Greenbelt Interfaith News

    February 1998

    Frank Griswold Begins a Long Conversation
    The Episcopal Church's New Presiding Bishop Explores the Meaning of Leadership
    By Heather Elizabeth Peterson
    Greenbelt Interfaith News

    Part one of a two-part article.

    At eleven a.m. on January 9, the head of an American denomination walked into the common room of the College of Preachers in Washington, D.C.; the press was awaiting him there. A similar press conference had taken place across the street four months before; on that occasion, the man in question had been Archbishop Spyridon of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, and every Orthodox Christian in the room had immediately leapt to his feet. On this occasion, the man entering the room was Bishop Frank Griswold, the new presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America. The journalists, mainly from the Anglican press, nodded their greetings from where they sat.

    Where do you expect to lead the church? someone asked.

    "I hope to lead the church in the right direction," Bishop Griswold replied, to much laughter.

    It was an easy question for Bishop Griswold to answer; he had spoken on this matter many times since he was elected presiding bishop last summer. "Mine is a ministry of drawing people together in conversation," he said. In his first experience as the head of a rural church he had learned the danger of coming into a parish with all the answers prepared beforehand, he explained. "Over time it became very clear to me, largely because the congregation pulled ministry out of me, that I was not so much shaping and forming them as I was being shaped and formed by them, and that together we were discovering in a living way the Word of God in our midst."

    This experience, he said, shaped his vision of what it means to be a minister, and he expected his role as chief pastor of the Episcopal Church to be the same. "We're going to find the Word together, and it's not so much a question of Frank Griswold determining what needs to be done or what should be said, but Frank Griswold listening with care, and out of what is heard in the conversation with the community, then speaking."

    Of course, he added, tomorrow's service of investiture, in which he formally took on the role of presiding bishop, would be "hierarchal to the nth degree." But, he added hastily, "once I've taken off mitres and put down primatial staffs, I then function in a much more interactive way. And so we've got this funny tension between the figures we hold up and pay a certain deference to and at the same time we live in a very intimate and non-hierarchical way with those figures. How one balances moments of high ceremony with moments of availability to the community and this common search for the Word remains to be seen."

    Yes, indeed. For the investiture of Bishop Griswold as twenty-fifth presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church has raised many questions. Some of these questions have to do with the bishop's view of himself as being in the "radical center" of the denomination, a description that is supported by some but that is disputed by others. Some of the questions have to do with his specific stand on controversial issues within the Episcopal Church. But many of the questions center around a much deeper matter: What is Bishop Griswold's role as head of the Episcopal Church? How does one balance hierarchy with being part of the community? These are the questions faced by Bishop Griswold, and faced by the Episcopal Church as a whole, on the eve of the Presiding Bishop's investiture.


    In G. B. Trudeau's comic strip, Doonesbury, a fictionalized version of Gov. Jerry Brown once announced at a press conference, "The people want a leader. A leader today is someone who will represent their every whim."

    A reporter said, "I thought that was a follower." Whereupon Gov. Brown shot back, "The last shall be first. The first shall take New Hampshire."

    Behind the humor of the cartoon lies an important theological question, for "The last shall be first" is a quotation from Jesus. The Christian Bible is filled with quotations and anecdotes that show Jesus exerting his power in what can only be called an authoritarian manner. Yet the Gospel of John recounts a telling episode in which Jesus washed the feet of his twelve apostles. The apostle Peter, disconcerted at being approached in such a manner, declared firmly, "You shall never wash my feet" – and earned a rebuke from Jesus. "You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am," he told his followers. "If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet."

    Since the beginning of the Christian Church, then, tension has occurred as clergy have attempted to imitate Jesus and be both lords and servants. The question of what role clergy should play within Christendom was furiously argued at the time of the Protestant Reformation, when Luther asserted that all Christians are ministers. Yet Lutherans, like most Protestant denominations, chose to retain ordained clergy to serve as leaders. The Church of England, from which the Episcopal Church is descended, went further than most other denominations breaking from the Roman Catholic Church; it retained the tradition of three levels of clergy: deacons, priests, and bishops. Because of this hierarchy within a hierarchy, Anglicans such as Episcopalians have had an especially difficult time determining how much authority to give to their clergy.

    Some Anglican bishops have seen their role of leadership as a strong one; one such bishop was William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury in the seventeenth century. He used his power as spiritual head of the Church of England to bring about various reforms in church worship and to attack the Puritans whom he believed were destroying the Anglican Church. When he ordered that all of the nation's altars be placed in a fixed position against the back wall of the church, a practice that few churches followed at the time, even his supporters murmured that perhaps a little more flexibility would be desirable. The Puritans lost their battle over the altars – until they dealt with the matter by beheading Archbishop Laud during the English Civil War.

