Rotavirus (image courtesy Wikipedia)
By Spencer D Gear
When a bishop, clergy person or any church leader plants seeds of a salvation virus, it is a reasonable deduction that there will be a decline in denominational numbers and indications of ‘death’ in a congregation or denomination of that bishop or clergy person.
Spong’s own diagnosis of the virus is called ‘offensive’ and ‘anathema’. Stay tuned for details.
Ex-archbishop of Canterbury, Lord George Carey, pointed in this direction, but he did not lay the blame at the feet of liberal theology. It was reported in the British newspaper, The Telegraph:
The Church of England is “one generation away from extinction”, the former Archbishop of Canterbury has warned.
Lord Carey, 78, said churchgoers should be “ashamed” of themselves for failing to invest more in young people and called for urgent action before its too late.
The outspoken Lord said that unless more was done to attract new worshipers then every one of the 43 CofE dioceses across the world could be wiped out within 25 years.
He also expressed fears that the modern church was too old fashioned and “not the most exciting place to meet new people” (Riley-Smith 2013).
A follow-up article by A N Wilson stated: ‘So what do I make of Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, saying that the Church is only one generation from extinction, its clergy gripped by a “feeling of defeat” and its congregations worn down with “heaviness”? Is he just suffering from peevish-old-man syndrome?’ (Wilson 2013).
His claim was that ‘there are two simple reasons for this, and there is nothing anyone can say that will make these reasons go away’. Those are:
(1) The church’s view on sex and living together, with no sex permitted outside of marriage;
(2) Unbelief in the churches. Wilson stated:
The second reason is a much bigger thing. That is the decline of belief itself. Most people simply cannot subscribe to the traditional creeds. No number of Alpha courses can make people believe that God took human form of a Virgin, or rose from the dead. They simply can’t swallow it. They see no reason, therefore, to listen to a Church that propounds these stories and then presumes to tell them how to behave in the bedroom.
When there was a tradition of church-going, there was more room for unbelief. When a young priest told Archbishop Michael Ramsey that he had lost his faith in God, Ramsey replied, after a long pause: “It doesn’t matter – it doesn’t matter.” You can’t imagine Lord Carey saying that (Wilson 2013).
1. How would Christians respond to Carey’s views?
George Carey (photo courtesy Wikipedia)
I posted links to the above two articles on a large Christian forum and asked for discussion on reasons for the demise of the Church of England (Anglican) and the apologetic issues these raised.
Here are a few grabs from the responses:
‘Yes, liberal Christianity is coming to an end. Also, with OBAMA Care, Liberals are coming to an end. Now we can really start preaching the True Gospel. Praise God’.
‘We need a more objective stand than liberals take, and a more inclusive acceptance of reality than fundamentalists do, so we can present a unified understanding of reality that we can defend and that has something substantive to offer. Either extreme will undermine our relevance to the world, as well as our own faith’.
A response to the above post that ‘liberal Christianity is coming to an end’, was: ‘On the contrary, it appears that while political liberalism may be limited, liberal Christianity is spreading and becoming even more brazen and extreme’.
2. Enter John Shelby Spong
J S Spong (photo courtesy Wikipedia)
My response to the last comment was:
You will need to provide me with statistical documentation that supports your claim.
One of the most damning pieces of evidence against John Shelby Spong’s theologically liberal views is contained in what happened when he was bishop of the Episcopalian Church diocese of Newark, NJ. It is reported in ‘Newark’s Disastrous Decline Under Spong: Post-Mortem of a Bishop’s Tenure’. Here it was reported:
Prior to Spong’s arrival as bishop coadjutor in 1977, the Diocese of Newark, like the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A (ECUSA), was facing a slow but steady decline from its peak membership in the 1960s. After Spong became the bishop in 1979, the rate of decline began to pick up.
Between 1978 and 1999, the number of baptized persons in the diocese fell from 64,323 to 36,340, a loss of 27,983 members in 21 years. That’s a disastrous 43.5% decline. The Episcopal Church, by contrast, saw a decline in the number of baptized persons from 3,057,162 in 1978 to 2,339,133 in 1997, a loss of 718, 499, or a substantial 23.4%, according to the 1998 Church Annual.
The Diocese of Newark under Spong, thus, has declined at a rate 20.1 percentage points higher than the rate for the entire Episcopal Church. This rate of decline is 86% faster than the Episcopal Church, whose losses are considerable in and of themselves.
As any statistician would note, the losses in the Diocese of Newark represent a highly statistically significant variation from the trends within the Episcopal Church. No systematic effort has been made to get at the exact causes that made losses in the diocese so much greater.
