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Text of presiding bishop's orientation address

7/29/2003
[Episcopal News Service] 

Presentation to General Convention
The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold

My dear brothers and sisters: we have long anticipated this moment, this privileged time during which we will seek, as best we can – knowing we are fallible and finite human beings – to discern God’s desire for this curious yet wonderful household we call the Episcopal Church.  We come from various dioceses, and congregations within those dioceses – each with their own particular culture and point of view.  And we need one another. We need the gift of one another’s perspective, one another’s way of articulating the Gospel and seeking to be faithful, because Christ is present among us all, and each of us holds within the love of God’s calling to us, some aspect of God’s truth that is seeking to be enlarged in communion with others. What a solemn and hopeful moment this is: full of possibility.

The first General Convention I attended was in this very city in 1976. I was a new deputy from the Diocese of Pennsylvania. Quite frankly, it was a profoundly disorienting experience. I had never been with so many Episcopalians in one place possessed of so many points of view. Furthermore, I was made a sergeant-at-arms and told that my function was to discipline unruly members of the assembly. One evening the members of the Pennsylvania deputation presented me with a football helmet and a toilet plunger, thinking that these particular items might be useful in some way as I performed my duties. 

More seriously, I remember a deputy from the Diocese of Dallas: Ralph Spence, Sr. who had come, by his own admission, to vote against the adoption of the new Prayer Book. You can imagine my surprise when, in the course of the Convention, he stood up as a member of the Prayer Book and Liturgy Committee and urged us to adopt the very book he had come to defeat.  This was for me a cautionary tale. Many of us arrive at General Convention with fully formed opinions and a clear sense of what we think ought to happen. And yet, as we listen to one another, as our rough edges are knocked off by one another, as we participate in various debates, and committee meetings and random conversations, something larger than our own perspective overtakes us. Possibly it is the larger vision of the Spirit. And our attitude and perspectives, and indeed our firmly held notions of what should happen, are enlarged.

After Mr. Spence had delivered his speech he added that he didn’t know what he was going to tell his wife about this change of heart when he got home. John Coburn, the then president of the House of Deputies, leaned into the microphone and, in his wonderfully wry and gentle way, said: “Do give our regards to Mrs. Spence,” at which point the deputies burst into laughter, including Mr. Spence. I have heard since from John Coburn that Mrs. Spence loved that story. 

So this is just one example of how important it is for us to hold ourselves open to what God may be up to. Perhaps the most important thing we can do is to lay down some of our certitude in favor of the ever-unfolding truth of God, which comes to us from the Spirit of truth, who is always guiding us more deeply into the mystery of Christ and God’s strange and unpredictable ways.

Let us not overlook the fact that the life of this Convention is rooted and grounded in daily encounter with the risen Christ in word and sacrament. And let us also be mindful of the fact that we are being upheld in prayer by brothers and sisters who are across this land, and in other parts of our Communion, and very likely also by many saints in heaven and on earth.

As we come together we bring with us a number of emotions.  We bring with us hope and possibility, and also anxiety. What some among us see as the discovery of God’s larger purposes, others see as threats to the integrity of the Gospel.  It is therefore extremely important, no matter what our point of view may be, that we receive one another and the perspectives we bring with profound respect, recognizing that each of us, whether we like it or not, through baptism is a much loved member and limb of Christ’s risen body.  None of us – to echo the words of St. Paul – can say to another “I have no need of you.”  This is perhaps the greatest challenge before us, and perhaps our greatest opportunity to receive the unimaginable gifts of God’s love for us through each other.

The focus of this Convention is engaging God’s mission.  And what is God’s mission? Our Prayer Book makes it quite clear that the mission of the church, which is, of course, God’s mission, is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.  This work of reconciliation embraces all things and involves us personally, as congregations, dioceses, a national church and a worldwide Communion, and also focuses us on the world.  The Son of God came among us not to save the church but the world. Therefore reconciliation, the mission of the church, God’s work, is global in scope and embraces the whole creation.  Here I am put in mind of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John: and I when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all to myself.   

As we come together, it is important that we ask ourselves this question: what is our particular charism as Anglican Christians at this moment in history?  We might begin by looking at how we find ourselves right now. In other words, what sort of church is gathering?  Looking at these questions might give some indication of the shape, and spirit and potential fruit of these next ten days.  I have been the Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church for nearly six years now, and I want to tell you briefly something of what I have learned about who we are together as limbs and members of Christ’s risen body.

Everywhere I go I have seen what I like to call graced confidence: the people of our church are focused on mission. Amazing things are happening in the name of Christ all around our church. And, more and more we are reaching out to share our tradition, the truth as in Jesus, the story of how God is acting in our lives. The 20/20 movement serves us well in naming the mission energies all around the church, and in so doing I believe greater energies are being released and we are further empowered to reach out to a world crying out for repair.  Episcopalians are actively engaged in matters of public policy and social justice. We are committed to overcoming the sin of racism within ourselves, within our church, and within our society.  We have also been on the forefront of work on debt relief, on HIV/AIDS, environmental stewardship, ethical decision making around matters of life and death, and peace making in many of the troubled places around our world. Simply taking note of the matters that will be before us over these next ten days gives us an incredible indication of the breadth, and the depth, of our concerns as a church.

