Living in Sin?: A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexualityby John Shelby Spong
Is celibacy the only moral alternative to marriage? Should the widowed be allowed to form intimate relationships without remarrying? Should the church receive homosexuals into its community and support committed gay and lesbian relationships? Should congregations publicly and liturgically witness and affirm divorces? Should the church's moral standards continue to
Is celibacy the only moral alternative to marriage? Should the widowed be allowed to form intimate relationships without remarrying? Should the church receive homosexuals into its community and support committed gay and lesbian relationships? Should congregations publicly and liturgically witness and affirm divorces? Should the church's moral standards continue to be set by patriarchal males? Should women be consecrated bishops? Bishop Spong proposes a pastoral response based on scripture and history to the changing realities of the modern world. He calls for a moral vision to empower the church with inclusive teaching about equal, loving, nonexploitative relationships.
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Setting the Stage
Some people will regard this as a book about sex. I regard it as a book about prejudice. For centuries sexual attitudes, sexual taboos, and sexual practices have been used by dominant groups in society to keep others subordinate. Those who possess power define those who are powerless and then impose their own definition on the ones defined. The guiding principle is to ensure the comfort, the convenience, the happiness, and the well-being of the dominant ones.
Behind prejudice there is also fear. We reject that which we cannot manage. We condemn what we do not understand. We set up a means of control to render powerless those dynamic realities we know to be powerful. No aspect of our humanity is invested with more anxieties, yearnings, emotions, and needs than is our sexual nature. So, sex is a major arena in which the prejudice of human beings finds expression.
This fact accounts for the anger and even the violence that erupts when sexual control mechanisms are publicly challenged. Those who organize their lives differently, who adopt values that violate the prevailing sexual taboos, are subject to hate, threat, even attack, and sometimes murder. When the convention of the Diocese of Newark passed a resolution to study the question of church support for committed monogamous relationships between gay or lesbian people, I received thousands of letters -- some of which included overt death threats, should I ever find myself in the presence of the writer. Others contained threats that were a bit more oblique; their writers were content to assure me that they wouldpray for God to curse me with a fatal disease, to strike me with lightning, to allow me to be in a plane crash, or to permit me to fall victim to some other equally effective means of permanent disposal. Gentler critics indicated that they would be content with my resignation. Failing my cooperation in that means of exit, they would press to have me removed from my post as an overseer in the church of God by one of the more familiar medieval methods. Clearly I, or more precisely the Diocese of Newark, had unsettled their security-producing prejudices. Many, whose powers of fantasy were very active, assumed that I had reached conclusions far beyond what is the case.
They also attributed to my presumed conclusions a power that their own convictions did not seem to possess. So they refused to enter the discussion except to condemn, and they were unable to listen to my response. If they had, they would have learned that the only thing about which I am certain is that new data are abroad in our world, demanding to be taken into account. These data, both informational and experiential, raise questions about the way sexuality has been morally and psychologically defined. They are also producing in our time a revolution in sexual thinking and in sexual practice that is unprecedented.
To deny these data is to be both immoral and ignorant. Therefore, this book is a call for Christian people to suspend judgment temporarily, to enter the uncertainty of no, knowing, to engage the data, to be part of the debate, to examine sexual prejudices, to redefine values, and thus to help to transform the times, It is an ambitious undertaking, but one worthy of the effort and the risk, for it holds the possibility of renewing us as the body of Christ.
In the debate and in my correspondence, a certain cliche has often been used as if it were self-explanatory. People speak and write about sexuality and moral norms "as revealed in Holy Scripture, " They issue with some frequency a call to return to "the sexual morality of the Bible." I find that call difficult to interpret. As this book unfolds, the nature of that difficulty will be explored.
The Bible is a major source feeding the ethical decision making of Christian people, and its message must be taken by Christians with utmost seriousness. But the Bible itself is not free of contradictions, of expressions of prejudice, and of attitudes that have long been abandoned. The same could be said about the ongoing tradition of the Christian church. Church history also reveals sin, prejudice, and misleading appeals to long-abandoned practices. Therefore, arguments that issue from the authority of sacred Scripture or sacred tradition must state what part of Scripture or tradition is being upheld and on what basis that part is retained while other parts are abandoned.
Truth will not be found in simplistic appeals to tradition or in biblical proof-texting. Authoritative claims of infallibility for the papacy, emanating from the Roman Catholic side of Christianity, or of inerrancy for the Scriptures, emanating from some constituencies of the Protestant side of Christianity, are simply not relevant. Such claims have long been dismissed in academic and theological circles, and by thoughtful men and women in the pews as well. These claims remain alive only through the insecurity of Christians who are more concerned with maintaining ecclesiastical power and authority than they are with discerning the truth of God.
The church needs to recognize that in addition to these frightened critics, there is another constituency that is also watching. It is made up of those who believe themselves to be rejected by the church. They are the victims of prejudice, those who have been told in word and deed by the official voices of the ecclesiastical structures that they do not measure up, do not count, or do not belong. When the assumptions by which this group feels judged are challenged by someone from within the church, they also write. Their letters express gratitude, are confessional, recount bitter experiences, and share hurts. They wonder if God or the church has room for them. They, too, are seeking the truth of God. I hope this book will make them aware that they do belong, even as it makes others aware that they exist and do matter.Living in Sin?. Copyright © by John Shelby Spong. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
John Shelby Spong, the Episcopal Bishop of Newark before his retirement in 2000, has been a visiting lecturer at Harvard and at more than 500 other universities all over the world. His books, which have sold well over a million copies, include Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy; The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic; Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World; Eternal Life: A New Vision; Jesus for the Non-Religious, The Sins of Scripture, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?; Why Christianity Must Change or Die; and his autobiography, Here I Stand. He writes a weekly column on the web that reaches thousands of people all over the world. To join his online audience, go to www.JohnShelbySpong.com. He lives with his wife, Christine, in New Jersey.
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