Amid controversy, no regrets

Outgoing Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold reflects on upheaval in the Episcopal Church

June 11, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Of the fates that might await the Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold after he retires as the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, obscurity will not be one of them.

When the history of the angry disputes in mainline Protestantism over the acceptance of homosexuality is written, Griswold, 68, will be remembered for leading the Episcopal Church when it elected the first openly gay man as a bishop.

The decision deeply offended some in the church, and many primates of the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the American arm, saw it as a blatant disregard of Scripture. The denomination of 77 million members has been threatened with schism.

Much of the anger has focused on Griswold, but that does not trouble him. "I did not choose what has been set before me," he said. "We don't get to make those choices. I do know I have tried very hard to be faithful in responding to the circumstances as they have presented themselves. That matters to me a great deal."

On Tuesday, bishops and diocesan delegates of the Episcopal Church will gather in Columbus, Ohio, for the denomination's triennial general convention. They will elect a successor to Griswold, whose nine-year term ends in November. It was at the last general convention in 2003 that the church's House of Bishops, including Griswold, consented to the election of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, as the bishop of New Hampshire.

Griswold spent part of a recent morning at the Episcopal Church's main offices near the United Nations reflecting on the conflict, offering occasional glimpses of frustration but landing on the side of optimism.

"Reconciliation won't come in trying to create one point of view but in common prayer," Griswold said of the debate over sexuality.

Griswold's supporters and critics alike are far less sanguine about the Episcopal Church's staying together over time, or remaining part of the Anglican Communion, given the virulence of the debate. Many Episcopalians worry that the controversy over sexuality will unsettle the convention, or even lead to a split.

Church critics said that recommendations by a special Episcopal commission in response to the sexuality crisis, like an expression of "deep regret" for the pain inflicted upon other Anglicans by the election of Robinson, were inadequate. Critics would like to see the church place a moratorium on the election of gay bishops, to repent for the consecration of Robinson, and even to roll back his election.

Bishops and lawyers are looking at how to respond if all the congregations of a particular diocese were to leave the church over the ordination of Robinson, as has been rumored in the past few weeks. But Griswold said he has faith in the church's resilience, having seen it withstand other painful controversies before.

"Every convention has had hovering over it a catastrophic fantasy," he said. "And then you get to general convention and people listen to each other carefully."

To his critics, such optimism discounts the seriousness of what they say are the Episcopal Church's transgressions. They contend that their rupture with the Episcopal Church is not about sexuality, but about a generation-long drift of the church away from the primacy of Scripture and the shared beliefs of the Anglican Communion.

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