Monday, September 5, 2011

A Manifesto on the Church and Homosexuality

In October 2009, retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, a pioneer in the fight for gay rights within his own congregation as well as in the Christian church generally, issued the manifesto set out below.  I am posting it in its entirety as food for thought and for the soul of my LGBT brothers and sisters, whether in or out of the Mormon Church.  May its words inspire you and expand your vision as they have for me:

Bishop John Shelby Spong's Manifesto

I have made a decision.

I will no longer debate the issue of homosexuality in the church with anyone.

I will no longer engage the biblical ignorance that emanates from so many right-wing Christians about how the Bible condemns homosexuality, as if that point of view still has any credibility. I will no longer discuss with them or listen to them tell me how homosexuality is "an abomination to God," about how homosexuality is a "chosen lifestyle," or about how through prayer and "spiritual counseling" homosexual persons can be "cured." Those arguments are no longer worthy of my time or energy.

I will no longer dignify by listening to the thoughts of those who advocate "reparative therapy," as if homosexual persons are somehow broken and need to be repaired.

I will no longer talk to those who believe that the unity of the church can or should be achieved by rejecting the presence of, or at least at the expense of, gay and lesbian people. I will no longer take the time to refute the unlearned and undocumentable claims of certain world religious leaders who call homosexuality "deviant."

I will no longer listen to that pious sentimentality that certain Christian leaders continue to employ, which suggests some version of that strange and overtly dishonest phrase that "we love the sinner but hate the sin." That statement is, I have concluded, nothing more than a self-serving lie designed to cover the fact that these people hate homosexual persons and fear homosexuality itself, but somehow know that hatred is incompatible with the Christ they claim to profess, so they adopt this face-saving and absolutely false statement.

I will no longer temper my understanding of truth in order to pretend that I have even a tiny smidgen of respect for the appalling negativity that continues to emanate from religious circles where the church has for centuries conveniently perfumed its ongoing prejudices against blacks, Jews, women and homosexual persons with what it assumes is "high-sounding, pious rhetoric." The day for that mentality has quite simply come to an end for me. I will personally neither tolerate it nor listen to it any longer. The world has moved on, leaving these elements of the Christian Church that cannot adjust to new knowledge or a new consciousness lost in a sea of their own irrelevance. They no longer talk to anyone but themselves.

I will no longer seek to slow down the witness to inclusiveness by pretending that there is some middle ground between prejudice and oppression. There isn't. Justice postponed is justice denied. That can be a resting place no longer for anyone. An old civil rights song proclaimed that the only choice awaiting those who cannot adjust to a new understanding was to "Roll on over or we'll roll on over you!" Time waits for no one.

I will particularly ignore those members of my own Episcopal Church who seek to break away from this body to form a "new church," claiming that this new and bigoted instrument alone now represents the Anglican Communion. Such a new ecclesiastical body is designed to allow these pathetic human beings, who are so deeply locked into a world that no longer exists, to form a community in which they can continue to hate gay people, distort gay people with their hopeless rhetoric and to be part of a religious fellowship in which they can continue to feel justified in their homophobic prejudices for the rest of their tortured lives. Church unity can never be a virtue that is preserved by allowing injustice, oppression and psychological tyranny to go unchallenged.

In my personal life, I will no longer listen to televised debates conducted by "fair-minded" channels that seek to give "both sides" of this issue "equal time." I am aware that these stations no longer give equal time to the advocates of treating women as if they are the property of men or to the advocates of reinstating either segregation or slavery, despite the fact that when these evil institutions were coming to an end the Bible was still being quoted frequently on each of these subjects. It is time for the media to announce that there are no longer two sides to the issue of full humanity for gay and lesbian people. There is no way that justice for homosexual people can be compromised any longer.

I will no longer act as if the Papal office is to be respected if the present occupant of that office is either not willing or not able to inform and educate himself on public issues on which he dares to speak with embarrassing ineptitude.

I will no longer be respectful of the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who seems to believe that rude behavior, intolerance and even killing prejudice is somehow acceptable, so long as it comes from third-world religious leaders, who more than anything else reveal in themselves the price that colonial oppression has required of the minds and hearts of so many of our world's population. I see no way that ignorance and truth can be placed side by side, nor do I believe that evil is somehow less evil if the Bible is quoted to justify it.

