Frank Tracy Griswold III

The 25th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Bishop Griswold addresses General Convention

June 12, 2006
Frank T. Griswold

My dear brothers and sisters. For a long time we have anticipated this moment and great numbers have people have worked very hard to prepare the way. To the Diocese of Southern Ohio I say on behalf of us all: many, many thanks for your warm welcome. To the volunteers I say that we could not do this without you. And, a particular thanks to Bishop Kenneth Price and to Debbie Stokes, the chair of the local arrangements committee for the Diocese of Southern Ohio, and also a deputy to General Convention. Your work, your energy, your faithfulness are very much appreciated by us all.

On the last two mornings the President and Vice President of the House of Deputies and I have taken part in commissioning services for some of those who serve this meeting as coordinators or as part of the secretariats. I am very grateful to the General Convention Office and to the dedicated teams they have gathered. I said on one of these occasions that the inner disposition of those persons who are serving the meeting will have a great deal to do with the meeting’s character. If there is anxiety and unsettlement the decisions will tend to be disordered. If there is a sense of peace and order, the decisions will be more likely to be full of grace and truth. I can say the same thing about the bishops and deputies. Our inner disposition, the quality of our prayer, the courtesy and respect we accord one another are the foundations upon which our time here in Columbus needs to rest.

I am very grateful to the many guests and visitors from other provinces of the Anglican Communion and other communities of faith for being here with us. You are a precious gift to us all. In particular, the presence of our brothers and sister Anglicans is a reminder to us that we are part of a global Communion and that though we seek to embody the gospel in very different places, and in response to very different challenges, we are called to be one in mission for the sake of the world.

In recent days I have been frequently asked by reporters how I think the General Convention is likely to act on the matters before us. (And, it will not surprise you to know that there is more interest in some of those matters than in others.) I always respond that I find such speculation dangerous and unhelpful. I explain that I can only say with certainty that I trust the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I trust our careful process, I trust the two houses of our General Convention. This is not the stuff of good headlines, but it is the truth. The truest thing I can say is that I am confident the bishops and deputies will make wise and careful decisions that will serve and advance the mission entrusted to the church by God, namely to restore all people to unity with God and one another in Christ.

My confidence is based on personal experience. My first General Convention was as a deputy from the Diocese of Pennsylvania in 1976, and I recall that it took a bit of doing to become accustomed to the sheer scale of it and to the sea of paper I had to organize in my notebook. I was made a sergeant at arms which meant I was to discipline unruly members of the assembly. I don’t know if this in any sense prefigured my current role or not. Early in the meeting the members of the Pennsylvania deputation presented me with gifts they thought appropriate to my task. One was a football helmet, which makes sense, but I have never understood just what use I might make of the other gift, which was a toilet plunger.

In any event, I have been to every General Convention since as either a deputy or a bishop.  Over these thiry years I have seen our two houses wrestle with difficult matters and make very wise decisions about our mission and our common life. Some of our decisions have been costly and involved difficult choices. This work of reconciliation is costly and demanding: it cost Jesus his life. Yet through the arms of Jesus, stretched out on the cross, humanity in all its variations and singularities is drawn together in a fierce and tenacious embrace of reconciling love.

Love is never an abstraction. Love is expressed in action and webs of relationships. Therefore, I find myself reflecting upon our General Convention and these days in Columbus as an opportunity for God’s love to break loose among us and find expression not only in what we decide but in how we receive and listen to one another. This is an opportunity for us to experience together once again that the truth we seek is larger than any one point of view. The unfathomable riches of Christ who is the truth exceed our capacity to comprehend them in all their fullness. Over time more and more is revealed by the Spirit who draws from Christ’s truth and makes it known to us.

“Truth is discovered in communion,” observes a contemporary Greek Orthodox theologian. Seeking “the truth as in Jesus” is a communal enterprise. And that is what we have come here to do: to seek “the truth as in Jesus” together. I pray that in the communion of the Holy Spirit and in communion with one another our own personal understandings of truth will be enlarged and connected with that dimension of Christ’s truth which is embodied in the lives and faithfulness of others — others who may have very different understandings and experiences of God’s ways, which according to scripture are both straight and crooked.

The words of an ancient hymn to the Holy Spirit seem very appropriate for us. “…enable with perpetual light, the dullness of our blinded sight.” The dullness of our blinded sight can refer to the limitations of our understandings and the experiences which inform us. It can refer to those prejudices and biases we all have that give us security and a sense of identity. Part of our task here is to become more aware of the dullness of our blinded sight. 

It has been said that unawareness is the root of all evil. Think about it: what crimes are committed and disordered actions condoned because people like ourselves hold on tenaciously to their partial truths and refuse to expand their limited understandings.

One of the great privileges of my last eight and a half years as your Presiding Bishop and Primate has been to travel around the church and the Anglican Communion on your behalf, coming to know brothers and sisters and learning of their hopes and witness, their concerns and challenges. What has become very clear to me through my conversations and encounters is how many different images of the church there are among us: images of what the church is and should be and could be. From these images we derive both challenge and meaning for our lives and the direction for our ministries. There is nothing new in this. And conflict in the life of the church across the ages has had to do largely with a clash of images between groups, all of whom see themselves as faithful to the gospel. The risk here is falling into idolatry: the worship of an image of the church which becomes an end in itself. In such cases we become insular, defensive and closed off rather than being open to the authentic motions of the Spirit of truth.

