Copernicus. Galileo. Newton. Darwin. Freud. Spong?

Anglicanism begins and ends with The Book of Common Prayer.

Obviously, this volume is full of prayers -- morning prayers, evening prayers and prayers for all the times in between. There are hundreds of pages of prayers for Holy Communion, baptisms, ordinations, funerals and other events and most begin with "O God," "Heavenly Father," "Eternal Lord God" or similar phrases. The working assumption is that the God of the Bible hears these prayers and can answer them.

Wrong, argues America's most famous Episcopal bishop.

The Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong believes the time has come for intelligent Christians to grow up and admit there isn't a personal God of any kind on the receiving end of these prayers and petitions. The bishop of Newark fired this shot over the bow in a recent missive containing 12 theses, starting with: "Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead." The logical implication appears as his 10th thesis: "Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way."

Traditionalists will jeer him, writes Spong, just as they attacked Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Freud. Also, this call for what one bishop describes as a "virtual atheism" may cause fireworks in Canterbury at next month's once-a-decade Lambeth Conference of the world's Anglican bishops -- including Spong.

"The renewal of Christianity will not come from fundamentalism, secularism or the irrelevant mainline tradition" of Catholicism or Protestantism, writes Spong. "History has come to a point where only one thing will save this venerable faith tradition at this critical time in Christian history, and that is a new Reformation far more radical than Christianity has ever before known. ... This Reformation will recognize that the pre- modern concepts in which Christianity has traditionally been carried will never again speak to the post-modern world we now inhabit. This Reformation will be about the very life and death of Christianity."

After ditching theism, the bishop says it's "nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity." He rejects miracles in general, humanity's fall into sin and any belief that the Bible contains revealed, transcendent moral laws. He rejects the virgin birth, resurrection and ascension of Jesus as historical events.

In some of his most sweeping language, Spong writes: "The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed." Later he adds: "The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment."

Spong asked for open debate and 50 bishops responded with a letter publicly disassociating themselves from his views. "A bishop of the Episcopal Church," they note, "vows to guard and defend exactly the truths John Spong now denies. As a bishop he requires those he confirms and those he ordains to confess beliefs he himself now repudiates. Such self-contradiction is morally fraudulent and spiritually bankrupt."

The bishop of Newark's supporters cheerfully note that nearly 100 bishops have signed an earlier Spong statement opposing traditional church teachings on marriage and sex. As for the statement of disassociation, none of the 50 bishops dared to break communion with Spong or called for him to be disciplined. One Spong supporter, Father J. Michael Povey of Pittsfield, Mass., notes the bishop's Anglo-Catholic and evangelical critics didn't even call for public rites praying for the bishop's conversion. "I have to ask," adds Povey, "why is this statement so spiritually wimpy?"

The bottom line is that Spong yearns for a media-friendly trial and the candor it will force on his church. Also, bishops on an Episcopal court in 1996 -- hearing charges against one of Spong's assistant bishops -- decided that their church has no "core doctrines" on sex and marriage. However, the bishops said some "core doctrines" do exist, including doctrines that "God became incarnate in Jesus Christ," "Christ was crucified," "Christ rose again" and "There will be a day of judgment."

The question facing the Lambeth Conference is whether a specific bishop can get away with attacking the few specifics in Anglicanism's doctrinal core.