January 3, 2006

Watching Christianity Evolve in Scandinavia

During the early winter of this year, my wife and I went to Scandinavia for 16 lectures, 5 press interviews and extensive conversations. I returned with a deeper sense of where Christianity is, at least in Norway and Sweden. It was both revealing and hopeful.

The tour began in late November with a 4 session seminar in Oslo, Norway, where the major church is a Reformed Church in the Lutheran tradition. When my visit was first announced in the Church Press conservative evangelical elements in this church let out howls of protest. The content of their concern included the strange charge, at least to me, that this man who had served for 24 years as a bishop and 21 years as a priest in his own church really did not believe in God and was not a Christian, at least as they defined Christian. I wondered why they thought I sought or served in an ordained career. In one of their more clever references they said that I was "a wolf in wolf's clothing!" The Church press was filled with letters of protest. When the University of Oslo invited me to speak there, this group began a campaign to convince the University that I was not "academically qualified." The University's invitation was temporarily suspended while they investigated. I must confess I have no desire to speak where I am not welcomed, but I bided my time and patiently answered the University's queries. I have received six honorary doctorates from well-established universities. I have been on the faculty of the Graduate School of Theology in Berkeley, California, on seven different occasions, regularly drawing the biggest class of the session. I have been elected "Quatercentenary Scholar at Emmanuel College of Cambridge University and served a semester there as an honored scholar, an opportunity that does not come to many. I have been a "Scholar in residence" at Christ Church (College) of Oxford University and have given public lectures there. In 2000 I was appointed the William Belden Noble lecturer at Harvard University, a lectureship that requires the publication of the lectures delivered, a requirement I met. I have also taught at Harvard Divinity School and at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, as well as being a guest lecturer at universities across America, Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand and Thailand. I have authored or co-authored 21 books that have sold over a million copies and have been translated into almost every language in Europe plus Korean and Arabic. When these answers were supplied to the University, the invitation was re-extended with apologies. A dinner party was held the night before the lecture in our honor at the home of one of Oslo University's outstanding theologians. Dinner guests included two other theological faculty members; a member of the music faculty, who is one of Norway's best-known composers, and two lively students. It was an incredibly rich and memorable evening.

This controversy succeeded in giving massive, nationwide publicity to my visit with the result that this Oslo seminar held at Paulus Kirke (St. Paul's Church) attracted four times the expected audience. People, who had long given up on what the Church had become, came out in surprising numbers. They heard things that lifted the Bible out of its "either believe it is the literal word of God or dismiss it altogether" choice that has been so frequently offered to people as their only alternatives. Norway's deeply closeted liberal clergy dared to step out of their hiding places and to claim their heritage and identity in the light of day. One of them, who earlier in his career had been accused of heresy and removed from the parish he was serving, assisted in conducting the worship service that ended the seminar. He glowed with a new confidence in the realization that he was no longer alone. He has recently published a book that I hope will now be read as he seeks to become a guide to the "believers in exile" in his Norwegian audience as they seek to be Christians with integrity in the 21st century.

The pastor who first issued the Norwegian invitation was Grete Hauge, a lively woman with a courageous heart and an infectious smile. She, along with two extraordinary laywomen, Jane Robertson and Else Margarethe Stromay, had been to a conference I led in Sweden a year earlier and returned a "subversive threesome." For a year they organized and promoted my proposed visit, raising financial support and attracting people who are seldom in church. Before I left Norway, two Norwegian publishers approached me for the rights to translate and publish my books in Norwegian. I put them in touch with Harper/Collins who handles such things, but it was indicative of the response I received.

Next, we went to Rattvik, Sweden to a magnificent conference center, operated by the Swedish Lutheran Church. This was a live-in conference where I delivered six lectures, each followed by a question and answer period of at least an hour. Every meal and tea break became another seminar, making it an intensely concentrated four days. This was my third visit to this center and I was gratified both by the attendance and by the fact that a significant number of the delegates were pastors or in training to be pastors. The Swedish Church has always impressed me. Its top leadership is courageous, well informed and willing to lead. These qualities say much for the Church that chooses them to be its leaders. Two of its bishops, K. G. Hammer, the recently retired Archbishop, and Claes-Bertil Ytterburg, the Bishop of Vasteras, are among the finest church leaders I have ever met. Clergy in the next generation, like Sven Hillert, the principal of the Pastoral Institute, Tina Johansson, the homiletics professor, John Linman now on a mission assignment in Mozambique, Annette Alfredsson, a youth worker of consummate skill and Nils Aberg, the present director of programs at the Rattvik Center, give evidence of a vibrant future.

Next we went to Stockholm where I had the privilege of being the guest of the Bishop of Stockholm, Caroline Krook and her cabinet of about 20 people, made up of the Cathedral dean, the Bishop's chaplain, the rural deans and the chancellor. Together for about 90 minutes, we ranged over the issues facing the Church in our day. I came away deeply impressed with both the Bishop and this group of leaders. As I left, Bishop Krook assured me of her welcome to her Diocese any time. It was a graceful and much appreciated moment.

That evening I gave a well attended public lecture at Sophia Church in downtown Stockholm. The pastor there, Hans Ulfvebrand, and his wife Asa have over the last four years become good friends. Hans is emerging as a significant leader of the new Christianity struggling to be born in Sweden. He closed the evening by reading a poem written by another Swedish Lutheran pastor, Tor Littmark, after he had attended a conference with me three years earlier. Somehow my words gave him the encouragement to pen these lines that touched me deeply.

Dare to question, dare to test things,
Dare to seek, search unconfined,
God’s embodied in your question
Already God had you in mind.

