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Secular Media Paints Retiring Bishop Sprague as Fading Icon - Unfortunately, an Unlikely Picture For UMC

Excerpts from the Chicago Tribune

Methodist bishop set to retire after stormy term Advertisement

By Manya A. Brachear
Chicago Tribune staff reporter

July 16, 2004

Provocative Methodist cleric Bishop C. Joseph Sprague will retire next month as bishop of northern Illinois, ending a tumultuous tenure in which he came under frequent attack for his support of gay rights and interpretation of Scripture.

During his eight-year term, Sprague challenged the United Methodist Church's stand against same-sex unions and gay ordination and protested the U.S. attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. But what riled his critics more was his interpretation of doctrine, such as his description of the virgin birth as "a myth."

The controversy surrounding Sprague mirrors a similar conflict between orthodox believers and more progressive Christians in the larger church--particularly over the issue of homosexuality, which has been roiling many mainline Protestant denominations in recent years.

"Given my style, there has been some chaos," said Sprague, 65. "Because I've been engaged not only with the congregation but also the national and global issues, we need a person to come in and consolidate. Less notoriety, I think, will be a gift."

"He is considered to be the model for a bishop that is passionate about justice, passionate about faith and doesn't equivocate for the sake of trying to make everybody feel comfortable," [Rev. Gregory] Dell [previously suspended for blessing same-sex unions] said. "He is clear about how he sees the integrity of the position."

In 2002, Sprague faced four heresy charges of his own after publishing his beliefs about Jesus and the Virgin Mary in his book "Affirmations of a Dissenter." Counter to the traditional Christian teaching, Sprague believes that the story of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ should not be taken literally and that Jesus was not born divine.

All charges were dismissed before making it to a church trial.

"On one hand I can admire Bishop Sprague for being so honest," said Mark Tooley, director of the Methodist Action Committee for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative watchdog group.

"But I can't respect Bishop Sprague for his willingness to serve as an ordained clergyman and a bishop of the church when he's made pledges to uphold the doctrine of the church. If he carried his integrity full all the way, he would have resigned."

Last year, he was arrested for civil disobedience while protesting the war in Iraq.

"The arrest was far more symbolic than punitive," he said, pointing out that President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are both Methodists. "It was a way to call attention to the fact that when it came to open discussion about a matter of great moral concern, the administration has stonewalled its denominational family."

Sprague recently withdrew his name from consideration for a position at the General Board of Church and Society, an international Methodist group based in Washington, saying he feared his notoriety could hurt the group's cause.

"I did not want to spend the winter season of my life looking over my shoulder at the right wing of the church," he said. "I'm not afraid of controversy, but I didn't want to be their target any longer."

Sprague said he is entertaining offers to teach at a theological school or work at an urban think-tank. He said he also may write another book.

"Even those who you might talk to who are most hostile toward me, the good news is they've had to engage in theology," he said. "I would not do anything differently."

Copyright 2004, Chicago Tribune



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