Less than a month after sponsoring an event for Virginia Episcopal clergy featuring a speaker who denies both the afterlife and unique divinity of Christ, Bishop Shannon Johnston of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia has presided over a service featuring a similarly controversial figure.
Bishop Spong and Bishop Johnston on Good Friday.
In a Good Friday service at historic St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, retired Bishop John Shelby Spong decried the Nicene Creed as “a radical distortion of the Gospel of John,” asserted that several of the apostles were “mythological” and declared that Jesus Christ did not die to redeem humanity from its sins.
The three hour service featured a series of six meditations by the retired Newark bishop interspersed with prayers led by Johnston and a hymn promoted by the Center for Progressive Christianity entitled “Welcome doubt: Refine our thinking.” Johnston’s promotion of Spong, whose Newark diocese famously declined by 40 percent during his tenure, further undercuts the Virginia bishop’s claim to be creedal and orthodox.
Spong has a long history with St. Paul’s, serving as rector of the onetime “Cathedral of the Confederacy” from 1969 to 1976, before his election as bishop of Newark. The Greek revival church across from the Virginia State Capitol, which once counted Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis among its worshippers, continues to draw prominent Richmond-area figures including a former Virginia governor and first lady who offered scripture readings on Friday.
Arguing that the Gospels were not historic accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, Spong sought to isolate the fourth gospel, insisting it was not authored by John the son of Zebedee. Instead, the retired Episcopal bishop proposed that the Gospel of John was not a story of incarnation.
“This Gospel sees Jesus as a life lived so deeply that he reached mystical oneness with God,” proposed the author of the upcoming book “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.”
Spong argued that Jesus could say “I and the father are one” only because he was inviting his disciples “to enter a mystical reality of divine human oneness.”
Instead of portraying the crucifixion of Jesus being about his sacrifice, Spong claimed the author of the book of John intended a “call to all of us to be whole people – to find yourself and give yourself away.”
“God does not need human sacrifice to forgive,” Spong declared. “John’s Jesus is not about saving sinners and rescuing the lost. It is about moving beyond self-consciousness to universal consciousness.”
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Prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane
I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.