Bishop John Spong: Courage, Conscience, Critical Thinking, Real Leadership

A great soul, a leader who dared to stand up and speak out for women, gays and lesbians and many others, died this Sunday.  I am speaking of Bishop John S. Spong, Episcopal bishop of Newark and author of many books that dared to look head on at the shadow side of the Christian church. 

The Right Reverend John Shelby Spong, theologian and Bishop Emeritus of Newark. Photo by Scott Griessel, 2006. Wikimedia Commons.

He dared to stand up to fundamentalists and others who he saw distorting the message of Jesus and what should be the message of the church.  Among his books are these:

And many more.  

That he wrote such thoughtful and provocative and well-reasoned books while still serving as an active bishop says something of his understanding of what authentic leadership ought to be.   One sign of his being an authentically spiritual person was his courage: In my understanding courage is the most reliable sign of faith in our time.

“A Conversation with Bishop John Spong: Language and leadership in the Christian tradition, today – are the things we do still relevant?” Video by KelownaLutheran

Bishop Spong invited me to lead a retreat for his clergy years ago when I was still a Dominican priest and it was an uplifting experience.  I led them, among other things, in doing circle dancing of course and no one copped out, not even the bishop.

As I wrote in my autobiography,

One finds in the Anglican Church at this time in history a good number of thinking bishops, many of whom not only think and read but even write good and courageous books (Bishop Spong comes to mind of course).  This is, sad to say, not the case in the Roman Catholic Church at this time, where bishops for thirty-four years have been chosen as yes-men, and not for their conscience or intellectual acumen.  One hopes that Pope Francis can change directions…..


Adapted from Matthew Fox, Confessions: The Making of a Post-denominational Priest, p. 440. See also p. 193.

To see the transcript for Matthew Fox’s video teaching, click HERE.

Banner Image: Bishop John Spong speaking, and his book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile. Speaker photo by Scott Griessel on Wikimedia Commons

Queries for Contemplation

Do you also recognize courage as an authentic sign of spirituality in our time?  Do you find it in many leaders?  In yourself also?


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9 thoughts on “Bishop John Spong: Courage, Conscience, Critical Thinking, Real Leadership”

  1. Avatar

    I am very grateful to be reminded of the life and work of John Shelby Spong, all reflected in his fulsome tribute to Matthew. Spong’s ground breaking book BORN OF A WOMAN was a gift and inspiration to me when it was published. At the time I was reading Matthew and ‘Jack’ in tandem, two men who were persistently ‘trueing’ Christianity away from entropic orthodoxy and patriarchy.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Gwen, I too am grateful for the life and work of John Shelby Spong as well as Matthew Fox. Both of their writings and teachings have contributed much to me. From Spong I have gained confidence in taking an honest stand in what I believe as a Christian. From Matthew I have learned what it means to be a mystic-prophet. I heard Matthew speak for the first time in 1988, the day before he was silenced, when he was promoting his book, THE COMING OF THE COSMIC CHRIST, at the Claremont School of Theology. That book changed my life from then on. Then just three years later Spong came out with RESCUING THE BIBLE FROM FUNDAMENTALISM and it changed the way I related to the Bible within the larger stage of Christianity (including fundamentalists) in a more confident way. Thank you to both of them. Spong was, and Matt still is, a spiritual giant!

  2. Carol Kilby

    “In my understanding courage is the most reliable sign of faith in our time.” Thank you, Matthew, for your honouring of John Spong and his lifework. Courage, the work and life that comes from the heart, the essence of us, this must certainly be the intention as our feet touch the floor in the morning. your questions for reflection bring me to this thought.. perhaps it is not leaders that need courage, but courage that makes one a true leader, that is a vessel of evolutionary consciousness. So many blessings to you and your ‘courageous team.’ Gratefully, Carol Kilby

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Carol, Thank you sooo much for your comment! I like how you put it, that courage comes from the heart, and how having a “great heart” (i.e. courage) must be our intention each morning, “as our feet touch the floor.” I also think you really got it right in saying, “perhaps it is not leaders that need courage, but courage that makes one a true leader…”

  3. Avatar

    Thank you for your heartfelt tribute to a great man. His books have encouraged and inspired me, as have your teachings. I am re-reading “Sins of the Spirit,Blessings of the Flesh” and deeply appreciate your insights. And for the good Bishop who loved his church enough to try to save it : “May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”.

  4. Avatar

    We must all be contemplatively open to God’s Spirit of Love-Light-Life-Wisdom-Peace-Justice in our daily life with others, nature, all creation, in the Cosmos in Loving-Creative-Oneness….
    We’re Co-creator beings with-in God’s Loving Being, All in All….

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