
Condolences may be addressed to: The family of Bishop Spong, c/o Diocese of Newark, 31 Mulberry Street, Newark, NJ 07102.
Memorial donations may be sent to the John Shelby Spong lectureships at St. Peter’s, Morristown (70 Maple Ave., Morristown, NJ 07960); St. Paul’s, Richmond (815 East Grace Street, Richmond, VA 23219), or the Gladstone Library at Hawarden, Wales, United Kingdom.