Ominously for the future, church members in the diocese are also getting older and there are fewer children in Sunday School. In 1976 there were 10,186 children pupils in Sunday School. In 1999 there were only 4,833, a loss of 5,353. That’s 52.6% decline.
By 1997 the diocese had closed at least 18 parishes or missions which had existed when Spong became bishop. All of these parishes or missions were in urban areas. The details of the closing of these churches was reported by the author in an article in United Voice in 1997 titled “The Diocese of Newark’s Graveyard of Urban Ministry.”
The rate of decline under Spong – already fairly torrid – sharply accelerated after 1995. During the 1980s and early 1990s, there was often a loss of 1,000 members a year. From 1995 to 1998, there was a stunning drop from 44, 246 to 36,597 in only three years, a drop of 7,649 — or more than 2,500 a year.
The rate of membership decline under Spong is disastrous by any reasonable measure. Such a pace of decline cannot continue if the diocese is to survive and if the Episcopal church is to retain more than a marginal presence in northern New Jersey.
What’s the truth about the death of theism? This is but one example of what happens when theological liberalism has taken hold. Church numbers have crashed.
Continuing with the USA Episcopal Church as an example, this recent article, ‘Episcopal Church Task Force Releases Report on Restructuring Plans’ (July 17, 2013), stated.
“Entrenched bureaucracies and dozens of committees or commissions have accumulated over time. This has occurred even as the Episcopal Church has dropped from a high of 3.6 million members in the mid-1960s to 1.9 million members today,” said Walton. “The large amount of money that sustained these structures in the past is long gone, and the church looks very different than it did a generation ago.”
A response to the above information I provided was:
“Statistical evidence” for a cultural trend?
It’s apparent to me that you are approaching this solely in terms of membership figures, whereas I clearly addressed the growing influence and brazenness of liberal theology overall.
While it is true that the denominations already known to be among the more liberal have been losing members recently, my point was that liberal views are becoming more accepted in the remaining churches and also that the liberalism itself is pushing boundaries that would have been thought shocking or outrageous only a few years ago.
‘Here’s a site with historical data for the UK: British Religion in Numbers | News about BRIN.ac.uk, and religious data in general .
As I read it, this isn’t an Anglican problem. It affects all Christianity in the UK except Catholics. And Catholic growth is probably immigration, not conversions.
Furthermore, there seems to be an assumption here that unpopularity implies there’s some problem with the Church. What reason is there to believe that? Does the Bible suggest that truth will be popular?
My response was:
The theme I started in this thread was ‘the demise of liberal Christianity’. I was not meaning to convey a concept of ‘unpopularity’, but to try to promote discussion on why liberal Christianity (theological liberalism was my target) is leading to the demise of the CofE in the UK.
This person asked: ‘Does the Bible suggest that truth will be popular?’ The theological liberal could use that same kind of question to point to the demise of liberalism and that the ‘truth’ of liberalism was not popular.
I know that this issue raises lots of possibilities, some of which are:
- What is liberal Christianity?
- Does it primarily relate to historical-critical assaults on the Bible?
- Is it associated with politically correct doctrines on homosexual marriage, equality of men and women in ministry, inclusion of clergy who no longer believe in the Christian faith, etc?
- Are many evangelical, charismatic and Pentecostal churches promoting agendas by which sound doctrine is minimised?
- How do various denominations define scriptural authority?
3. Were they slanted questions?
These types of questions sounded too conservative for Hedrick:
I assume you’re aware that almost all of your questions are inherently slanted.
Are you by chance associated with the conservative assault on Scriptural authority, replacing what Jesus said with conservative traditions?
Surely we can do better than this.
Of course the questions are slanted. I’m an evangelical Christian and I’m asking questions relating to the evangel – the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ:
I provided links to 2 articles and the second one raised the issue of unbelief among the people and clergy in the church. Here we are dealing with theological liberalism or disbelief in the ranks.
The Barna Research organisation in the USA has found that nearly 60% of youth disconnect with the church after age 15.
See Barna’s articles:
- ‘5 reasons millennials [born 1982-2002] stay connected to church’ (September 17, 2013);
- ‘6 reasons young Christians leave church’ (September 28. 2011). This article’s research by Barna revealed that ‘nearly three out of every five young Christians (59%) disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age 15’.
How should I reply?
With respect, these are genuine questions that I’m raising about issues in the church.
Neither you nor I comes to this forum with complete objectivity.
Did you not note that your response here to me is inherently slanted? I could ask of you: Are you by any chance associated with the non-conservative stance on scriptural authority and have replaced what Jesus said with non-conservative traditions?
We can do better than this by providing exegesis of the Scriptures (or is that considered too conservative?) to demonstrate our beliefs.