In the third century Clement of Alexandria understood this tendency well. “Most people,” he wrote, “are enclosed in their mortal bodies like a snail in its shell, curled up in their obsessions after the manner of hedgehogs. They form their notion of God’s blessedness taking themselves for a model.”

This clash of images is very apparent when we speak of holiness and justice. I have observed, and perhaps you have as well, that some of us are more likely to speak of the holiness of the church while others are more likely to emphasize that the church is an agent of justice. Opposing one to the other can be stop all conversation. How can one speak against holiness? And who can deny that the church is indeed called to be an agent of justice? Here we need to remember that holiness and justice are dimensions of God’s very being. They are not something we construct on our own. They are related in ways beyond our limited understanding. Just as the psalmist says of mercy and truth, and of righteousness and peace: holiness and justice come together and embrace one another and thereby overcome efforts to set them in opposition.

One of the gifts of our Anglican tradition is that it was forged out of reformation zeal blowing over from the Continent and bumping up against Catholic continuity: the church as determined by the Book encountered the church as determined by the sacraments. Our tradition has been informed by the counterbalance of these perspectives. Thus, we have been given through our tradition an historic capacity to make room for difference and to remember that any one image of the church, however noble or precious it may be to those who possess it, is partial and incomplete.

Scripture tell us that we are limbs of a body — the body of Christ — growing toward maturity; we are living stones being built into a spiritual house still under construction and “what we will be has not yet been revealed.” We as a church are therefore always under construction, always growing toward maturity which exists in its fullness only in Christ.

As we enter into the work of this Convention, it is my prayer that we will continue in our growing. Come and Grow, as our Convention theme would have it. I pray then that our responses to what we have been asked to consider will be animated by the Holy Spirit; that our images of the church will be conformed to the image of Christ, and that we will emerge from this 75th General Convention with a renewed awareness of what it means to be given by God through Christ the ministry of reconciliation for the sake of the world.

To us, Paul tells us, has been given the ministry of reconciliation. We who stand within Christ’s embrace are called to embrace others. We do this not in our own strength or out of our own will. We do it through the power of Christ’s love at work in us — purifying, transforming and expanding our capacity to love.

We have in hand our Blue Books, which paradoxically are green, along with a vast amount of paper which in the course of the next nine days will be turned into decisions that will carry forward the mission entrusted to us by Christ. Some aspects of that mission will claim more public attention than others but all are integral to our fidelity to God’s larger purposes.

Two items that will claim a great deal of public attention are the election next Sunday of the 26th Presiding Bishop and our further response to the report of the Lambeth Commission on Communion and the process it set in motion. Here I need to say that our response to the Windsor process is, as the Report makes clear, for the sake of mission. Communion, which is the work of the Spirit and not of our own making, obliges us to bear one another’s burdens, to enter into one another’s struggles, to inhabit one another’s contexts and to do so with patience, understanding and love. Communion also obliges us to recognize, with St. Paul, that a body cannot be whole without difference and distinction among its limbs and members; at the same time the body ceases to be whole when an eye says to the hand, one member says to another, I have no need of you. We are for one another’s salvation, as difficult as it may be at times to acknowledge. And, as Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, reminds us, through baptism, like it or not, we are caught up into “solidarities not of our own choosing.”

The questions that lie at the heart of this Convention are these: what does it mean to live a life of communion for the sake of the world? How are we being called to grow up in all ways into Christ? How are we being required to examine, to acknowledge, our past in order to move ahead into God’s future? Here I think of our painful history with respect to the evil of slavery.

The work before us is not easy. Taking into ourselves the reality of reconciliation is to live the mystery of communion in all its costliness, recognizing always that reconciliation and communion are the gifts of God’s boundless grace and are not of our construction. And, the animating force of reconciliation and communion is the same: love. It all comes down to love which alone can reconcile us not at the level of our opinions but at the level of the heart. Let me set before you some words of Thomas Merton which I have turned to frequently over the last eight and a half years:

If I allow the Holy Spirit to work in me, if I allow Christ to use my heart in order to love my brother[and sister] with it, I will soon find that Christ loving in me and through me has brought to light Christ in my brother [and sister]. And I will find that the love of Christ in my brother [and sister], loving me in return, has drawn forth the image and the reality of Christ in my own soul.

This, then, is the mystery of Christ manifesting Himself in the love which no longer regards my brother [or sister] as an object or as a thing, which no longer treats [them] merely as a friend or an associate, but sees in [them] the same Lord who is the life of my own soul.”

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I pray that in the days ahead we will not curl up in our obsessions and preoccupations — in the manner of hedgehogs — or take ourselves as a model for God’s blessedness.

I stand before you this afternoon thankful for you all — who are giving so generously of yourselves to the work of the General Convention and the mission to which we are called. My deepest thanks to you all.

The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA