Bishop Spong recently shared how one of his best-seller books was almost a United Methodist book, unveiling a pivotal moment in the UMC when honest conversations about human sexuality began to be systematically ground into dust.
He recently shared a story of a United Methodist connection with one of his books. After reading it, I could not help but wonder about what alternative history might have taken place had things been different.
Here’s Bishop Spong in his own words:
Living In Sin? Story
Note: This is part of Bishop Spong’s response to a reader letter about his book called Living in Sin? Here’s the full post.
Living in Sin? came out in 1988, almost 27 years ago now. It is still in print, a rather remarkable record since five years is about the maximum for the life of a religious book.
That book also had its own interesting history. It was commissioned by the Abingdon Press of Nashville, Tennessee, the official publishing house of the United Methodist Church. They, literally, came to me to request that I write it for them after some studies on the subject of homosexuality in the Diocese of Newark had received national attention. They wanted this book to be out by April 1988 in time for the National General Conference of the United Methodist Church. I met all of their deadlines, flew to Nashville to plan its launch and arranged my calendar with their publicity people in order to accommodate the media appearances that they were lining up. They clearly thought that this book was going to be a big book for them.
Abingdon Press even began pre-publication advertisements of this “coming book.” Some of those ads were placed in an in-house publication for Methodist clergy called “The Circuit Rider.” Much to their surprise they suddenly began to get negative reactions from conservative church sources, primarily in Texas. Threats were issued against Abingdon Press, stating that if they continued their plans to publish this book, an effort would be made at the upcoming General Conference to censure this Methodist publishing house and to have the General Conference place editorial controls on what Abingdon could publish in the future.
The furor grew and Abingdon’s leaders collapsed under this pressure and agreed to cancel the publication of my book. By this time, the cover had been designed, the page layouts completed and the presses were ready to run. My editor at Abingdon, Michael Lawrence, called to tell that my book would not be published and to apologize. I was devastated. They had asked me to write it, they had approved the text, set the type and designed the launch. They had even paid me a modest advance. Now they were canceling the book and my work for the past year had been done in vain. I felt totally defeated.
I was such a rookie author in those years that I did not embrace the fact that “being banned by the United Methodists” was almost as good as “being banned in Boston.” When the news broke on the wire services that “The Methodist Publishing House was cancelling an Episcopal bishop’s book on sex,” within a week I had seven publishers bidding for the rights to publish this manuscript. One of the seven was my regular publisher Harper Collins, from whom I had gotten leave to write this book for Abingdon Press, one of their minor competitors. It was a simple choice for me to give them the book. So Living in Sin? came out, not in April of 1988, but in the fall of 1988. Harper deleted from the text only one line and that was in the preface, where I gave thanks to my editor, Michael Lawrence, at Abingdon Press. It now read that I gave thanks to my editor Michael Lawrence. It no longer designate the publishing house for which he worked. Nothing else was changed except the Harper Collins imprint replaced the Abingdon imprint.
In six months’ time, that book sold more copies than all the books I had written up to that point put together. I was suddenly in a very different category as an author. I went on my first media book tour. I would never again be a private person or an unknown bishop in my church. It was not always comfortable for me, but the chance to move my church along in that struggle for justice was worth all the tension, the hate mail and even the death threats with which I lived. A letter like yours affirms again the rightness of this cause.
The world has moved rapidly on this issue since 1988. The struggle is over, the battle has been won. Thirty-seven states in America now have legalized gay marriage. The Supreme Court will pronounce in June definitively, and if positive, as I anticipate, the issue will be settled politically once and for all. I am grateful that I had a chance to be a part of this great struggle in the cause of humanity and justice.
Commentary: The Origins of a Culture of Intimidation
To me, the most illuminating aspect of this story is the date.
This happened in 1988. One year earlier, Bristol House Books began in 1987 as a traditionalist parallel to Abingdon, taking some authors and business away from the denominational publishing house. Little wonder the Abingdon executives caved to the Texas church pressure as the threats likely would have become very real: restrictions on anything “promoting” homosexuality had been applied to the General Agencies since 1976 and could easily be extended to the Publishing House.
We see that traditionalists began creating their parallel reality within the UMC long ago. Along with the Mission Society (1984 parallel to the General Board of Global Missions) and the RENEW network (1989 parallel to UM Women), these conservative evangelicals seem to want both freedom and conformity. They wanted freedom to have their own parallel world where they make the rules with no accountability, but they also wielded their apportionments as a club to force the same denomination that they had broken up to conform to their values.
Today it is popular to point to Bishop Talbert and The Rev. Frank Schaefer as sowers of seeds of distrust and schism, but to do so is ignore that these emotions already went to seed in five years of 1984-1989–and have grown ever since. This book, the GBOD Human Sexuality forums in the late 1970s, and many other initiatives in the United Methodist Church to study human sexuality in a holistic way were silenced by churches allergic to the conversation and to other interpretations of Scripture, demanding the entire UMC avoid the conversation altogether.
Who knows what kind of holistic sexuality and spirituality might have transformed the UMC if things had gone a different way…