Dare to question, dare to feel doubt
Dare to take the path you chose
God’s is already deep inside you
Closer than you dare suppose.

Dare to question, dare to say no to
Far too simple, glib replies,
Dare to wait and dare to waver,
God will still be at your side

Dare to question, bold and fearless,
God will still believe in you
Life in you is God’s own purpose,
Already, God has you in view.

Dare to question, doubt and wonder,
You are loved, by God retrieved
You are longed for, seen, discovered,
Free to live and to believe

I live to discover pastors like Tor Littmark.

My next assignment was at the Theological College of Uppsala University. I spent an entire morning from 9 - 12:30 with 30 candidates in the final stages of preparation for ordination next June. They were an attractive, bright group of young adults, eager to learn and very responsive. I gave two lectures and responded to their questions. I took them as deeply as I could into the gospels in general and the miracle stories in particular. I had a sense that if this group represented the Swedish clergy of the future, there was nothing beyond the scope of possibility. I concluded my tour with a public lecture at a Reformed Church in downtown Uppsala. The topic assigned, "What's left of Christianity?" reflected the anxiety of a two retired clergy. Hampered by a title that set a negative mood, I decided to state the dimensions of the problem that traditional believers have in our post-modern world, by tracing the intellectual revolution from Copernicus to Einstein that has produced the world that the Church must engage. I wanted to show why Christianity's energy should not be wasted in resisting new knowledge for fear that it might threaten people's understanding of God. Intelligent design is one of the more obvious aspects of this defeatist attitude. I am firmly convinced that if God must be defended against new knowledge arising from any source then God has already died. I have no idea what the response to that lecture was though the audience was attentive and the questions following were good. Only one of the retired ministers went to the microphone to announce that he had five questions. The rules of the evening allowed him only one so he rolled several into one. He was still locked into the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth, a great Christian leader in the post World War I era. However, while the world has moved far beyond Barth, this clergyman had not and he seemed to believe that his world was collapsing. I wish that I had been able to move him from the despair of asking, "What is left?" to a celebration of the vision of a Christian future that I believe is bright and exciting, but that requires him to be willing to engage the modern questions.

The bright spot of that evening for me was the pastor of the host church, Per Duregärd, whose vision of the future was clear. He will be a factor in the development of a new Christianity in Sweden. Ordained for only five years after a teaching career, I was delighted to meet this kindred spirit. I hope our paths will cross again.

There is new life in Scandinavian Christianity, well established in Sweden, just beginning in Norway. Both nations encouraged me enormously.

John Shelby Spong

Note from the Editor: Bishop Spong's new book is available now at bookstores everywhere and by clicking here!

Question and Answer
With John Shelby Spong

Valerie Howells from Elgin, IL, via the Internet, writes:

I grew up ECLA Lutheran. My mother was raised Mennonite, which contributed pacifist beliefs. My father was an ordained Methodist minister but worked in a different profession. I married into a Lutheran family and my parents now worship at the United Methodist Church.

I tried very hard to "make it work" in mainline Christianity. I read, "Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism" and that started me on the path of questioning everything. I've been working my way through all of your books and enjoying them quite a bit. Some of your sentences are so finely crafted and beautiful in their content. My mother and I constantly discuss your work. It is very difficult, however, to reconcile our newfound awareness with our Sunday morning experiences. Certain statements, hymn lyrics or rites have to be outright rejected or translated in my mind. (I refused to allow the Creed at my daughter's baptism!).

I understand your desire for people to stay and fight for change within their particular churches, but that is like trying single-handedly to turn the Titanic around. I have only one life to live. I need to go where my soul is fed. I have recently found the Unity Church and started attending services. I am interested to know what your opinion is of the Unity Church.

P.S. I highly respect your opinion, but please do not feel that I am waiting for your answer in my decision to attend services. I do not mean to imply anything of that nature.

Dear Valerie,

Thank you for your letter and for your kind words. I am glad that you have found Unity. I think it is one of the most exciting movements within Christianity in the world today.

I had never heard of Unity until about ten years ago. While on a lecture tour of Alaska, I received an invitation to speak at the Unity Church of Anchorage. My response was that "these people don't know how to spell Unitarian!" I had, however, already spoken at the Unitarian Church in Anchorage, meeting there the Rev. Dr. Richard Gay who was, and is, one of the finest clergy I have ever encountered, so I was in some wonderment about what Unity was. I went and that was the first of many enriching experiences I have had with the Unity Movement across the United States and throughout the world.

Unity traces its roots to Mary Baker Eddy and what we once called the Christian Science movement. It has, however, evolved well beyond its origins. It is distinctively Christian but they have managed to escape the traditional Christian obsession with sin, guilt, rescue and control. They teach the goodness of God's creation, the capacity of human beings to grow spiritually and they avoid dated concepts like sacrifice and the sacredness of shed blood.

I have found their clergy to be bright, well trained, open and positive. Their Spiritual Center and Training School is in Lee's Summit, Missouri. The things that attract me to Unity are their dedication to education; the consistently high quality of their music; their commitment to affirm their children rather than to make them feel inadequate; their care for one another and the joy that permeates Unity worship. I don't know that Unity will be the future of Christianity but I do believe that the Christianity of the future will have many of the marks of Unity within it. I find that many people are like you, they discover Unity when they awaken to what Christianity can be and compare it to what they experience in many churches on Sunday morning.

I remain committed to reforming the church of my birth but I am deeply grateful for what Unity has done for me and for the way that Unity has enriched my life.

I wish you well on your journey.

John Shelby Spong