John Shelby (Jack) Spong was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1931. He was raised in a working-class household in the segregated South. His father passed away when he was twelve years old, and he turned to a local Episcopal priest, Robert Crandall, as a role model and surrogate father. Under the guidance of the Reverend Mr. Crandall, Jack aspired to be the first in his family to attain a bachelor's degree and, further, to become a minister.
Jack attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, completing his degree in three years and marrying a classmate, Joan Ketner. He then proceeded to Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. At the completion of his studies there, as a newly minted reverend, Spong returned to North Carolina, where in 1955, he was appointed priest at St. Joseph's Episcopal Church in Durham. This church served a mixed congregation of Duke University students and faculty, as well as workers from the surrounding textile mills. Jack thrived on the intellectual environment of this parish.
Jack's second parish was Calvary Episcopal Church in Tarboro, a small tobacco growing town in eastern North Carolina. Only a few years earlier, the Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, had begun the process of desegregating public institutions in the South; in Tarboro, Spong found himself in the midst of the struggle. He personally sought to protect black children who were entering the local school, which was his first stand in the battle for civil and human rights. Up to this point he had pretty much followed the prevailing orthodoxies which were expected of conservative Episcopal leaders of the South, but his experience in Tarboro would be the start of a long process which would eventually lead to Jack's becoming the most outspoken advocate for civil rights in the Episcopal Church, including the rights of gay and lesbian Christians.
Following Tarboro, Jack served churches in Lynchburg and Richmond, Virginia. During this time he began writing books, including This Hebrew Lord and Dialog: In Search of Jewish-Christian Understanding . He also co-hosted a cable television program with a rabbi in Richmond which featured a dialogue on Christianity and Judaism. Even in the early 1970s, this exploration of the “Jewish roots” of Christianity was radical for an area of the South which considers itself to be the buckle of the Bible Belt.
In 1976, Jack was elected to succeed Bishop George Rath of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark in New Jersey. Bishop Spong served as Bishop Coadjutor until Bishop Rath retired in 1978. It was during this period of apprenticeship that his views on homosexuality were transformed from a homophobic stance to becoming the Episcopal Church's most outspoken supporter of gay rights. The bishop describes three events which initiated this transformation. Shortly after coming to the Diocese of Newark, a priest in the diocese approached him and came out to him. The new bishop's response was best characterized as “don't ask, don't tell”. A few months later, he went to the home of another priest in the diocese to speak with him about the closure of his parish which had been failing for some time. In the course of the visit, it became obvious to Bishop Spong that the priest did not live alone and, furthermore, that his living partner was another man. The priest told Jack that this man was his partner and had been for many years and that he loved him just as much as the bishop loved his wife. This was something Bishop Spong had never really heard before, and he remembers telling the priest that since he could not allow an unmarried heterosexual couple to share a rectory, he couldn't approve of this arrangement either. The priest pointed out to him that the heterosexual couple could get married at any time, but he and his partner could never be married in the eyes of either the church, or the society. Shortly after that, a woman priest in his diocese came out to him as well.
The bishop felt that he was facing issues in his new diocese which he could not process in the context of what he had been brought up to believe. As a result, he set out to learn things he obviously did not know and to discern what his faith and experience should lead him to do. Seeking as much knowledge about homosexuality as he could find, he studied with Dr. Robert Lahita at the Cornell Medical Center in New York City. After months of study, he came to see homosexuality as a normal attribute of human sexuality and connected the discrimination against gays and lesbians with the discrimination he witnessed against African Americans in the South where he grew up. In 1976, at the National Convention of the Episcopal Church, the body which meets every three years to set policy for the Episcopal Church of the United States, he was among the few Bishops to vote for a new openness to homosexuality which lost by about a three-to-one margin. A few years later, tired of waiting for the denomination to move on the issue, he convened a task force in the Diocese of Newark to bring recommendations to the diocese. In 1987, the task force endorsed the concept of gay marriage.
The media attention which followed the task force's report, and Bishop Spong's book on the subject Living in Sin, led to numerous television appearances including the Phil Donahue Show and Oprah. The attention drew the ire of religious conservatives, who targeted the bishop from that time until his retirement. Soon after, Bishop Spong released the book Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism in response to these conservative critics.
During this difficult period, Jack was also dealing with one of the most trying events of his life: the illness and death of his wife Joan. After struggling for fifteen years with mental illness, and then cancer, she died in 1988, leaving behind a grieving husband and three teenaged daughters. Protests of the bishop's controversial teachings even marred his wife's funeral. But he continued undaunted. The next year, he ordained Robert Williams, an openly gay man, to the priesthood. He points out that Ellen Barrett, an open lesbian, had been ordained seven years earlier in New York, but Williams' ordination prompted a gathering of those bishops who constituted the Presiding Bishop's Council of Advice in which these bishops condemned the act and wrote him a letter of disassociation. In September of 1989, the entire House of Bishops also voted to disassociate themselves from this act. The vote, however, was 78 to 74 with two abstentions. It was a remarkable turn-around and yet still a defeat.
Shortly afterward, Spong ordained the Reverend Barry Stopfel, a second openly gay man who was later called to the parish of St. George's in suburban Maplewood, New Jersey. Bishop Spong called this the signal moment for the diocese. Not only were gay and lesbian people being openly ordained, but they began to be called to white-bread suburban parishes, and accepted there. But conservative anger grew more and more strident and he had to walk through a difficult time. Spong regrets the price of these battles for gay rights on some of those like Barry Stopfel, who were thrust to the forefront and whose lives and relationships were battered.
Within a year, the Episcopal Church began to move forward away from their previous harsh condemnation. Fourteen years later, the denomination would approve the election of another priest from New Jersey, Gene Robinson, to be the Bishop of New Hampshire. Spong claims that Gene Robinson is not the first gay bishop but the first “honest” gay bishop and delights that it “is now normal” to have gay priests and, yes, bishops. Jack is very proud of “his priests” in the diocese of Newark, no fewer than five of whom have been elected bishops in other parts of the Episcopal Church. Many more have been appointed to prominent posts at Episcopal cathedrals and great churches around the country. They form a solid core of leadership for the future of the Episcopal church.
Bishop Spong served as Bishop of Newark until his retirement in 2000 and has written many more books, including his autobiography. He remarried in 1990 and since his retirement has traveled the world with his wife, Christine, lecturing in Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Thailand, Finland, Scotland, England, Canada and throughout the United States. He has taught at several universities including Harvard, where worked with Peter Gomes, and at the University of the Pacific, in Stockton, California. He has also been on the faculty of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He also writes a weekly column for Agoramedia.com. In the end, he says, he greatly enjoyed being bishop of Newark, a “most unusual diocese.”
(This biographical information provided by John Spong in an interview with Tim Tyler.)
Spong died on September 12, 2021 at his home in Richmond, Virginia.
Biography Date: January, 2004
“The Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed June 28, 2022, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/john-shelby-spong.