Saturday 28 September 2013

Bishop Spong and the death of God


I came across these insightful words by John Shelby Spong, about priests facing the congregation, which seem accurate. Spong is the wildly liberal bishop of the Episcopalian Church in the U.S.A. 

"This shift has become almost universal in liturgical churches over the last fifty years. Though it seems a minor change and has been defended by proponents in a variety of ways, it signifies to me the gradual realization of the death of theism. The priest or pastor with his or her back to the people is addressing the
theistic God, out there, beyond the sky. The priest facing the people is addressing the God present in the midst of creation."
I think he is right. As I grow older I have come to think that, of all the changes brought about by Second Vatican Council, it is this change which I most regret - more than the loss of the Latin Mass. The Council, in one sentence of one document, merely permitted the priest to face the congregation, so there is no reason why this practice should be adopted
in almost all Catholic churches (just as there is no reason why Latin Masses should have been abandoned - Mass in the vernacular was only permitted, not commanded). I was last month in Bergamo Cathedral and was delighted to see a priest celebrate Mass with his back to the people.

This article explains that the priest facing the congregation was based on a mistake about the practice of the early church. 

Spong is old now and has retired. He denied the whole of the Creed implicitly or explicitly, said the idea of sin had been a mistake on the part of the Church and that Jesus did not die to save us from our sins.  God, for Spong, is inside each of us but not ‘out there’.  

I wish I fully understood this since each man contains the whole universe within him. But the universe, it is accepted, is transcendent as well as immanent. Or maybe it isn't.  ‘Out there’ has never been proven by philosophers to exist except in my mind and, according to Wittgenstein, yours.

I am sure Spong is wrong and that God does intervene in the world, moment by moment, but Spong asks some very good questions, as do out-and-out atheists. This is one that has always troubled me and I wish I knew the answer to it.
The idea that God killed Jesus to pay the price of sin is a barbarian idea because human sacrifice is a barbarian ideas. Why doesn't God just say 'I forgive the sin of the world'? Why does God insist that the murder of his son be a part of the forgiveness?...
Spong is old and will be forgotten after he dies. This is the fate of most heretics. Belloc said in his Ballade Against Heretics,
The wind has blown them all away.
But the wind did not blow all the heresies away. Lutheranism and Calvinism seem to be in retreat but they are still in business, though I cannot imagine Calvin or Luther approving their followers' shifts of teaching on women clergy, the sin of Sodom, inter-faith dialogue or sharia courts. 

Heresies are truths taken out of proportion and Marxism is a Judaeo-Christian heresy which is still very much alive, in the universities and in many other places. Islam, which Belloc classified as a Christian heresy, is flourishing. The whole anti-discrimination, equal opportunity ideology seems to me a kind of Christian heresy. Belief in it and in welfare are taking the place of the sacred in the Western mind. Spongism will not last but the decline in Christianity will continue.

Spong said he was trying to save the church by making it relevant, but admitted that if Christianity were to fade away, 
"I don't think it would be a disaster." 
I prefer to end on a more cheerful note. Belloc again.
Heretics all, whoever you may be,
In Tarbes or Nimes, or over the sea,
You never shall have good words from me.
Caritas non conturbat me.


  1. The god present in the congregation. The god within us all...And we can all remember what Chesterton said about worshipping the "god within":

    "That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within."

    There isn't a Trad in the world who doesn't know this; it's probably the most common thing that drives most "conservative" Catholics to start asking the awkward questions that lead to that painful final conversion. but it's interesting that it has come from Spong.

    I remember a conversation with John Muggeridge once, who told me that he had asked a priest why the whole Church had suddenly decided to start celebrating Mass standing on the other side of the altar, facing the congregation. He said he was told that no one knew. There was no decree, no permission, no document or controversy, no paper trail at all. The priest told him that there was no order or letter from any bishop, and no one really had any idea, "They just started doing it that way one day."

    With Communion-in-the-paw Michael Davies traced the whole procedure from the lies of the Dutch bishops to the helpless handwringing of Pope Paul VI. But on the transformation of the Mass, in one gesture, from an unbloody representation of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross for the remission of sins, to a friendly little get-together with friends, there is nothing. The only hint, officially, was a single line in S. Concilium that appeared to come out of nowhere, that if possible the altars in new churches should be built away from the back wall so that the priest "may" face the people.

    Now, I'm not a liturgy expert, and I've left the liturgical questions rather strictly alone for quite a few years now (not my problem any more). But I find that admission that it was just done by osmosis, extremely strange.

    Hilary White

  2. The Fathers and Doctors taught that the purpose of the Divine and human uniting in Jesus was so that he could fully give up his life in the supreme act of Love, and God is Love by nature "greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends. The so-called bishop was obviously not very learned in theology.

  3. Personally, I think Spong was poison. Nor do I think his comments were deep or even challenging. To speak of God ‘murdering’ his Son, for example, may become an orator at Speaker’s Corner but it betrays theological stupidity in someone who is supposed to be bishop. Even a bishop of a rather absurd set-up like ECUSA.

    On the question of the posture of the priest at the Eucharist, I do not actually have big feelings but I certainly again don’t agree with Spong’s take, that facing the people means facing away from the God of traditional theism.

    I do agree however that major heresies are important. They often get hold of a bit of the truth. They crop up again, in various guises. I have no doubt for example that Pelagianism is alive and kicking…especially in English public schools.