I was handed a book in 1983 called Into the Whirlwind by John Shelby Spong. I was a second-year theological student at St. John’s College in Auckland and was engaged, in the best traditions of student activism, with the major social and political issues of the time. We marched, we wrote, we debated, we yelled, we were arrested, we were a holy pain in the neck. What we didn’t expect was any bishop anywhere to publicly agree with us.

Bishops are guardians and teachers of the faith, “the faith” being the agreed upon teachings of the Church. They also are meant to keep as many of their flock as possible secure and content, most of the time. This is what too many think pastoral care means. And while bishops can be quietly supportive of activists (which was my experience, mostly) they will seldom join you at the “barricades.”

Jack was a different kind of bishop. He knew the socio-political winds that were blowing. He saw the Church resisting, chugging straight into them, and many members disillusioned and abandoning ship. He saw church attendance in his diocese decrease by half in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Jack’s response, firmly grounded in his understanding of Scripture and the role of the bishop to be at the forefront, was to raise a sail of change and tack with the winds. He spoke truth into his and our context, and bore the cost of that.

Nowadays we might think championing religious pluralism, queer rights and ministry, sexual intimacy outside of heterosexual marriage, and women’s leadership, and challenging endemic racism would not be that controversial in late twentieth century America. But for a bishop to give voice to such challenges, and then to act on such voice, was to invite unbelievable vitriol, violence, and death threats. There is a murky seething underbelly to religion that when poked by change or challenge is very ugly. When Jack ordained the first openly gay man in the Episcopal Church in 1989 all hell broke loose. And Jack and his family weathered that.

Jack’s strength was three-fold. Firstly, he knew his Bible forwards and backwards. He would take the verses his adversaries threw at him and gently and reasonably explain those verses differently. He related the big motifs in the Bible—like liberation from slavery, upending conventions and expectations, the close relationship between faith and courage—and applied them to his day and its issues. As he once wrote, “I treasure the Bible. I live in it and work on it all the time. But it is not the word of God. It’s the tribal story of a particular people, and the best thing about that story is that the story keeps growing and evolving.

Jack believed in a God of compassion and self-less love. Again, in his words, “God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist. All of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God. I honour my tradition, I walk through my tradition, but I don’t think my tradition defines God, I think it only points me to God.”

Jack’s strength was knowing how to justify such a statement like this by reference to the very Bible that his critics tried to impale him with.

Secondly, Jack was a wonderful communicator. He wasn’t a theologian in the strict sense of that word. He read widely and popularized others’ research and thoughts, like a good preacher does. His theological ground was in the mediaeval universalism of Peter Abelard and the existentialism of Paul Tillich. Where Jack excelled was in his ability to write clearly, succinctly, and accessibly for the general public. His focus was always explaining the faith to those outside it, and those who once were in it.

What used to puzzle me was how he found time as a bishop to write. While serving as the bishop of Newark he wrote eleven books (and also, I might add, cared for his then very sick wife). American bishops, like their New Zealand counterparts, work huge hours trying to meet huge demands. He told me his diocese used to give him three months leave every year to read and write. What a debt of gratitude we owe that diocese and those who picked up his duties during that time!

Jack also took risks in his writing. He wouldn’t just communicate the understandings of broad middle Protestantism (like debunking a literal heaven and hell, or a literal virgin, or a bloody sacrificial death to save souls, or a physical resurrection), but he’d go out on a limb and posit ideas like Jesus being married, or Paul being gay—ideas that are interesting but conjecture. Again, this is not something bishops do. They don’t do conjecture.

And thirdly, Jack was a wonderful pastor. He was a kind man. When he visited a church, like when he visited St. Matthew-in-the-City when I was the vicar there, he would make it his business to find out about the church, what the issues were, the problems were, and how the minister was faring. Then he would do something that I’ve never seen a New Zealand bishop do. He would stand up in front of that congregation and praise the minister. And not just using one sentence. He made you feel like someone just gave you a million dollars. He was a great encourager.

Jack was also kind to his critics. I’ve been in a number of public forums with him where some critics have been angry and even nasty. He never responded similarly. Always patient. Always gentle. Always thoughtful. I do know, though, that away from the spotlight, he would despair about the institutional church and many of its leaders.

Jack’s ideas about God continued to evolve after he retired in 2000. He wrote, “I think that anything that begins to give people a sense of their own worth and dignity is God.” This is how he expressed his non-theist belief that God is not a noun that demands to be defined, but a verb that invites us to live life to its fullest, love wastefully, and be all we can be.

Lastly, Jack was a very brave person. As he wrote, “When the dust settles and the pages of history are written, it will not be the angry defenders of intolerance who have made the difference. The reward will go to those who dared to step outside the safety of their privacy in order to expose and rout the prevailing prejudices.” Jack was one who dared.

Kua hinga te Totara o Te Waonui a Tāne. Haere ra e Jack.[i] We honour you, friend, pioneer, lover of life and truth.

Rev. Glynn Cardy is the minister of St Luke’s Presbyterian Church in Remuera, Auckland, New Zealand.
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[i] This translates as “The tōtara in the great forest of Tāne has fallen. Farewell Jack.” The image of a huge Totara tree falling is how the indigenous Maori tribes of Aotearoa honour the death of a great leader.