2016-06-30
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Since last summer, Frank Griswold, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, has been in the vortex of his denomination's controversy over its election of an openly gay bishop. Yet during the church's August convention and into the fall, Griswold has remained out of the limelight.

In the last few weeks, dissident members of the church--those opposed to the church's liberal stance on homosexuality--are increasingly threatening to circumvent the bishop's authority in order to "replace" the Episcopal Church with conservative leadership. This week Griswold sat down to talk with Beliefnet. During an interview in his New York office, Griswold said he receives frequent private letters of support from bishops around the country and the world--including those who--publicly--strongly oppose the church's actions. He said "secrecy is the devil's playground," suggesting that those who want to accommodate homosexuality behind the scenes while publicly condemning it are the ones encouraging "sexual aberrance." He disputed the claim by conservatives that Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams supports their actions and suggested that conservatives are fighting Griswold's proposal--to be discussed by the denomination's bishops at a March meeting--to accommodate their needs because, paradoxically, it is workable. He believes conservatives want to keep the fight going.

Griswold also admitted he believes the church will experience some sort of schism. Yet he sleeps well and stays spiritually grounded by reading the Psalms twice a day and celebrating the Eucharist. The following is an edited transcript of a 90-minute conversation.

How are you maintaining balance these days?

I'm reading psalms. The psalms often describe people in difficult places and yet they say, "nevertheless God is at hand."

Which one helps you most?

Psalm 139, which says, essentially, "There is nowhere I can go from your presence. I go down to the depths of hell and you're there, and I go to the highest mountain and you're there." It gives me a larger perspective. I feel I am part of a faith community that spans the centuries and has dealt with difficult circumstances before.

Also, [at the Episcopal Church headquarters] we have a daily celebration of Eucharist, and so if I'm here, at 12:10 p.m. I'm in the chapel. It reminds me that I'm not alone. The dynamic of the gospel is death and resurrection. The sense of losing security or wondering what's going to happen to me is part of the pattern of faithfulness, as far as I can tell. In a very real way I'm sharing Christ's pattern.

So these things give me a sense of confidence, not that I always know what I'm going to do or say next but just a sense that it's all OK. I sleep well.

It's got to be difficult, though. Your members are fighting with each other. And you've got people laying plans to take over the church-people who say they want to become the Episcopal Church.

I've known this for a very long time, well before Gene Robinson was elected, of the dynamics and aspirations that these people have. Ultimately people are going to do what they feel they've got to do, but meanwhile it's up to me to try to create a climate in which most people feel they have a place.

I look at the history of Anglicanism--in the 16th century you had, on the one hand, radical continental reform, and you had also English conservatism that wanted to maintain the Catholic tradition. These two very different ways of understanding what it means to be church were brought together in a tension, but the tension was then offset by the fact that they situated their life in worshipping with the Book of Common Prayer. We've been a community of divergent interests held together by common prayer. We deal with shades of gray.

But those who disagree with Gene Robinson's ordination say that Scripture clearly prohibits homosexuality.

I don't think the Scripture writers had any notion of homosexuality. My sense is their understanding was that everyone was heterosexual, and so you "behaved" in a homosexual fashion. In other words, it's a free decision you would make. So you're dealing with a reality that isn't reflected in Scripture. Is this possibly an instance where we've learned something that takes us beyond the world of the Bible and therefore the texts used don't really apply?

Anglicans in this part of the world have always accepted the fact that there are different interpretations.

Tell me about how Anglicans in other parts of the world view Scripture-for example, in Nigeria, where Archbishop Peter Akinola has been very outspoken in denouncing Robinson's election.

I visited with Archbishop Akinola a couple years ago, and I gave a retreat for the bishops there. He knew I had divergent points of view, and when I arrived he said to his bishops, "Some of you have real questions about this person, but nonetheless I've invited him."

The issue is not simply a particular view of Scripture; in a number of places in Africa, such as northern Nigeria, there is a great deal of violence against Christians. In that situation, because the Islamic community is absolute in its views, the only way to survive if you're a Christian is to be equally resolute in your theology. So when another province of the Anglican Communion appears more broad in how scripture is interpreted that becomes highly problematic. The church in Nigeria and other places is absolutely obliged, as far as I can see, to take a firm line and say "We find this aberrant and contrary to how we understand tradition and scripture."