    Other bishops have been more cautious, and in the United States in particular the position of the bishop has always been a peculiar one, since many of the Episcopal Church's institutions are democratic. Despite this fact, the Episcopal Church, along with all other Anglican churches, has continued to insist that the existence of bishops is one of the essential doctrines of Christianity, and that a lifelong bishopric is not simply an office of convenience but a sacred calling. So strong is this conviction that attempts by the Episcopal Church to enter into full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America foundered last summer, largely over the question of what a bishop should be. The ELCA possesses bishops, but these are seen as ministers who have taken on temporary duties of leadership. The idea that bishops ought to be treated as essentially different from other ministers bothered many members of the ELCA, and when the vote for full communion was taken, the ELCA regretfully said no.

    So what is a bishop? What is this role of a shepherd of shepherds? What, indeed, is a presiding bishop, the "first among equals" of the American bishops? This has always been an important question, but never more so than now, when members of the Episcopal Church are severely divided over issues such as women's ordination and homosexuality. Many Episcopalians say that they are looking for a leader – but what they mean by a leader varies from person to person. And among all these varying opinions is the one that counts most: the opinion of Bishop Griswold himself, who will demonstrate the new presiding bishop's style of leadership in the months to come.


    At eleven a.m. on January 10, Bishop Griswold arrived at Washington National Cathedral and discovered that the doors were shut to him.

    He had expected this, of course. Raising his crozier – a bishop's staff in the form of a shepherd's crook – he knocked on the door three times. His predecessor, Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning, had been less authentic; instead of creating the sound of the knock himself, he had relied on the services of an official inside the cathedral who pounded a hammer against a block of wood.

    The knocks sounded in the cathedral as three muffled thumps. Bishop Browning, accompanied by other dignitaries, walked down the long central aisle of the cathedral that was lined by bishops from the Episcopal Church and fellow Anglican churches. The door were flung open, and Bishop Griswold was allowed inside in exchange for a few speeches.

    The ceremony was hierarchal, as Bishop Griswold had warned, but it can hardly have been said to be hierarchal to the nth degree. In fact, the entire service was planned to allow participation by the Episcopal laity and by visitors from the ecumenical and interfaith communities. Presents were given to Bishop Griswold – the Koran and Torah from the Muslim and Jewish communities; an icon, a Bible, and prayer books from other Christian communities . . . As the presents piled up, the focus began to shift from Bishop Griswold, acknowledging each gift with a short prayer, to the men, women, and children who walked forward to greet him.

    The service was intended, not only to celebrate the diverse world of faith and the diverse ministries of lay person, deacon, priest, and bishop, but also to celebrate the diversity of worship within the Episcopal Church. During the seventies, this diversity was acknowledged when the Episcopal Church published a prayer book that contained both traditional services and modern ones. The authors of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer had expressed the hope that the traditional and modern liturgies might be celebrated together, and this was the case at Bishop Griswold's investiture. Like a postmodern building, the liturgy of the investiture consisted of a pastiche of traditional, modern, and ethnic worship. At perhaps the most striking point of the service, Psalm 42 was sung by four different choirs in four different styles, from the traditional Anglican style made famous by English men's and boys' choirs to the style of African-American spirituals.

    The complexity of combining different styles of worship was demonstrated immediately before the reading of the Gospel of Mark. While the choirs and congregations sang a Zimbabwe Alleluia, the Deacon of the Gospel slowly danced forwards and backwards past a temporary altar placed in the midpoint of the cathedral (the sort of altar that Archbishop Laud had objected to). As the deacon rhythmically waved the Bible to and fro in the air, two candle-bearers stood in stiff formality nearby, waiting to escort her to the pulpit.

    Later reactions to the liturgy varied a great deal. Archbishop Michael Peers, primate (head) of the Anglican Church in Canada, was pleased by what he saw. "I thought the service was well-representative of the diversity of the [Episcopal] Church – the music in particular, with its blend of modern and traditional," he said. Another bishop, though, described the service as "too wordy." Lay guests were similarly divided in their opinions of the service. For Episcopalians who feel that such services show the beauty of the Episcopal Church's diversity, it was a splendid service; for those who believe that there are grave defects in either the traditional or the modern liturgy, or that the liturgies are incompatible with each other, the service was less satisfactory.

    For outside observers, it may have seemed a trivial matter to worry about, but for Episcopalians it goes to the heart of their theology. "Lex orandi, lex credendi" is a phrase often heard in the Episcopal Church – "The law of prayer is the law of belief." As the denomination declared formally last summer, the Episcopal Church's main sources of doctrine are the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer – thus any changes in worship affect the teachings of the church.

