Radical bishop—‘An abomination’ and a ‘disbeliever’

“An abomination” and a “disbeliever” is what the anonymous caller said about my speaker “who should not be allowed to speak before any religious crowd.” Funny, because the speaker was a United Methodist bishop. Apparently C. Joseph Sprague is too radical for our 45th anniversary dinner of Rockford Urban Ministries (this Friday, June 22, at Christ United Methodist Church, 4509 Highcrest Road). The program at 7 p.m. is free, and you are welcome.

Now, I admit Sprague has been arrested a few times, usually protesting war or poverty or some injustice he feels Jesus would have spoken against. And he even was arrested while protesting his own church’s stand on homosexuality (which is a variant of “don’t ask, don’t tell”). But I believe the caller was more incensed about Sprague’s religious beliefs.

As one of his critics said: “Like many churchgoers, he is in a quandary: he loves the church but often finds himself at odds with its principles and/or practices. What makes his situation unique is that in addition to his role as worshiper, he is a bishop who is charged with the responsibility of leadership.”

Sprague wrote Affirmations of a Dissenter, wherein he gives a composite of faith and protest. He writes about his trust in and commitment to God’s hospitable, unconditional love for all humankind, and speaks about his discomfort with right-wing trends in religious institutions, particularly United Methodism.

The brief chapters of this book cover a variety of topics: biblical literalism and authority as related to homosexuality, divorce, violence and women (Joe comes down on the far left side, which is more libertarian than liberal); the power of biblical witness (which means standing up to authority when it is wrong); the nature and person of Jesus; hope in the church; leadership; and racism.

One of his supporters says: “Joe Sprague ponders the Scriptures, looking at them through the ministry of our Lord; he grabs your attention. Your mind will race; your heart will beat faster as he walks with Jesus into areas of poverty, injustice, war and human sexuality. You may not always agree, but you will be brought up short by his openness, his integrity, and his sacrificial commitments. He’ll make you a braver, more radical Christian.” Richard B. Wilke, Bishop in Residence, Southwestern College, Winfield, Kan. goes on to call it, “A candid and clarion call for United Methodism to embrace its theological, biblical, and ethical roots without being ensnared by fearful right-wing ‘neo-literalists’ or cynical left-wing ‘progressives.’”

Rockford Urban Ministries is the outreach of 26 churches, mainly United Methodists, but also United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalists, Quakers and Episcopalians. It was founded in 1962 and provides mission programs, a work camp experience, a new fair trade store (JustGoods, 201 Seventh St., open Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.) and a way for congregations to get involved in ministry. I am the director, and have been for 22 years. I speak out about issues, and was excited when Bishop Sprague said he could come out of retirement for our 45th annual dinner. I thought he would be a great speaker. I hope you agree, or at least let us hear what he has to say.

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

from the June 20-26, 2007, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!