And of course, not everyone has the same passions.  That is the wonder of it; we each have our own unique call and particular gifts, and during this time we can inform and inspire one another for the engaging of God’s project.

It is also my sense that we want to do more. I am very gratified and inspired by the stewardship of our dioceses and congregations in support of the mission opportunities that surround them.  I might say here that, at the same time, I am concerned that there is no national effort at fund raising to enhance the work of dioceses and congregations.  Further, we make very little effort to cultivate the large gifts that are never received at local levels.  It is my sense that a national church has a particular responsibility for this kind of endeavor. 

By the time I leave office in 2006, I believe we must be able better to support the mission we share by having in place an ongoing, long term, development effort functioning at the national level. This kind of effort needs to be part of the consciousness of the church, last into the future, and help provide for the future. 

In this triennium, the Executive Council determined the wisdom of beginning to look at a plan or process for mission funding.  I will ask the new Executive Council to enter a discussion about how we might best explore the establishment of an ongoing national development effort we now lack.  As well, I am personally going to test whether there are donors who stand ready to support the national mission of our church.

We receive an important part of our identity by being members of the worldwide Anglican Communion.  I have traveled to other parts of the Communion and have come to know our Anglican partners in their own contexts with all the overwhelming issues of life and death with which they live day by day.  This has made me value evermore the fact that we are not a church unto ourselves but part of a worldwide fellowship called to bear one another’s burdens and, in the words of St. Paul, so fulfill the law the Christ.  With this in mind we are particularly blessed by the presence of our guests from various parts of our Communion who are here with us at this Convention.  A very warm welcome to you all.

Professor David Ford of Cambridge University has provided theological reflections for the past several meetings of the primates of the Anglican Communion. During one of our gatherings he said that we are in the process of becoming a communion.  I see more and more that communion is not a human construction but a gift from God which involves not only our relationships to one another on earth, but our being drawn by the Holy Spirit into the eternal life of communion which belongs to the Holy Trinity. We are discovering in fits and starts what it means to live in communion, and our communion is always impaired, because of our limited understanding of God’s ways and because of our human sinfulness. However, we have been baptized into one body and maintaining communion is therefore a sacred obligation.  In practicing the communion Christ has prepared for us, we are opened ever anew to receive the endless mercy and holiness of the Trinity.  I say this knowing very well indeed that living in communion is not always easy and requires of us all a deep desire to understand the different ways in which we seek to be faithful to the Gospel.  Declarations of being “in” or “out” of communion may assuage our own fears, or our angers, but they do not reflect the gospel.  They do not show our broken and needy world that at the heart of the gospel there is a reconciling love that seeks to embrace our passionately held opinions and transcend them all.  Christ, writes St. Paul, died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

So, this is some of my sense of who we are and who we are called to be as we engage God’s mission and open ourselves to further ways of articulating the good news of God in Christ.

At this particular moment, it might be also be instructive to remember that we are inheritors of a theological tradition born out of conflict. The 16th century was a difficult time in which opposing theological points of view warred with one another. On the one hand there were the values of the Catholic tradition, and on the other the passions of zealous reformers. Each group was sure that the truth was theirs.  However, in the context of common prayer, and a joint yielding to the yoke of Christ mediated by word and sacrament, these opposing  points of view found the place of their reconciliation, and gave birth to the Anglican tradition.  This was not because either won over the other, but because God graced them to step beyond their positions and recognize one another as brothers and sisters in the breaking of the bread. The genius of Anglicanism was to contain divergent and passionately held points of view. This capacity to contain difference within a context of common prayer is who we as Anglicans are called to be.  And this is the charism we bring to this present moment.

These Anglican sensibilities are particularly needed in a world dominated by notions of winning or losing, yes or no, either/or. Unfortunately we are not immune to the ways of the world, and the thinking that so dominates our culture spills over into our community of faith.   And yet, I deeply believe that having the mind of Christ means we are able to see reality not as either/or but as both/and.  Both/and thinking is reflected in Christian orthodoxy at its best.  Here I think of the classical doctrine of the nature of Christ established in the fifth century when heresies which held that Christ was either human or divine were overruled by a church council that chose the route of both/and, declaring Christ to be both fully human and fully divine.   The logic of the heretics was overruled by the paradox of orthodoxy.

Of course, practically speaking: we will say yes or no on many matters over these next days. Some of them have the potential to be very divisive. Predictably, the topic of homosexuality has received the most media attention prior to our coming together, and has also been a focus of some of our internal life. I am very aware that there is a great deal of energy on the part of those with various views of the question.   Some perceive this as an absolutely decisive moment, and the time for resolving all of the pertinent issues about homosexuality in the life of the church. Here I think it is important that we remind ourselves that the church is always, in some sense, becoming the church, and is continuing to grow toward maturity in Christ.  Therefore, anything we do or decide is partial and incomplete, though we hope and pray that it reflects something of the truth into which the Holy Spirit is always seeking to guide us.  My prayer is that this Convention will be part of a continuing process of discovery and growth.