    It is for this reason that the Episcopal Church has fought most of its battles in the area of worship. Members of the denomination have not argued directly over whether women should be leaders in church life; they have argued over whether women should be ordained. Episcopalians have not argued directly over whether homosexuality is immoral; they have argued over whether practicing homosexuals should be ordained and whether same-sex unions should be blessed by the church.


    The question of liturgical diversity thus slides imperceptibly into the realm of theological diversity – and here too the planners of the presiding bishop's investiture were prepared. They took care to include traditionalists among those participating in the ceremony.

    And where does Bishop Griswold stand in all this controversy? He is a self-described moderate, but traditionalists grumble that this only shows how far left the center has shifted in the Episcopal Church. He is on record as supporting women's ordination, the ordination of practicing homosexuals, and the blessing of same-sex unions, but he has shied away from the angry rhetoric of some progressives, and he has declared he is eager for conversation with Episcopalians of every viewpoint.

    That such conversation is needed was made evident at the press conference, where Bishop Griswold was pelted with questions of how he would handle the worsening crises in the Episcopal Church. Bishop Griswold himself listed some of the more pressing matters he will be called upon to handle.

    *"Conversation with the dioceses that do not recognize the ministry of ordained women." Although the Episcopal Church has ordained women since 1976, a conscience clause allowed bishops to follow their beliefs in this matter. This clause was revoked by the church's national body last summer. Since then, traditionalist bishop William Wantland of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, has resigned rather than create further controversy in his diocese; at least one of the three other dissenting bishops has indicated that he will continue to oppose women's ordination in his diocese.

    *"The desire of some to establish separate provinces in the Episcopal Church." Not long after Bishop Wantland announced his coming resignation, Presiding Bishop Browning discovered that Bishop Wantland was heading an organization that has quietly been incorporating the historical name of the Episcopal Church, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. To Bishop Browning, these actions foretold of a coming schism, but such a schism already began last summer when a traditionalist organization, the Episcopal Synod of America, announced that the Episcopal Church had departed from orthodoxy and was no longer the true Anglican church of the United States.

    *"Human sexuality." Homosexuality is a topic that remains heavily debated in the Episcopal Church.

    *"Interfaith and ecumenical contacts." Bishop Griswold is especially noted for his ecumenical and interfaith work, another area of concern for some traditionalists, who worry that he is diluting the uniqueness of Anglicanism and of Christianity.

    In response to all of these traditionalist concerns, Bishop Griswold said at the press conference, "I am ready for conversation, and all one can do is open the door and say, 'Please come in, please sit down, and let's talk.' . . . I think, on the other hand, people have their own freedom. They can choose not to come in and talk, and there's no way you can compel them to. The door is open, and I do hope that some of those who feel alienated or devalued in the church will sit down, and possibly together we can find a new way to live in communion with one another."

    The question is: What sort of conversation is likely to take place? For traditionalists, certain fundamental Christian teachings must be accepted in order for conversation to occur, and determining these fundamentals is not easy; even traditionalists disagree amongst themselves over such matters as women's ordination. A representative of a traditionalist magazine tried at the press conference to pin Bishop Griswold down on his fundamental beliefs and received this reply:

    "Well, certainly that our salvation is in Jesus Christ, our risen Lord – that's where I would start. I would say that we encounter Christ – to borrow from St. Ambrose of Milan – face to face in the sacraments, that the sacraments shape and form us and mediate the presence of the risen Christ to us. I would say that Christ is the Lord of Scripture. . . . And also – we'll go back to truth for a moment – Jesus, or one could say properly, the Johannine Christ, makes it very clear that 'You cannot bear everything I have to say right now,' that truth is developmental. So my sense is, we're always growing in the truth, who is Christ, so we must listen carefully and discerningly to truth as it comes to us in a variety of ways and see that as part of the unfolding mystery of the risen Christ in our midst."

    Bishop Griswold's belief that truth comes in a variety of ways worries traditionalists, but conservative commentator Douglas LeBlanc sees hope in the bishop's all-embracing attitude toward truth. "A postmodernist approach, while hobbled by a sort of dogmatic relativism, at least opens a window for conservatives to make the best possible case for a vigorously scriptural Christianity," he said in an article written for the United Voice. "Even when welcomed only as one of many stories about 'faith journeys,' the gospel of orthodox Christianity wins converts, because it is objective truth and speaks to people's deepest needs."

    Progressives, on the other hand, worry that traditionalists simply are not interested in conversation – that they have preconceived notions as to what is orthodox Christianity and are not willing to consider the possibility that they are wrong.

