Frank Tracy Griswold III

The 25th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Our Work in These Days: Seeking a Broader View

March 10, 2003
Frank T. Griswold

I write this as we enter the season of Lent, and the world watches anxiously while events unfold that will mark our future. We pray for peace, and our nation prepares for war. I have no way of knowing what the world will look like as you read this. I do know that the very ways of being that guide us through Lent can also inform our hearts so we might better reflect upon the events swirling around us in the world.

Lent is a season of repentance, and repentance – as Archbishop William Temple once defined it – is seeing things from God’s perspective rather than our own. To repent, then, is a radical act, when the dominant tone these days seems to indicate that our primary concern should be for our own immediate interests. God’s view is always larger than our own.

This is well illustrated in the Jewish tradition by a story elaborating on the biblical account of the crossing of the Red Sea. As the waters closed over the pursing Egyptians, drowning their horsemen and chariots, the children of Israel stood safely on dry land singing a song of thanksgiving. According to the Jewish tradition, the angels in heaven began to sing praises to God. But God, looking down on the waters closing over the Egyptians cried out: “How can you sing when my children are drowning?”

To repent is to adopt God’s perspective. And what is God’s perspective? How are we to know? The fact that people using the same Scripture, celebrating the same sacraments, and praying fervently and earnestly to the same God can arrive at radically different conclusions makes the task of discerning God’s perspective that much more complex.

In the Anglican tradition it is, above all, in communion with Christ that we discern the truth. We encounter Christ through the living and active word of Scripture, through the use of our minds, which are conformed to the mind of Christ through prayer and sacrament, and through tradition – that is the ongoing life and experience of the community of faith is it moves through history and is shaped and formed by its struggles and efforts to discern the workings of God.

Here we need to recognize that frequently what we bring to our prayer and discernment are our own fully formed points of view, which are often profoundly subjective and shaped by our culture and experience. In those instances, we are asking God to confirm what we already believe. We are asking God to agree with us – to be on “our side.” One of the dangers of our various faith traditions is that they often claim God’s special blessing only for those within their tradition. Thus, those “outside” can be looked upon as alien, if not a threat. God’s point of view, on the other hand, embraces the world and looks upon all of humankind with compassion and love.

It is a great gift to us as Episcopalians that we belong to a fellowship of churches that transcends any one nation. The Anglican Communion spans the world with dioceses in 164 countries. This global fellowship enlarges our perception of God’s world and helps us to see ourselves through the eyes of others. This enlarged view delivers us from the temptation to equate our national purposes with God’s intentions. For example, a bishop in northern Nigeria told me that the conflict in Afghanistan had heightened anti-Christian feeling in his area and led to the murder of Christians and the burning of churches. Through his eyes I saw the unintended consequences of a policy that was fully justified if looked at exclusively from the point of view of our perceived national interests.

Another element of our Lenten observance is a call to humility. It is interesting to note that the word humility comes from the same root as humus, thereby suggesting rich soil ready to receive seeds. By humility I mean an openness and a capacity to make root-room for the truth of another. Humility is not about hanging one’s head but opening one’s heart and one’s mind to receive an enlargement of truth as it may be revealed. We are called to adopt a stance of humility toward one another, even when our views are passionately and uncompromisingly expressed.

In a recent newspaper article the Lutheran scholar, Martin Marty, observed that the Episcopal Church has “always been a church of ‘comprehension’ – one that is not supposed to force boundaries that throw people out…That’s been its history.” While “comprehensiveness” may be viewed by some as a lack of clarity, my own sense is that it is a profound blessing; it forces us to enlarge our views through encounter with those of others. In this way it is just possible that something of God’s own largeness of view may be revealed.

We live in a time of increasing polarity, and the world is viewed more and more in terms of good and evil, those who are “in” and those who are “out,” and “my interests” are pitted against “your interests.” It is all the more important, therefore, that we adopt a stance of repentance in order to move beyond polarity and, in humility, to receive the seed of God’s all encompassing and all reconciling compassion. This way of being will serve us well, as we move through Lent into the Alleluia and new life of Easter.

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