When Frank T. Griswold stepped into the pulpit of Washington National Cathedral on Jan. 10, 1998, the Episcopal Church was weathering widening fissures over the role of gays and lesbians in its life, pondering its next move following the narrow rejection by Lutherans of a full communion agreement and searching for the gas pedal to the Decade of Evangelism.
In his first words at his investiture as the 25th presiding bishop, Griswold looked beyond these issues to the larger challenge of living out mission -- rebuilding relationships with each other and with God.
He recalled a visit to Assisi, Italy, and his encounter with the Crucifix of San Damiano, from which St. Francis heard Christ call him to rebuild the church. That encounter, confirmed later in a conversation with a nun, convinced Griswold that his focus would be the same as St. Francis’ -- but that the rebuilding would be the work of all the baptized. In his sermon, he called the church a relationship to be lived, a communion and fellowship that in every age is “rebuilt and reformed out of the struggles and witness and compromised fidelity of its members.”
Looking back, Griswold said he believes his message has resonated with many. People are reaching beyond their comfort zones, the four walls of their parish church, with what he describes as “undefended hearts” to forge partnerships with other Anglican congregations and dioceses, to share ministry with other faith groups and to welcome faith seekers.
Growing the church — whether in membership or resources — is one aspect of rebuilding, but the focus for Griswold is really about a spiritual transformation. “Rebuilding the church really has more to do with connecting, reconciling, being transformed as far as one’s consciousness of who one’s brother and sister is and what our relationships are across the globe,” he said.
Personal and corporate challenges
For him, this work is fueled by a Benedictine perspective, “the whole notion that we are always in the process of conversion, we are always being stretched, we are always being undone and refashioned by what life presents to us or the challenges we have to live through, and this is both personal and as communities of faith.”
There has been no shortage of challenges and consciousness-stretching events in his term as presiding bishop, beginning with the 1998 Lambeth Conference and extending to the recent election of his successor, Katharine Jefferts Schori. In the wake of the 2003 election, consent and consecration of V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as bishop of New Hampshire, skirmishing between the church’s progressive and conservative wings intensified and has been amplified by conservative primates and bishops of other Anglican provinces.
Griswold acknowledges “very difficult moments” have marked his term. But he is no less confident than he was nine years ago that the church is home to a generosity of spirit and of a people willing “to look for Christ in one another no matter how buried Christ might be behind a façade of difference that might be challenging or unsettling,” he said.
The divisions he has lived with as presiding bishop will be there when Jefferts Schori takes office on Nov. 4 and will continue, he said. But the church and the world also should know, he said, “there is an immense reserve of good will and a passionate desire to be about mission, reconciliation, peacemaking, serving the poor that is at the heart of the Episcopal Church.”
Taking mission to heart
Whether via volunteer teams traveling to the Gulf Coast to muck out homes flooded by Hurricane Katrina, peace vigils for Darfur and the Holy Land or the outpouring of donations for tsunami victims in South Asia, Episcopalians have taken that mission to heart. That has been a comforting revelation for Griswold as he travels around the church. “My efforts have always been to stretch the consciousness and help us understand intimately how brother and sister Christians living in a very different context are seeking to be faithful to the same gospel,” he said.
The church today is more mission-minded and committed to ministry with other Anglicans because of Griswold’s leadership, Jefferts Schori said. “His great legacy is a church increasingly focused on God’s mission in the world, and that reconciling bent will certainly shape our journey into the future.”
Opportunities for conversation
A key learning experience, and one Griswold has worked hard to share, has been appreciating the rich diversity and witness of the global Anglican Communion. The Rev. Ian Douglas, professor of world mission and global Christianity at Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, Mass., and a consultant to the presiding bishop and House of Bishops, said he believes Griswold became more invested in the Anglican Communion than any other presiding bishop, and at a time when Anglican provinces in the developing world have been asserting their independence from the Western church.
The current divisions would have come to the fore regardless of who was presiding bishop, said Douglas. Griswold’s unique contribution, he said, has been “to provide space within the church, particularly in the House of Bishops and, I would hope, within the broader Anglican Communion for us to have conversations in the midst of the increasingly acute realization of the differences we embody.”
Griswold furthered the conversation by asking other Anglican primates or overseas bishops to participate in meetings of bishops and asking other primates or archbishops to preach at General Convention.
“He wouldn’t dare have a House of Bishops meeting without other significant voices being present,” said Douglas. “Some of whom were not necessarily easy voices that were marching down the same path as the Episcopal Church.”
This commitment to conversation and openness to conversion took Griswold and his wife Phoebe -- a key force in advancing women’s status globally and as leaders in the communion -- to Anglican churches in 20 countries, some home to the presiding bishop’s harshest critics. Griswold made extensive visits to Nigeria in 2002 and Uganda in 2003, provinces whose primates Peter Akinola and Henry Luke Orombi severed official relations with the church after the 2003 General Convention.
