Episcopal Bishops I Have Known

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Through the Looking GlassI have always been enamored of the Episcopal Church, attracted by the dignity of its rituals, the beauty of its stained glass, its seeming grasp of eternal truths.

In the 1960s I was reading about successive attempts by the Episcopal Church to levy heresy charges against its Bishop James Pike. He was very well known as a speaker, writer, and radio and television personality. His sermons dealt with social phenomena such as racism, capital punishment, birth control, apartheid, and antisemitism. But what got him in trouble was his willingness to challenge standard theology, especially about things that flew in the face of modern science. His thinking was blatant heresy, but ultimately the church decided it was not in its best interests to put this very well known Bishop through a trial and public defrocking.

Later I had a chance to hear Bishop Pike speak at Trinity College. I especially remember his assertion that while enrollment in mainstream churches was declining, there seemed to be rising numbers of people you could call seekers. I found him very interesting but also wondered why the Bishop’s views were tolerated within the church.

The next renegade Bishop I stumbled upon was Bishop John Shelby Spong. He is a prolific writer whose name I had picked up from references to his books. I asked a good Episcopalian if the Christian bookstore where she worked stocked his books. She told me that she wouldn’t work in a store that did and of course this piqued my interest and I began reading Spong.

I’d read three or four of his books when the opportunity arose to take a one-week course with him down at the Hartford Seminary. It was another wonderful experience with a clergy member who challenged dogma that flew in the face of modern science. I’d also heard Bishop Spong at the Unity Church of Greater Hartford. His underlying beliefs were very Unity-like, but he said that Unity did not have the colorful ritual he enjoyed in religion.

There are two other theologically adventuresome Episcopalians I’ve admired. The first one is the late Alan Watts who had been a physicist and Episcopal priest, but who eventually left the church and became a writer, lecturer, and freelance popularizer of Eastern spirituality. Watts talked about “the stuff” that makes up the universe and everything in it. His work inspired me to begin to read about quantum physics, focusing on how it seems to be in accord with Eastern religions and the mysticism found in all religions.

Bishop Spong urges the church to change in ways that make it more compatible with 21st century knowledge. Another Episcopal priest doing the same is mystic Cynthia Bourgeault. Her book “The Wisdom Jesus” offers a different perspective on Jesus and his message. She talks about how the idea of “fall and redemption” colors Christian theology, and she reiterates the complaint often made by liberal religionists that Christianity became a religion ABOUT Jesus rather than the religion OF Jesus.

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