Bishop Spong at Australian Catholic University - Why?

Bishop Spong at Australian Catholic University - Why?

Michael Gilchrist

Bishop John Shelby Spong ordains active homosexuals, has been in the forefront of women's ordination campaigns and writes prolifically against the foundations of Christianity. He has been ostracised even by the Anglican Church of which (in its U.S. Episcopal Church form) he was a member. Despite this, according to Brisbane's 'Sunday Mail' (5 June): "Radical American Bishop John Shelby Spong, the author who believes St Paul was a self-loathing repressed homosexual, is returning to Brisbane [on July 2-4] to give three public lectures ... at the Australian Catholic University's (ACU) McAuley Campus at Mitchelton. The visit is to promote his latest book, 'Resurrection: Myth or Reality'.

The Bishop Spong lectures were organised by Anne Byrne of With Women. Ms Byrne is a former Catholic, now an Anglican, who has been active in the campaign for the ordination of women.

Some Queensland Catholics wondered why the facilities of Australian Catholic University were being made available to promote Bishop Spong's anti-Christian writings and the cause of With Women, and sought the intervention of Archbishop Bathersby of Brisbane and the university Chancellor, Cardinal Clancy. However, although both prelates appeared unhappy about the Spong talks, neither was prepared to invoke his episcopal authority to override the university administration's insistence on upholding "academic freedom".

The McAuley campus of ACU argued further that it had the right to rent its premises to any bodies wishing to hold seminars, etc., and that since the students were on holidays few would be likely to attend the lectures. Ultimately, about 200-250 attended, all of whom were given leaflets outlining the objections to Spong's views.

One surprising reaction came from a mature age student who approached one of the leafleteers and said, "I can't understand why you are getting your hair in a knot. I am a student at this university and we are taught the same matter here as Bishop Spong will be advancing this afternoon." This is confirmed by the availability of Spong's writings in the ACU library, e.g., in a well-used book Changing Women Changing Church which included a Spong article along with the contributions of prominent feminists like Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Sr Veronica Brady and Janet Scarfe.

Prior to the Spong lectures a With Women a promotional notice sheet headed "A Rare Opportunity" was being circulated around Catholic schools. The notice sheet described Spong as "well known for his passionate and articulate challenge to Christian churches regarding their attitudes towards women, homosexuality and sexual morality."

The holding of the Spong lectures on official Catholic property in fact defied a recently issued (June 7) Vatican document "The Church's presence in University and in University Culture". Chapter Two of the document identifies a Catholic university, as "an institution of the Church" which "only achieves its full identity when, at one and the same time, it gives proof of being rigorously serious as a member of the international community of knowledge and expresses its Catholic identity through an explicit link with the Church, at both local and universal levels: an identity which marks concretely the life, the services, and the programs of the university community."

The holding of Bishop Spong's talks at McAuley Campus negated ACU's claim to be "rigorously serious" in its scholarship and also undermined its "Catholic identity".

Spong's critics have been numerous and highly qualified. Below are just a few examples. (The emphases are ours).

Fr Gerald O'Collins, S.J., who lectures in Scripture at Rome's Gregorian University, delivered a severe critique of Bishop Spong's latest book in a London Tablet review (30 April 1994): "... a kindly heart and lots of fine rhetoric cannot make up for the lack of scholarship and critical judgment shown throughout this book ... His work simply does not belong to the world of international scholarship. No genuine scholars will be taken in by this book. But ordinary readers who are not too familiar with modern biblical studies could easily be impressed by Spong's title of 'bishop' and his pretended scholarship."

Canon Peter Jensen, Principal of the Anglican Moore Theological College, Sydney, and a specialist in Systematic Theology, commented of Spong's Resurrection: Myth or Reality?: "The sort of resurrection of which he writes seems to be no resurrection at all but leaves Jesus a failure. If this is Christianity, I would prefer to be an agnostic or atheist. The Bishop blows huge holes in two key areas of Christian gospel. They are first, how we come to know God, and second, how we are saved by God."

Fr John McDade S.J., Editor of The Month (a leading British Jesuit publication) and Lecturer in Systematic Theology at Heythrop College, reached similar conclusions in an April 1994 review: "The editors of HarperCollins must have ordered a crate of champagne when they heard that the mighty Spong mind was at work dismantling traditional Christian belief in the Resurrection. His earlier work on the Virginal Conception had proved that this man is unmatched at getting things wrong and selling well precisely because of that ...".

Reviewing Spong's book in the Church Times (18 March), Bishop Richard Holloway of Edinburgh commented: "Spong leaves us with a God who cannot save because He has no control over nature and history. He offers us a dead Messiah who only 'lives' because of the wishful thinking of his first disciples."

This small episode highlights a wider problem in Australia of unexercised Church authority which, if not remedied soon, will allow the new Catechism to become a dead letter. The Church's key educational bodies contain elements unsympathetic to the new Catechism which, unless checked, will continue to peddle their versions of the faith to the unwary.

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