Griswold remained strongly committed to supporting Anglican churches in the developing world throughout his primacy, even in the face of immense pressure and criticism, said Archbishop Robin Eames, primate of Ireland and chair of the Lambeth Commission on Communion, which authored the Windsor Report.
“He has not allowed controversial issues in the wider communion to erode this influence, and I have personally admired him greatly for this,” said Eames. “He has sought to explain the internal problems of the Episcopal Church to the outside world with consistency and courage. The response he has received has varied greatly, but none can doubt his courage and personal integrity.”
Living his theology
Griswold’s perseverance on a ministry of reconciliation may be his most valuable service as presiding bishop, said Bishop John Lipscomb of the Diocese of Southwest Florida. In both actions and statements, Lipscomb said, “he has at least kept that theme in front of the church in such a way that you have to deal with it. People can ignore it, they can embrace it, but they still have to deal with it.”
Many observers credit Griswold’s commitment to engage others holding differing views to his spiritual grounding. His combination of a strong devotional discipline and skills as a theologian helped him connect with people of varying perspectives and levels of involvement in the church, Jefferts Schori said.
More than anything, Griswold is “a person of prayer,” she said. “Everything he speaks and writes flows from an active prayer life.” Said Douglas, “A word I would use to describe Frank Griswold is awareness. He knows who he is. I think he knows who God in Jesus Christ is, and thus is not a person of great anxiety or a person who is blown easily with the wind.”
“He [Griswold] has consistently maintained a nonanxious presence and consistently urged us to take a long view,” said Bishop Chilton Knudsen of Maine. His gifts of “calm centeredness, articulate and measured speech, and high theological acumen” served the church particularly well in a time of pronounced tension, she said.
Griswold’s emphasis on spiritual development when he was bishop of the Diocese of Chicago made its mark on him, said the Rev. Canon Mark McIntosh, now canon theologian to the presiding bishop and chaplain to the House of Bishops. McIntosh was a curate in Chicago at that time.
“Every Lent, Bishop Griswold made it a custom to take a week off for a spiritual retreat, a practice he has continued as presiding bishop. I don’t know many bishops who do make a commitment of a week like that every year, especially during Lent.”
Credits spiritual grounding
Former Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning said he had no doubt that Griswold’s spiritual grounding enabled him to stay focused on mission these past nine years. “He relies on his ministry by the strength of his prayer life, and I wouldn’t say that about everyone,” said Browning.
The first meetings of bishops that Griswold were really retreats, said retired Suffragan Bishop Arthur Williams of the Diocese of Ohio. “He moved us in a direction that brought us together as a House of Bishops. We were able to function more effectively.”
As president of the House of Bishops, Griswold demonstrated his gift as “a real teacher,” said Douglas. “I mean that in the deepest sense of guide and mentoring presence, rather than some kind of dry lecturer.”
The spiritual resourcing he provided, principally through restoring the theology committee, helped to move the bishops “from what might have been a more fractious group into, as Frank often described it, a community of wisdom,” said Douglas. Though he is reluctant to term it a gift — because, he said, that implies possession – he agrees that teaching is his passion.
“I love to try to take the Christian experience and open it up in a way that seems vital and live in people’s experiences,” he said. “Certainly in the role of bishop dealing with bishops, I am anxious to get below the level of institutional function to the place where mystery and encounter occur.”
One result has been more theological grounding in the bishops’ discussions and its ownership of the teaching ministry, he said. That enabled them in the weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to issue a pastoral letter calling for Episcopalians to “wage reconciliation” as an antidote to fear, retribution and the crushing poverty of the two-thirds world. Griswold, the impetus behind the letter, traced his inspiration to what he considers the defining event of his primacy: another encounter with a cross, this time in St. Paul’s Chapel across from where the World Trade Center stood.
Walking into the chapel four days after the towers fell, Griswold was drawn to a brass crucifix whose arms he sensed “could contain all the horror, destruction and grief and anger that were just beyond the walls of the church.” He recalled the words of the prayer for mission from Morning Prayer, which speaks of Christ’s arms stretched out on the cross and asks for the petitioner to be clothed in the Spirit.
“In some of the more difficult moments, some of the more challenging moments, particularly dealing with people who are angry or upset, I just think of that prayer,” he said, “and I think of Jesus being beside [me], as it were, extending his arms and being able to embrace whatever anger or upset is coming toward me.”
As for second thoughts about any of his actions as presiding bishop, Griswold said he realized some of his decisions sparked “controversial reactions.” Nevertheless, he said, he is confident he acted on what he believed was right.
If he has one regret, it is that he had too little time to spend with members of the church, particularly in those overseas Anglican churches he visited. “That is the sadness,” he said. “Every visit I have made, I have wanted to stay longer.”