    This attitude obviously concerns Bishop Griswold as well, though he sees the problem as arising on both sides. "What would happen if instead of leading with our opinions fully formed and our conclusions smartly arrayed, we addressed one another as brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, knit together by one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism; one God and Father of all?" he asked during his sermon at the investiture. "What would happen if instead of defensively declaring where we stand, we asked questions of one another such as, 'Who is Christ for you?' 'What does the church mean to you?' 'How have you been challenged to live the Gospel?' Are we afraid that if we asked such questions we might have to modify our position and make room for the ambiguity and paradox another person's truth might represent?"

    Communion with each other, said the presiding bishop, "is not a human construction but a divine gift that is not always easy to accept. Because of our sinfulness we find all sorts of ways, often noble and high sounding, to stand against it. Communion is realized only through a costly and excruciating process of conversion and a radical transformation of consciousness. 'Be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God,' Paul tells us in the Letters to the Romans."


    This, then, gives some indication of what the coming conversation will be like. It will be a conversation based on Scripture and tradition and reason, the three tenets of Anglican belief, but it will be a conversation by people with differing views of these tenets. Whether that is ground enough to support such a difficult conversation will become apparent in the months to come. Bishop Griswold's investiture, though, provided evidence to support the presiding bishop's belief in the "good will and generosity of spirit" that he has noticed in the Episcopal Church. The same bishop who had found the service's liturgy to be "too wordy" also noted the "joy" shown by the congregation's enthusiastic participation.

    "As I look at truth as one discovers it in the Gospels, truth is presented to us relationally," Bishop Griswold said at the press conference. "Jesus says, 'I am the truth,' and the only way to know the truth in Jesus is through relationship: I in you and you in me – the mutual indwelling, which certainly is supported by the whole sacramental system of the Church. It's all a question of relationship."

    For Bishop Griswold, the only answer to the present impasse between traditionalists and progressives is for Episcopalians to get to know each other through conversation, and it is his job to bring Episcopalians together to listen to each other's views. This is his tentative answer to what he admitted at the press conference is the "fundamental" question he must answer in the coming months: What does it mean to be the presiding bishop?

    Bishop Griswold's own thoughts on this question can be sensed in his lighthearted introduction to his sermon. "As some of you are aware," he said, "today is the commemoration of William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury: a primate of the seventeenth century whose views ecclesiastical and political, not to mention what we might call his leadership style, led to his being beheaded. Upon reflection I decided that it might be somewhat inauspicious to do more than include him discreetly among the saints and worthies in the eucharistic prayer."

    Bishop Griswold's leadership style will no doubt be different from Archbishop Laud's, but its potential for changing the Anglican churches is no less than that of the seventeenth-century primate. Archbishop Peers, himself a primate, sees Bishop Griswold as a pivotal figure in the coming conversation. "I thought the presiding bishop's sermon was very characteristic of him," he said afterwards. "It was personal, but the personal experience led to spiritual reflection, and from there to a reflection on the life of the whole church. I hope that his appeal for conversation will be heard – certainly he's a wonderful person to be in conversation with."

    Next Part

    Remarks at the Presiding Bishop's Press Conference. By the Most Rev. Frank Tracy Griswold, III.

    Related Articles

    U.S.: Lawsuit Brought Against Conservative Episcopal Group. By Heather Elizabeth Peterson. Pre-empting possible action by the Episcopal Church, two New Jersey bishops have entered a lawsuit against a conservative group that has been incorporating under the historic name of the denomination. (February 1998)

    Washington: Episcopalians Hold Different Views of Church's Future. By Heather Elizabeth Peterson. Two weeks after Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold stood in the pulpit of Washington National Cathedral and urged Episcopalians to join in conversation with each other, the Diocese of Washington's annual convention revealed continued differences of opinion between Episcopal progressives and traditionalists over the state of the denomination. (February 1998)

    Washington Feature: Visions, Not Arguments: Canada's Anglican Primate Seeks Unity and Inclusiveness. By Heather Elizabeth Peterson. "Our assurance and God's plan may not always be on the same track," Archbishop Michael G. Peers told an Episcopal congregation during a recent visit to Washington. In an interview with Greenbelt Interfaith News, the head of the Anglican Church of Canada speaks about better ways for the world's Anglicans to achieve unity and inclusiveness. (July 31, 1997)

    U.S. Feature: The Quiet Revolution: How a Heresy Trial Has Rocked the Episcopal Church. By Heather Elizabeth Peterson. Last year, an Episcopal bishop was tried for heresy after he ordained a practicing homosexual. Recent events show that Episcopalians continue to be deeply divided over gay issues. (June 1, 1997)

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