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Episcopal Church’s new presiding bishop faces daunting bridge-building task

The bishops who elected him to the post at the church's General Convention last August said Griswold may be just the person the reeling, feuding church needs.

(RNS) — As Bishop Frank T. Griswold III prepares to take his seat as head of the Episcopal Church, he is faced with daunting bridge-building and rebuilding tasks _ rebuilding his church’s damaged relationship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and creating bridges between factions in the 2.5 million-member denomination divided on the place of women and gays in the church.

Griswold, the 60-year-old bishop of Chicago, is scheduled to be installed Saturday (Jan. 10) at Washington’s National Cathedral to a nine-year term as the 25th presiding bishop of one of the nation’s most prestigious but chaos-wracked denominations, scarred in recent years by financial and sexual scandals and still bitterly — perhaps irreparably — divided over the ordination of women as priests and the role of gays in church life.

“My concern as presiding bishop is to call the (Episcopal) community to a deeper level of conversation — a conversation that is rooted and grounded in the aspects of the faith we most deeply share,”Griswold said in an interview shortly before his installation.

“Instead of beginning with points of divergence, I think it would be better for us all if we deal with things that are underlying and fundamental beliefs that we all share,”he added. “I think that, given that ground of common faith, one might be able to talk more easily and respectfully with people of divergent points of view.”

Based on his track record, the Harvard- and Oxford-educated Griswold may be — as the bishops who elected him to the post at the church’s General Convention last August said — just the person the reeling, feuding church needs to wend its way through these troublesome times when traditionalists fight modernity and modernists push for all they can get.

Griswold, a native of posh Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia suburb — and known as one who always wore the proper cloak — was ordained to the priesthood in 1963, serving first at Redeemer Episcopal Church in his hometown. He rose through the church’s ranks to become bishop of the Diocese of Chicago in 1987.

Throughout his ministry, Griswold has stressed the ancient Anglican tradition of tolerance, the notion that there is nothing that can’t be resolved as long as two people listen to each other and explain why they believe as they do.

Despite the fractious divisions in the denomination, Griswold said he places the church’s ecumenical involvement with the 5.2 million-member ELCA highest on his new agenda.

Last summer, after the Episcopal Church’s General Convention approved a plan calling for full communion with the ELCA, the Lutherans rejected the proposal by the narrowest of margins. The proposal called for joint recognition of sacraments and ordinations leading ultimately to shared clergy and joint mission congregations.

“My hopes are that it will come to a positive conclusion and that our two churches will, in fact, be in communion with one another,”Griswold said.”There are so many things we already share,”he added. “And I think it would be a very hopeful sign to Western Christianity if two bodies, while maintaining their own identity and tradition, also find a way in which they can fully share ecclesial and sacramental life.”

The Episcopal Church, often called the “bridge church,” standing between Catholics and Protestants, has in the past been seen as the religious body that will one day mend the Protestant-Catholic rift that occurred in the 16th century during the Reformation.

Yet, in modern times, some Episcopalians say they are slowly becoming marginalized from the rest of Christianity as other groups coalesce without them. In 1997, for example, the ELCA approved a full-communion agreement with the Reformed Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ, even as it rejected an accord with the Episcopalians.

Griswold met over lunch in recent weeks with the Rev. H. George Anderson, presiding bishop of the ELCA, and the two discussed how the churches will resolve their differences.

Since then, the Lutherans have appointed a panel of theologians, headed by church historian Martin E. Marty, who will sort out the differences and pass them on to a committee of 15 Lutherans and 15 Episcopalians charged with coming up with means to overcome the division. The hope is that a new plan for full communion can be presented to the Lutherans at their next Churchwide Assembly in 1999 and at the Episcopal Church’s next General Convention in 2000.

Despite being shut out of what could have been the nation’s greatest ecumenical leap in decades, Griswold said, “I have no sense that we are marginalized. We’re a small church, granted, but I don’t think it is a marginalized church at all.”

On the volatile sexuality issues, Griswold pressed his commitment to the Anglican notion of tolerance and conversation.

Asked about the drive for the church to approve blessings for same-sex unions, which some have argued the House of Bishops would approve if the issue came before it, Griswold said, “I’m not sure it would have passed the House of Bishops. The bishops have a diversity of opinions. I assume, had it come before the bishops, there would have been a lively debate.

“I think it’s (same-sex blessings) going to be a conversation that’s going to continue for some time, just as other dimensions of the whole question of sexuality are going to continue to be a conversation. … Matters are going to be reflected upon and divergent views are going to be brought forward for the foreseeable future, as far as I can tell.

“I think what is important is the framing of some of these conversations so one can hear not just different people’s conclusions, but also the … deeper thought, reasoning and theological reflection behind the various perspectives,” he said.

In recent years, there were attempts by disgruntled bishops, priests and laity to bring bishops up on charges, ranging from heresy to violation of church laws. How will Griswold handle them in the future?

“I would want to call the community of the whole into a deeper level of conversation — a conversation that is rooted and grounded in the aspects of the faith we most deeply share,” he said.

The idea of conversation, in which people of differing views ask and learn from each other what drives their beliefs, is a mainstay of Anglican polity and one of the adhesives holding the diverse denomination together. It allows for an international communion of congregations that vary from those who practice a highly liturgical, Anglo-Catholic style of worship to “low church” evangelical parishes that minimize liturgical practices and churches that range theologically from fundamentalist and charismatic attitudes to those holding extreme liberal views.

Griswold, the consummate Anglican, said his role as presiding bishop “is to invite the community into that deeper and more reflective conversation,”adding, “The truth is larger than any one person or any one group’s perspective.

“And so the conversation I’m talking about is discerning truth together. And that means me making room for your truth and you making room for my truth. And assuming that you’re making room for your truth comes out of your integrity as a person of faith, I would make the same assumption in respect of how you would receive my truth.”

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