Have you and Archbishop Akinola or any of the other protesting bishops been in touch with each other?

I have deep respect and affection for Archibishop Akinola. He's dealing with his own issues in his own context, and he's obliged to say certain things. It's not that it's not genuine, because it is. But among the primates there is a whole other level of communication. I got a letter today from a primate from another province that has been very fierce in its opposition to the Episcopal Church, and his letter simply reminds me that.

Can you say who it is?

It would be best not to. But the letter says, "We love you, we have to say what we have to say, and please know how much we appreciate the various ways in which we can work together." It's somewhat paradoxical, but it's real.

Our intention is to keep the relationships between the provinces as strong as possible. Because the issues in other provinces are death, disease, millions of orphans--and all we can do is talk about sex. I feel guilty that the Episcopal Church's have been foisted off onto Anglicans worldwide. And the energy that ought to go into the relief of poverty and disease and caring for aids orphans all over Africa goes into protecting the Episcopal Church from some kind of a "blemish" or "impurity."

We're very aware of the disproportionate power of the United States because of its wealth. And then often the Episcopal Church ends up being a U.S. entity and is associated with U.S. power. And we do have resources--as a church we are immensely blessed. But how can we take our place in the world as genuine partners and not try to foist an agenda on people or use our money or resources to get some kind of conformity to our views in the rest of the world?

I was in Spain a couple weeks ago, and learned that the entire ordination service for Gene Robinson was telecast in Europe. And I know European television makes its way into other parts of the world. In the past someone might read about what happened "over there" in the United States, but by virtue of television, suddenly it was happening in people's living rooms where the culture was completely different, where the conception of the church was completely different. It wasn't "over there" anymore--it was as you were eating dinner, the Bishop of New Hampshire was being ordained at your dining room table.

What effect does that kind of communication have? You could have people saying "that's really cool" and others saying "get it away from me."

I've had a number of communications with people from other provinces who are formally rather condemning of us but quietly saying "Thank you so much for doing this." Again, there are all these levels of communication.

You know that conservatives are saying Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has personally told them he supports their network and it may even be his idea. What have your conversations with Rowan Williams been about?

First of all, historically, there have been networks in the church. When I was growing up, there was a "high church network" called the American Church Union. Its director had lists of parishes where you knew you could get high-church worship. And there have been evangelical networks.

So when the Archbishop of Canterbury is talking about networks, there's a real difference between an association of people who share a point of view and some formal structure that presents itself as the alternative to the Episcopal Church. One of the things he's made very clear to me in conversation is that he is not authorized to overrule the canons and constitutions of the various provinces of the Anglican Communion. He's pastorally concerned about those who are upset; I am too. If some kind of association assists them in feeling less marginalized-that's the word they use about themselves-then fine. He'd like our bishops to be generous-spirited between congregations that feel some strain between themselves and their dioceses. In that case the bishop can invite in bishops from other places to minister on his or her behalf.

The church bureaucracy has put forth a proposal that will be discussed at the House of Bishops' meeting in March. Meanwhile, members of the network have already declared that plan unacceptable. What's the difference between your proposal and what the network folks want?

When I was an adolescent outside Philadelphia, there was a very high church parish that the Bishop of Pennsylvania felt uncomfortable visiting because they used incense and expected the bishop to chant and wear very elaborate vestments. So he would invite a bishop who liked that sort of thing from another part of the country to function on his behalf. That has been part of the Episcopal Church for a long time.

What the bishops are looking at is basically that pattern, more generously expanded, to deal with situations where the congregation feels disconnected from the bishop.

But network members are saying that isn't good enough.

Well, we'll just have to see how it plays out. There are those who say it's inappropriate for bishops to function in other dioceses without the permission of the local bishop. And there are others who say that because [they believe the church's theology is defective], that doesn't make any difference, and therefore with or without permission, a different bishop is coming in.

But how do you hold it all together? It sounds like they're willing to go pretty far in defying the church laws.

This is where we'll have to see what actually happens.

Can you elaborate? Until the rhetoric actually turns into action it's hard to know what action is going to occur. The overwhelming majority of bishops, liberal and conservative, respect the whole notion of diocesan boundaries and are not about to march into one another's dioceses.

