COLUMBUS, OH: Outgoing Episcopal presiding bishop offers his viewpoints on controversies and concerns
BY BILL TAMMEUS
Knight Ridder Newspapers
At its General Convention in Columbus, Ohio, next week the Episcopal Church, USA, will elect a new presiding bishop to replace Frank T. Griswold III.
"This will be quite a transition," says Dean Wolfe, bishop of the Diocese of Kansas.
In fact, it has been quite a tumultuous nine-year term for Griswold, one in which the church elected its first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. That caused severe strains with the worldwide Anglican Communion, mother ship of the Episcopal Church. When Griswold visited Kansas City recently, The Kansas City Star interviewed him to get his view of this 2.3-million-member denomination. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Question: The Episcopal issue that the world has focused on is ordaining gays and lesbians. Where do you think your church will be with this in 10 years or so?
Answer: I don't like to engage in hypothetical musings because they can create so many unfortunate reactions. I will simply say that over the years ... it's perfectly clear to me that more and more people within the church have perceived the grace of God at work in the lives of gay and lesbian people. That has led to a greater sense of inclusion (and) recognition, and I think that pattern may well continue.
Q: The Anglican Communion isn't very happy with the Episcopal Church over this issue. How important is it that your church remain a member of the Communion?
A: I think it's important to recognize that the Anglican Communion is not monolithic. It's 38 provinces. And a number of provinces are not dissimilar to us in terms of their own struggles with the place of gay and lesbian people in the church.
In each province ... the Gospel is articulated within particular contexts. Now, of course, in some parts of the Anglican Communion, as soon as I say "context," they say there's no such thing; the Gospel is absolutely clear. Nonetheless, I would say we are all affected by our context.
Q: Can you envision a time when the Episcopal Church would not be part of the Anglican Communion?
A: I think the church is very much committed to being part of the Anglican Communion, and I personally have no interest in the Episcopal Church becoming a sect.
Q: What's the best thing that's happened as a result of Gene Robinson's election, and what's the worst?
A: I think the best thing is that he never would have been confirmed unless a large part of the church had had their own positive experiences with gay and lesbian people who were faithful to the Gospel. That's one way of saying we acknowledge that gay and lesbian people in committed relationships need to be honored as faithful Christians.
I think the most negative thing is that many parts of the church have not ever thought about this issue. So suddenly something happens at an official level, and many congregations were at a loss to interpret this.
Q: At a seminar I attended in Washington a few weeks ago, Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong said, "When people say that if we accept homosexuals into the priesthood or the bishopric of our church, the church is going to split, I would rather it split. I have no desire to be a part of a homophobic church." Do you agree?
A: I don't like the term "homophobic" because it cuts off a whole group of people who may be struggling to understand this question. It condemns them. It says you're prejudiced. I think one of the gifts of Anglicanism is that it's been able to engage divergent points of view in conversation. ... I think it's an ungenerous comment about people who need to be taken quite seriously.
Q: What will it take to achieve unity in the Episcopal Church, and is unity at any cost a worthy goal?
A: The overwhelming reality of the Episcopal Church is what I call the diverse center. It doesn't make a lot of noise, but it is the faithful people in congregations across the country doing what congregations should be doing.
There are those within the community who are very clear about separation, and I don't think it makes any difference what the General Convention does or doesn't do; they have made that decision. That saddens me because it diminishes the body, and nothing is more abhorrent to me than the notion of a monochromatic church.
Q: The Episcopal Church approved ordination of women 30 years ago. Today about one-fourth of Episcopal priests are female, though only 13 of the church's approximately 300 bishops are. How has that 1976 decision worked out?
A: We're still working it out. The whole question of gender balance and gender parity within the life of the church, as well as society, is unfolding. I'm heartened by the fact that increasingly congregations that some years ago would have been reluctant to call a woman as rector are doing so now, and those ministries are extremely fruitful.
Q: Some observers say the Episcopal Church picks its leaders, especially its presiding bishop, from what's called "the great gray middle." Is that fair? And is it an accurate description of the seven candidates to replace you?
A: Most bishops would look to someone (who) elicited their confidence. Therefore, someone who is outrageously other probably would not be easy to elect. Again it's the diverse center.
Q: What kind of ministry is the church not doing, or not doing well, that you'd like to see develop?
A: I do think that the preoccupation with sexuality in certain quarters has drawn off energy that might well have been focused other places.
One of my sadnesses is that bishops from other parts of the world have privately said to me, "You know, we're dealing with famine, with HIV/AIDS, which is rampant. We're dealing with civil war, the impressment of children into armies. And, quite frankly, questions of homosexuality in the United States or the global North are not our primary interest. And why are these life-and-death issues being so ignored in favor of something that is of a much narrower concern?"
Q: Do you think the Episcopal Church has ignored those issues?
A: Not internationally. Certain parts of our church have become overly focused on sexuality. I do find it interesting that the Anglican Communion, which historically has made room for people who have very divergent views on the nature of Christ and the nature of the Trinity, when it comes to sexuality this becomes the defining issue of orthodoxy. Sexuality trumps Christ and the Trinity. Which to me is unfortunate and unbalanced.
Q: What did you wish you knew about being the presiding bishop nine years ago that you know now?
A: The one surprise has been the virulence, the sharpness of the rhetoric in certain quarters. I really do find the quality of political and, to some degree, ecclesial rhetoric really unfortunate because it's so polarizing. That has distressed me. Anglicanism is, if nothing else, polite.
Q: One resolution to be voted on at this year's General Convention would move the church toward the idea of paying reparations to descendents of slaves for the church's complicity in that evil system. What's your view?
A: I don't think the term "reparations" has been used.
Q: Right. That's my term.
A: I think that's very important because I think it's for the church to determine what the response is to its history.
Q: Do you think this is the right conversation for the church to be having?
A: I think an unacknowledged past makes it very difficult to move to a new future. And though I don't know what will be the result of acknowledging that past ... unless we do that, some of the more subtle dimensions of racism within the church will remain intact.
Q: What are your plans after you leave office?
A: I don't intend to sit on the porch. I deeply enjoyed being the presiding bishop. I have greatly appreciated the expansion of my own consciousness in traveling to other parts of the Anglican world. And I see in many ways how naive and judgmental we can be in this country. We're always sort of imposing our sense of rightness.
Q: Why do you think we Americans do that?
A: I suppose in part it comes from our affluence, the fact that we are the only superpower left. We call the shots. We bestow blessing here or there in some form or another, or we march into a country because we don't like the government.
We've done some appalling things. A superpower needs to be a super servant in the world, and that's a role we haven't played very well. The Episcopal Church really has articulated a servant role that has been quite distinct from what I would call the positions of our present administration.
You asked about what I'm going to do after I retire. I will do some lecturing and probably some retreat work. I probably will have some relationships with seminaries, and I know will be at the Anglican University in Seoul, South Korea. And I'm writing a book.
A: My own "Da Vinci Code" (laughs).
THE GRISWOLD FILE
Name: Frank Tracy Griswold III, 68
Position: Presiding bishop, Episcopal Church, USA
Education: Bachelor's, Harvard; General Theological Seminary; bachelor's and master's, Oxford University.
A previous job: Bishop of Chicago, 1987-98
Family: Married to Phoebe Wetzel Griswold. They have two adult daughters.
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