I note here that the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops produced a report called The Gift of Sexuality: A Theological Perspective. The report was offered to the church by the bishops for study and reflection.  It does not seek to provide an answer to the question of homosexuality in the life of the church.  Rather, it seeks to describe how the church behaves as the church in the face of deeply held contrary points of view, both of which perceive themselves as reflecting the mind of Christ.

It is my own conviction that different points of view can be held in tension within the church without issues of sexuality becoming church dividing. Others may disagree but this is my firmly held point of view.  This is also the view of the House of Bishops Theology Committee and of the International Anglican Conversation on Human Sexuality that I convened following the Lambeth Conference of 1998 at the request of the Archbishop of Canterbury.  This international group included twelve bishops and primates who represented a broad range of views and met over a three-year period.  Their conclusion was that if matters of homosexuality were to divide the Communion, it would be, to quote from the report, “the ultimate sexualization of the Church, making sexuality more powerful, or more claiming of our attention, than God.”

We have heard people on both sides of a number of contentious questions say that their particular view is in accordance with Scripture, whereas the opposing view is not.  There is no such thing as a neutral reading of Scripture.  While we all accept the authority of Scripture, we interpret various passages in different ways.  It is extremely dishonoring of the faith of another to dismiss them as not taking the Bible seriously. Let us be clear that we can all agree that, in the words of the ordination oath, “we believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God and to contain all things necessary to salvation.”

In addition, I think it is terribly important that we keep our perspective large and focused on God’s mission for the whole church.  It is easy for one or two issues so to dominate the horizon that other aspects of what it means to be the people of God, living the rigors of the Gospel, are overshadowed or lost.  Whenever we find our hearts and minds profoundly dominated by some thought, it is often helpful to pause and test the spirits, as St. John recommends.  In this age of instant communication, and superficial analysis that sometimes accompanies it, the possibility of the whole landscape being taken over by what most tugs at emotions is even greater.  It is up to us all to make sure that this does not happen.  Be aware: we have that choice. We have that freedom.  And I believe we have that responsibility.

As I said at the outset, we have been provided with a solemn and hopeful moment, full of possibility.  Paul describes the church in Corinth as “God’s field,” a field ripe with potentiality and the possibility of fruitfulness.  In a profound sense this General Convention is God’s field in which God not only sows but seeks to produce a rich harvest. 

I want to say a word here about the ministry I exercise as your Presiding Bishop and Primate, and particularly as your Chief Pastor. Mine is a ministry of encouragement in which I call us all, including myself, to step beyond our deeply held perspectives and fears and to risk a genuine encounter with Christ in the other, in the full force of their otherness and contrary perspectives.

I also see myself as being a minister of connection and communion. I believe we are called to bring all voices together in one conversation, acknowledging the fact that truth is discovered in communion, in community, and none of us possesses the fullness of Christ’s truth. We need one another to enlarge, and in some instances challenge, one another’s more limited and often self-serving notions of the truth.

I have my own points of view, to be sure, and some have been disappointed that I have not expressed them more forthrightly. I, however, have felt that I am called to be the servant of the community as it struggles to discern evermore deeply the truth as it is in Christ. Though I pray that I might be given the mind of Christ, I am profoundly aware that, along with the apostle Paul, now I see in a mirror dimly. Now I know only in part. That in the face of this unknowing I must cling to the fact that faith, hope and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.  My deepest desire is to be in some small way a minister of the divine agape which can overrule all our disagreements, all our sinfulness, and make us one in the profound charity which is the inner life of God the holy Trinity.

During these past months a prayer has crossed my path from several sources, which made me feel that the prayer was meant to become my own.  It is the prayer of Philaret, a Russian bishop of Moscow in the 19th Century, and I pray it now with you at the beginning of this Convention.

Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace.
Help me in all things to rely on your holy will.
In every hour of the day reveal your will to me.
Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul, and with firm conviction that your will governs everything.
In all my deeds and words guide my thoughts and feelings.
In unforeseen events let me not forget that all are sent by you.
Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others.
Give me the strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring.
Direct my will.  Teach me to pray. Pray yourself in me.

May God indeed guide us in the days ahead, and may we be given the grace to act firmly and wisely without embittering and embarrassing others. And in every hour of the day, and in every decision we are called to make, may God in Christ through the agency of the Holy Spirit reveal God’s deepest desire and give us the courage and strength to live it for the sake of the world. May we also emerge from our time together strengthened in our own faith, renewed by the power of God’s reconciling love, and changed in ways that at this point can hardly be imagined.  May God’s love ever more deeply convert us. May Christ ever more fully engage us in the ongoing work of reconciliation. And may God the Holy Spirit ever more completely pray within us the joyful unity of Christ’s risen life.

Thank you.