By Stanley Campbell
I’m inviting the most liberal bishop in Christendom to be our speaker for Rockford Urban Ministries’ (RUM) 50th annual dinner, Friday, June 22.
Charles Joseph Sprague was elected to the episcopacy in 1996 and assigned to Bishop of Chicago and the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church, which takes in Rockford to the Mississippi. He’d already served 27 years in Ohio congregations, and was known as an urban pastor, one who cared for the poor of any community.
He once came to Rockford to bless our needle exchange van. RUM (for which I work) had just started the program, handing out condoms to street sex workers and syringes to IV drug users who, at the time, could not get a clean syringe without a prescription.
It was pretty controversial. Then, State’s Attorney Paul Logli was asked to “arrest that Stanley Campbell.” The bishop blessed our old panel truck amid a bevy of media, and was quoted on late-night news: “This is what the church should be doing — reaching out to those most despised in the community.” He caught hell, mainly from his more conservative church members. But he drew fire away from our poor, small counseling staff. Logli said he couldn’t arrest Campbell without also taking in the Methodist bishop. That program went on to save many lives.
Meanwhile, the Bishop’s detractors brought him up on charges of heresy.
In his Affirmations of a Dissenter, Bishop Sprague called the church to compassion and courage, reminding us that our lives are the embodied witness to our faith. He calls the clergy to prophetic and sacrificial leadership. Bishop Sprague describes his book as “a composite of affirmations and dissent,” which he offers to encourage the church. Some called his book “heretical teaching,” and brought him up on charges within the denomination.
Heretical because Sprague’s unorthodox statements questioned the virgin birth of Christ; this was more important in some Methodists’ eyes. The “court” found him innocent of the charges.
He was also accused of “aggressively pushing the sodomite/lesbian agenda in our nation” because Bishop Sprague had been arrested at the quadrennial United Methodist Church Conference in Cleveland in 2000. Sprague led in a demonstration opposing the Methodists’ disapproval of marriage between homosexuals. He and others were arrested during a silent protest, and was escorted off the podium by uniformed police.
Sprague is also the recipient of many awards, including the American Friends Service Committee’s “Courage of Conviction” Award, the Rainbow Push Civil Rights/Peace Award, and the William Sloane Coffin Award for Justice and Peace. He is a co-author of a chapter in the seminary textbook Pastor As Educator, and his book, Affirmations of a Dissenter, was published in December, 2002, by Abingdon Press.
Bishop Sprague retired in 2004, and you can see why I want him to return and help us celebrate the 50th anniversary of Rockford Urban Ministries. He has consistently raised the idea that it’s more important what Christians do than what they believe.
We’re asking $50 donation for the 6 p.m. dinner, for 50 years of operation. But I’ll let you know that the program with the bishop will be open to the public for free, and you are welcome (we most likely will take up a collection; it’s a Methodist tradition).
Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.
From the June 13-19, 2012, issue