His reply was: ‘No, unbelief has nothing to do with liberal theology, though unbelief in conservative theology certainly does’.There is information to the contrary:
Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS), in The Aquila Report, does not agree with you (and neither do I). RTS’s headline was:
What is the Root of Liberal Theology?
Unbelief is the root of Liberal Theology. Never forget, the attacks we are witnessing in our day on our faith are coming from within the visible Church.
Written by Mike Ratliff, Monday, November 18, 2013
4. The Spong ‘virus’
[Photo courtesy Religion News Service (RNS)]
This link from RNS stated, ‘John Shelby Spong sits at his desk at his New Jersey home on Sept. 12, 2013. The liberal churchman writes longhand with a fountain pen on yellow legal pads. RNS photo by David Gibson’
This was a challenge presented to me:
Now you just need to prove that decline was all because of Bishop Spong. In many western countries there was a decline in many mainstream churches while big increases in other places. How much of that decline was due to Spong and how much was a national trend as more people walk away from the church because of poor views put out by the church*? I’m sure some of the decline was because of Spong but certainly not all of it and I dare say not the majority of it.
These are some of the viruses against eternal salvation that Spong has developed and promoted, some of which relate to core Christian doctrines? Examples include:
The atonement is an ‘offensive idea’ (Spong 2001:10)
‘I am a Christian. I believe that God is real. I call Jesus my Lord. Yet I do not define God as a supernatural being. I believe passionately in God. This God is not identified with doctrines, creeds, and traditions’ (Spong 2001:3, 64, 74).
He rejoices that ‘the blinding idolatry of traditional theism [read, supernatural Christianity] has finally departed from my life’ More than that, he proclaims, “Theism is dead, I joyfully proclaim, but God is real” (Spong 2001:74, 77)
He’s against evangelism and missionary enterprises, the latter being ‘base-born, rejecting, negative, and yes, I would even say evil’ (2001:178). This redefinition of missions as ‘evil’ is associated with his universalism and theory that ‘we possess neither certainty nor eternal truth’ (Spong 2001:179).
‘The idea that Jesus is the only way to God or that only those who have been washed in the blood of Christ are ever to be listed among the saved, has become anathema and even dangerous in our shrinking world’ (Spong 2001:179).
‘There is a strong probability that the story of Joseph of Arimathea was developed to cover the apostles’ pain at the memory of Jesus’ having no one to claim his body and of his death as a common criminal. His body was probably dumped unceremoniously into a common grave, the location of which has never been known-then or now. This fragment in Paul’s sermon in Acts thus rings with startling accuracy….
The empty tomb tradition does not appear to be part of the primitive kerygma. It was attached to the Jerusalem tradition, which I have suggested was quite secondary to the Galilean tradition’ (Spong 1994:225).
‘If the resurrection of Jesus cannot be believed by assenting to the fantastic descriptions included in the Gospels, then Christianity is doomed. For that view of resurrection is not believable, and if that is all there is, then Christianity, which depends upon the truth and authenticity of Jesus’ resurrection, also is not believable’ (Spong 1994:238).
‘I dismiss heaven as a place of reward, and I dismiss hell as a place of punishment. I find neither definition either believable or appealing’ (Spong 1994:288).
‘For Paul there were no empty tombs, no disappearance from the grave of the physical body, no physical resurrection, no physical appearances of a Christ who would eat fish, offer his wounds for inspection, or rise physically into the sky after an appropriate length of time. None of these ideas can be found in reading Paul’ (Spong 1994:51).
‘Christianity is not about the divine becoming human so much as it is about the human becoming divine. That is a paradigm shift of the first order’ (Spong 2013).
Therefore, it is not surprising that Spong’s salvific disease led to this kind of spiritual ‘death’ in the Episcopal diocese of Newark NJ when Spong was bishop:
Spong [had] been the Episcopal Bishop of Newark [New Jersey] since 1976. He has presided over one of the most rapid witherings of any diocese in the Episcopal Church [USA]. The most charitable assessment shows that Newark’s parish membership rolls have evaporated by more than 42 percent. Less charitable accounts put the rate at over 50 percent. (Lasley, 1999).
With this kind of salvific disease being spread by Spong, it is a reasonable assumption that this kind of liberal Christianity will lead to the demise of that brand. Of course, Spong’s view is radically different. He wrote:
‘The evidence that God, understood theistically, is dying or is perhaps already dead is overwhelming…. the death of the theistic God was first announced by Friedrich Nietzsche in the nineteenth century…. As this theistic God dies visibly in the very midst of our present civilization…. The old myth of theism has lost its power and its appeal’ (Spong 2001:21, 33, 35).
Spong has nailed it. His interpretation of the supernatural theistic God is that this view is dying and it is an old myth that has lost its power. Is that the truth or not?