I will dismiss as unworthy of any more of my attention the wild, false and uninformed opinions of such would-be religious leaders as Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, Albert Mohler, and Robert Duncan. My country and my church have both already spent too much time, energy and money trying to accommodate these backward points of view when they are no longer even tolerable.

I make these statements because it is time to move on. The battle is over. The victory has been won. There is no reasonable doubt as to what the final outcome of this struggle will be. Homosexual people will be accepted as equal, full human beings, who have a legitimate claim on every right that both church and society have to offer any of us. Homosexual marriages will become legal, recognized by the state and pronounced holy by the church. "Don't ask, don't tell" will be dismantled as the policy of our armed forces.

We will and we must learn that equality of citizenship is not something that should ever be submitted to a referendum. Equality under and before the law is a solemn promise conveyed to all our citizens in the Constitution itself. Can any of us imagine having a public referendum on whether slavery should continue, whether segregation should be dismantled, whether voting privileges should be offered to women? The time has come for politicians to stop hiding behind unjust laws that they themselves helped to enact, and to abandon that convenient shield of demanding a vote on the rights of full citizenship because they do not understand the difference between a constitutional democracy, which this nation has, and a "mobocracy," which this nation rejected when it adopted its constitution. We do not put the civil rights of a minority to the vote of a plebiscite.

I will also no longer act as if I need a majority vote of some ecclesiastical body in order to bless, ordain, recognize and celebrate the lives and gifts of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church. No one should ever again be forced to submit the privilege of citizenship in this nation or membership in the Christian Church to the will of a majority vote.

The battle in both our culture and our church to rid our souls of this dying prejudice is finished. A new consciousness has arisen. A decision has quite clearly been made. Inequality for gay and lesbian people is no longer a debatable issue in either church or state. Therefore, I will from this moment on refuse to dignify the continued public expression of ignorant prejudice by engaging it. I do not tolerate racism or sexism any longer. From this moment on, I will no longer tolerate our culture's various forms of homophobia. I do not care who it is who articulates these attitudes or who tries to make them sound holy with religious jargon.

I have been part of this debate for years, but things do get settled and this issue is now settled for me. I do not debate any longer with members of the "Flat Earth Society" either. I do not debate with people who think we should treat epilepsy by casting demons out of the epileptic person; I do not waste time engaging those medical opinions that suggest that bleeding the patient might release the infection. I do not converse with people who think that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans as punishment for the sin of being the birthplace of Ellen DeGeneres or that the terrorists hit the United Sates on 9/11 because we tolerated homosexual people, abortions, feminism or the American Civil Liberties Union. I am tired of being embarrassed by so much of my church's participation in causes that are quite unworthy of the Christ I serve or the God whose mystery and wonder I appreciate more each day. Indeed I feel the Christian Church should not only apologize, but do public penance for the way we have treated people of color, women, adherents of other religions and those we designated heretics, as well as gay and lesbian people.

Life moves on. As the poet James Russell Lowell once put it more than a century ago: "New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth." I am ready now to claim the victory. I will from now on assume it and live into it. I am unwilling to argue about it or to discuss it as if there are two equally valid, competing positions any longer. The day for that mentality has simply gone forever.

This is my manifesto and my creed. I proclaim it today. I invite others to join me in this public declaration. I believe that such a public outpouring will help cleanse both the church and this nation of its own distorting past. It will restore integrity and honor to both church and state. It will signal that a new day has dawned and we are ready not just to embrace it, but also to rejoice in it and to celebrate it.

– John Shelby Spong


  1. While I can respect the Bishop's personal decision not to engage in further discussion on this issue, I don't believe this would be wise for everyone to follow.

    To tell people that their views are not even worthy of consideration, to tell them "Roll on over or we'll roll on over you" -- in my opinion, that's an arrogant approach that accomplishes nothing. Shutting down dialogue leads to people being further entrenched in their positions. Regardless of how controversial someone's opinion is, or how wrong it may be -- if they are sincere, I'm open to discussion -- heck, even if the issue were segregation or slavery rather than homosexuality. Granted, given constraints on our time and energy it's not necessarily feasible to participate in every possible discussion -- and that's why I respect the Bishop's decision to withdraw, just not for the reason he cites.

    Of course he's right that the media isn't obligated to represent all opinions as equally legitimate, and as the issue becomes more settled the need for public discussion becomes less and less. But the reality is that people still have sincere and widely differing views when it comes to issues of sexuality. People have beliefs, often religiously motivated, that it is wrong to view pornography, have premarital sex, or yes, have sexual relations with someone of the same gender -- just as they may have beliefs that it is wrong to shop on Sunday, drink alcohol, etc. It doesn't mean that they necessarily hate anyone. I think that people's beliefs should be shown respect, although that doesn't mean those beliefs have to be reflected in law.

    It is a mistake to unfairly impugn people's motives by assuming they "hate" people who don't follow their beliefs. In the public discussion on this issue, I think people are often motivated by sincere religious beliefs, and in some cases by fear, but only rarely by "hate".

  2. Invictus, I’m so glad that you posted this manifesto by John Shelby Spong. I had never seen it, but I’m deeply moved by its message.

    I completely agree with him. I believe that the ultimate outcome of the debate has been settled; Those who continue to rant against gays and the horribly misused “homosexual lifestyle” (as if that even exists) will ultimately be historically connected with those groups who protested against civil rights in the 50s and 60s, and those who argued against women’s right to vote. Do their positions create more love and understanding in the world? Absolutely not.

    And the argument that an anti-gay position deserves equal time or serious consideration is insulting and gives bigots undeserved validation.

    The (somewhat dismissive) argument that anti-gay positions are rarely based on hate and only possibly on fear, ignores the consequences of those positions. These things are not said and done in a vacuum. They lead to self-hatred and self-destructive behavior.

    When Utah, the home of the LDS Church, leads the nation in 18-24yo male suicides, many of them gay and struggling with acceptance, how can one reasonably say that the lies they have been told by their trusted religious leaders are not hateful? That is the regretful and disappointing fruit of their labors.

    Thankfully most gay LDS youth do not commit suicide, but they (we) are still left with the legacy of emotional scars from the stories they told. They do not create more love in families or the wider world, but instead create fear, mistrust, alienation and hatred. And to excuse it offers sanctuary to lies where none is deserved.

    Thank you, Mr. Spong, for your manifesto. It has given me something to think about.

  3. Before the health effects of tobacco smoking were known, a lot of well-meaning people promoted tobacco use, and this no doubt led to a lot of suffering and death. Does this imply that their position was hateful? No, even if it was incorrect, ill-informed, and damaging, that is not the same as hateful.

    Many religious leaders sincerely believe that homosexual sex (or premarital sex, pornography, etc.) is harmful. Whether they are right or not, to assume they are motivated by hate is incorrect. Of course the consequences of beliefs matter and should not be dismissed, but even if there are negative consequences, that does not imply that they are being hateful.

    Using name-calling, calling people "bigots", "anti-gay", "hateful", etc. -- this does nothing to advance the cause of equality. Such tactics are not only unfair, they are counterproductive; it just spreads more negativity.

    When people feel that their religious beliefs are being respected, I think on average they are going to be a lot more willing to listen to what you have to say about equality.

  4. I have absolute respect for this Episcopal Bishop! He is a man with the courage to not only take a stand but to LIVE by that stance. This Bishop has restored a little bit of the faith I once had in Christianity.

  5. Brent, while I understand your point of view, I feel it is impossible to morally excuse those who, for example, justified slavery based on skewed and self-serving understandings of Biblical passages. Thank goodness for the courage of those Christian abolitionists who fought for the abolition of slavery. Thank goodness for the moral courage, conviction and vision of William Wilberforce who fought for the abolition of the slave trade throughout the British Empire. These were those who showed moral leadership. There is no justification for those who sincerely believed slavery to be a divine institution. They may have been sincere, but that does not change the fact that they were very, very wrong.

    The same applies to the struggle for desegregation and civil rights for African Americans and the role the church played in supporting and sustaining and blessing a system of systemic injustice and gave rise to countless examples of bigotry, hatred and even murder.

    There are obvious parallels between the moral struggle to end slavery and racial injustice and the struggle for full acceptance of homosexuals. I have no qualms with Bishop Spong's use of the word "hate" to describe some so-called Christians who loathe homosexuality and homosexuals. He is absolutely correct, in my view, to point out that the "love the sinner, hate the sin" approach is used on a daily basis as a justification to turn one's back on gay family members and friends.

    Bishop Spong issued this manifesto after being in the forefront of gay rights for 30 years. I think he finally reached a point where he said, "enough is enough." I agree with him. There is a time to build bridges, and there is a time to draw a line in the sand.

  6. I don't know, but if you draw a line in the sand it seems you are also on the verge of hate, even if your cause is "just."