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Presiding bishop holds up church’s 'diverse center'

By David Skidmore
[Episcopal News Service] 

On the eve of what promises to be historic debate on the Episcopal Church’s doctrine and order, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold emphasized the importance of listening to the church’s “diverse center” in the convention’s opening news conference.

“One thing I am deeply aware of in our churches is what I like to call the 'diverse center' in which different perspectives, a presence of the overarching sense of, like it or not, we are members of one body and that is our larger value,” said the presiding bishop. “It is unfortunate that most of the air time is claimed by those on either extreme.”

In the airing of these polar views, the church’s moderate yet diverse center is forgotten, he said. Yet, he said this center “is the fundamental reality of the church.” Although holding different opinions on issues facing the church, these lay members and clergy are able to stay in fellowship, grounding their identity through their baptism.

With rhetoric building in the church and media over consent to the election of the Rev. Gene Robinson as bishop coadjutor of New Hampshire, the church’s first openly gay bishop-elect, and over consideration for developing rites for blessing same-sex unions, the presiding bishop’s role and views on these matters is under intense scrutiny. Asked repeatedly by reporters on how he might vote on the Robinson consent, Griswold said to do so would be “premature and singularly inappropriate.” 

He does not want to shortchange the work of the Holy Spirit which often can move people to surprising changes, he said, recalling a Dallas deputy coming to the 1976 convention opposed to revising The Book of Common Prayer and ending up the one making the motion to adopt the revision.

Griswold, acknowledging that he is among the bishops voting on the bishop-elect consents because he oversees the Convocation of American Churches in Europe, also cited the influence of his office as a reason to keep his views private. “I am the overseer of a process. I will have my own perspective and my own opinions,” he said. “But I think it would be singularly unhelpful to my brothers and sisters in the House of Bishops to state my position.”

His statement was in stark contrast to the nation’s leader, President George W. Bush, who just hours earlier during a White House news conference expressed his hope for legislation defining marriage as limited to a man and a woman. “I believe in the sanctity of marriage. I believe a marriage is between a man and a woman. And I think we ought to codify that one way or the other. And we've got lawyers looking at the best way to do that,” said Bush after a reporter asked him on his opinion on homosexuality.

As to the possibility of a rift or schism in the Anglican Communion were the convention to consent to Robinson’s election or authorize the development of proposed rites for same-sex blessings, Griswold echoed some of the same points he made in a letter to Anglican primates before the convention. Each province must interpret the Gospel in light of its own context and culture, he wrote the primates, and interpret scriptural passages in light of its particular reality.

In his response to reporters at the news conference, Griswold noted that the role of gays and lesbians in the church’s life is perceived through different filters. One perspective is “a deep sense that these people are part of our reality” and “co-ministers in the mission of Christ.” For others, the notion of having affections for a person of the same sex runs contrary to Scripture. Yet, it is important to note, he said, that scripture “is never read neutrally. All readings of Holy Scripture encompass interpretation.”

On the matter of same-sex blessings, Griswold corrected what he termed a consistent misrepresentation in the press over the California resolution on developing rites for blessing committed relationships of two people living outside holy matrimony. It is not a resolution on blessing same-sex unions, as reported in the media, he said. The resolution calls for the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) to develop rites for consideration at the next General Convention in 2006, and until that decision three years from now “all of this is open to debate and discussion.”

Joining the presiding bishop were Bishop James Jelinek of Minnesota, host bishop for the convention; the Rev. Canon George Werner, president of the House of Deputies;  and the Rev. Rosemary Sullivan, the convention’s executive officer.

Asked about the impact of the landslide vote for Robinson in New Hampshire, Griswold said the church has historically tended to honor the persons chosen by dioceses for their bishops, citing the example of bishops receiving consents who are opposed to the ordination of women. Despite opposition to their views, “their elections were not undermined."

In response to a question on the few women preaching and presiding at the convention Eucharists, Griswold noted the number of slots were limited since he would be preaching at four services and had also asked Werner and Sullivan to preach. By tradition he also presides at the opening and closing Eucharists. Two women are presiding in addition to Sullivan preaching, he added.

Sullivan said her office strove to ensure there was diversity of gender, age and order in liturgical ministry and thought the mix “will work very well given limitations of a 10-day process." 

Werner, who has attended conventions since 1970, noted that it can be difficult to predict how the convention may act on crucial issues. At the 1976 convention, the resolution opening priesthood to women nearly failed by just three votes in the House of Deputies, he said. Admitting the process can be frustrating and “many times sinful,” it is also often graceful, he said, and much preferable to a system where a presiding bishop or pope is vested with sole authority.

“We will enjoy our house,” said Werner. “We are the house of passion and fun and unexpected things.”