I don't know what is lacking in the church's proposal that the bishops will consider in March. I think possibly there's a feeling it's actually workable, and if it's workable there's no need for an alternative. And if you are passionately engaged in issues that move you to action in advance of the bishops' doing something.

In other words, you're saying they don't like it on its face because it might actually be a solution?

Yes. And I see nothing lacking in what is being put forward, other than the notion that one visits at the invitation of the diocesan bishop. That is the most basic courtesy as well as ancient canon law.

If you read some of what is being put forward, the agenda of some-not all, but some-is that in time they can become the "alternative" Episcopal Church.

How does this crisis compare to the split over women's ordination in 1976?

Some of the dynamics are the same, but the issues are quite different. What is common is that in the case of the ordination of women, a number of Episcopalians had a vision of the Episcopal Church as faithful to the Catholic church. One of the elements of being faithful to the Catholic tradition was male priests and bishops. And so when that changed, what happened for those people was the church as they understood it existed no longer. So then people grieve deeply.

For a number of people, sexuality raises large concerns because they see monogamous heterosexuality in lifelong marriage as the only way that sexual expression is allowed in the church. Though I will say, parenthetically, that there has not been the same upset over permission for divorced people to be remarried. And in that case, Jesus is quite clear about [his opposition to] divorce. Isn't it interesting that this doesn't cause the same kind of upset? I think it's because the majority of people who are sexually active are heterosexual and a great many of them are married, and so they understand how a marriage might collapse. Homosexuality is foreign to them and it seems much more threatening to the stability, purity and authenticity of the church.

Will the church schism?

Undoubtedly some people will leave the Episcopal Church.

How big a group will it be?

It's impossible for me to predict. I will say some clergy have reported growth in their congregations, so it's not totally a one-sided thing. A great many people have said to me, "This is very complicated, but it's truthful." They mean that here is something we all know about [i.e. homosexuality], and the church has said, "This is a reality, and we can see the face of God in the face of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters."

And I'll tell you: I've talked to people in other denominations who've said to me, "We know this is a reality in our church, too but the important thing is that we never change the official position of the church." And I've said to them, "Secrecy is the devil's playground. So many instances of sexual aberrancy have occurred in the context of secrecy."

You mean the Catholic church's pedophilia scandal?

Yes. So I think to live something openly and honestly is the right place--the right place--to be. We can't deny that gay and lesbian Christians are our brothers and sisters in Christ. That's the heart of it.

You're probably read about the charge that the protesting church members are being funded by conservative foundations. What do you make of that charge?

Yes, it's a political movement, not just a [church] movement. And I think the important thing is to be upfront about it. I think the money has been there for a long time-but I think the dynamic has just become clearer. Over time, certain things are simply ready to become public. The more energy that goes into these causes, the more is known about what is actually at their heart in terms of financial support.

Will you fight back with money?

I don't think it's a matter of fighting back, except by staying the course, and again and again saying we are a community of divergent points of view, grounded in common prayer.

I have a spiritual director, and he works with me on what it means to be a faithful disciple. I'm as imperfect as any other human and I can be enraged, so it's very important that I look at the question of What is God inviting me to do in this situation? In spite of what's coming at me, I am called to be one who acts out of compassion and non-reactivity.

You sound like a Buddhist.

Well, there are spiritual practices that are common to a number of traditions.

What is your reaction to the letter leaked this week that details the secret plans of the American Anglican Council?

First of all I say, no matter what, these are limbs of the Body of Christ. And, second, I say a lot of the reaction comes from deep pain. I mean, I have visions of the church, and I can imagine myself feeling disconsolate if something were changed that destroyed my vision of what I feel the church is.

An example?

One of the most grounding elements in the Anglican tradition is worship. If for some reason the Book of Common Prayer were revised out of recognition I would feel enraged. The other thing I would say is that it's so easy to turn some aspect of the church into an idol. People say to me, "I love the church" and I think, "I'm not sure I love the church; I certainly love Christ, who is the head of the church, but isn't it a bit dangerous if one identifies oneself or one's security with some aspect that could change?"

One of the rules I've learned is dispossession. I can cling to nothing--and what has been the incredible gift is that the more is taken away from me in terms of security, ego gratification and all the rest of it - the more I am reduced to deep trust in Christ. People say, "You look well. How can this be?" They assume I'm in agony night and day. And I'm not. The other thing that's helpful is the gym. So it's exercise and prayer.

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