5. Has the supernatural theistic God lost his power?
(image courtesy ChristArt)
What does the evidence demonstrate? James Wellman conducted 300 interviews in a limited survey of carefully selected evangelical and liberal churches in the Pacific Northwest of the USA to try ‘to wrestle with the internecine [mutually destructive] conflicts percolating in the American Protestant landscape’. He ‘could find few liberal churches that were were actually growing, financially or in membership’. He located 12 liberal congregations to participate in the research, but the criteria were limiting. These had to be liberal congregations that ‘maintained or at least come close to maintaining their membership and financial levels over three years. I also sought out churches that had a sustained a distinct institutional identity led by a stable core of leaders, clergy and lay’. So this research is based on limited criteria. It is not a random sample of evangelical an liberal churches. He noted that ‘the liberal churches that I chose were dynamic and spiritually rich congregations’, but he had ‘difficulty in discovering vital liberal Protestant churches’ as ‘there were no few thriving liberal churches’ (Wellman 2008:xiii).
His research concluded that,
evangelical entrepreneurial congregations can and do thrive…. At the same time, though with less numerical success, liberal congregations can create vital congregations…. A countervailing factor to growth for liberals is the focus on individualism within their churches. Paradoxically, this emphasis on autonomy both attracts northwesterners to these churches, but also mitigates strong commitments to these groups…. In particular, Episcopal churches have achieved a mix of allowing liberals to ‘think what they want’ while at the same time offering a liturgical experience that is deeply rooted in a tradition…. I am not sure that liberals know they want both a form of tradition and the space of free thought, but in practice this combination allowed for the most vital forms of liberal congregational life.
From my research [in the Pacific Northwest, USA], I saw a bouquet of evangelical churches, large and small, flourishing and ambitious to grow in the future. There are few obvious signs that this will change. I do think that the growth will plateau in the near future, but only time will tell. The libertarian and liberal nature of the region is powerful and enduring…. Liberal religionists in this study have much more in common with those who practice nature religion and in this way liberals are more susceptible to this form of relatively unorganized religion than are evangelicals….
As I’ve mentioned throughout this study, American evangelicals have made significant strides, nationally, in gaining a greater share of the Protestant pie (Wellman 2008:272, 282-283).
What was Wellman’s worldview? He spoke of ‘being a liberal Christian myself’ (Wellman 2008:284).
Lasley, D M 1999. Rescuing Christianity from Bishop Kevorkian, review of John Shelby Spong’s, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, for Anglican Voice, posted June 2 1999. Retrieved on November 4, 2001, from http://www.anglicanvoice.org/voice/spong0699.htm. It is no longer available on Anglican Voice, but is available at: http://listserv.virtueonline.org/pipermail/virtueonline_listserv.virtueonline.org/1999-June/000415.html (Accessed 25 November 2013).
Riley-Smith, B 2013. Church of England ‘will be extinct in one generation’, warns ex-archbishop. The Telegraph (online), 18 November. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/10457520/Church-of-England-will-be-extinct-in-one-generation-warns-ex-archbishop.html (Accessed 25 November 2013).
Spong, J S 1994. Resurrection myth or reality? A bishop’s search for the origins of Christianity. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
Spong, J S 2001. A new Christianity for a new world: Why traditional faith is dying and how a new faith is being born. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
Spong, J S 2013, Gospel of John: What everyone should know about the fourth Gospel. Huffington Post: Religion, The Blog (online), 11 June. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-shelby-spong/gospel-of-john-what-everyone-knows-about-the-fourth-gospel_b_3422026.html?ref=topbar (Accessed 25 November 2013).
Wellman Jr, J K 2008. Evangelical vs. liberal: The clash of Christian cultures in the Pacific Northwest. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.
Wilson, A N 2013. Lord Carey’s vision for the Church might kill it off. The Telegraph (online), 19 November. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/10460230/Lord-Careys-vision-for-the-Church-might-kill-it-off.html (Accessed 25 November 2013).
 Christian Forums, Apologetics, ‘Demise of liberal Christianity’, OzSpen #1,21 November 2013. Available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7788780/ (Accessed 25 November 2013).
 Ibid., johnregnier #2.
 Ibid., Pervivale #6.
 Albion #12, http://www.christianforums.com/t7788780-2/.
 Ibid., OzSpen #14.
 Ibid., Albion #15.
 Ibid., Hedrick #18.
 Ibid., OzSpen #19.
 Ibid., Henrick #21, http://www.christianforums.com/t7788780-3/.
 Ibid., OzSpen #22.
 Ibid., OzSpen #23.
 Ibid., Hedrick #28.
 TheDag #38, http://www.christianforums.com/t7788780-4/.
Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 15 April 2016.