By Mark Michael
Former presiding bishops Frank T. Griswold and Katharine Jefferts Schori reflected on their tenures during “Looking Back, Dreaming Forward,” a conversation held at Virginia Theological Seminary’s Immanuel Chapel on May 12.
Griswold described the ministries of the presiding bishops since 1985 (Edmond Browning, Griswold, Jefferts Schori, and Michael Curry) as “a continuum.” “No one has been elected to undo or correct what came before, and each one of us has been given a particular moment in history with its challenges and possibilities,” he said. “But I think it’s interesting that, you know, it’s all moved in one direction.”
Griswold’s remarks focused largely on the way that serving as presiding bishop led him through times of deep spiritual struggle, as he discovered the truth in Brazilian Archbishop Dom Hélder Câmara’s description of “the bishop as martyr.”
“I found my soul stretched by the role itself,” Griswold said. “I really had to pray, open myself to the fact that I cannot embrace this reality without being victim to my fears and prejudices. I found myself needing the grace of the risen Christ mediated by the Spirit.
“Part of the role of the presiding bishop is to connect the pieces and make possible diverse points of view to come together, not only at the level of the mind but at the level of the heart,” he said.
Griswold said that he often found himself “suspected on all sides,” and had to learn to “pay no attention to what people think about you.”
Griswold also said he learned to be suspicious of intra-church arguments that used words like holiness and justice, because they were often “used to deny the other a point of view.” His experience taught him “that we need to be multilingual and multidimensional in our theology.”
Jefferts Schori similarly described her ministry as being focused on “bridge-building and developing networks, connecting people across boundaries and borders that often separate us, healing divisions.”
“When I came into office, my sense was that the diversity of the church was something to be encouraged and celebrated,” she said. “There have to be some limits, but the tent is very wide. How do we encourage and celebrate and promote the ability to deal with diversity and the blessed [multicultural], multilingual, multi-perspective realties within this church?”
Jefferts Schori said she rejoiced that the Episcopal Church was growing in a “more expansive direction.” She suggested that the next major challenge it would face is moving beyond celebrating human differences to “honor the blessed diversity of all of creation.”
The two former presiding bishops fielded questions about children’s ministry, achieving a healthy work-life balance, promoting civil discourse in congregations during an election year, and equipping congregations to tackle climate change.
Several audience members posed sharp questions about the future unity of the Anglican Communion and the potential for discipline of the Episcopal Church along the lines of the relational consequences urged by the Primates’ Meeting. One listener asked whether the Anglican Church in North America might eventually take the Episcopal Church’s place as the Communion-related body in the United States.
Neither bishop saw any serious challenges ahead, and the possibility of expulsion was dismissed out of hand. Jefferts Schori described the Anglican Communion as being in an “adolescent stage,” with the current conflicts serving as “a natural process of development and maturation,” as member churches become more willing to challenge the Church of England’s supremacy. “We are testing one another,” she said, “but in healthier ways than we did 25 years ago.”
Griswold said he had no real concern about the consequences outlined by the Anglican primates, noting that similar discipline had been imposed on the Episcopal Church after Bishop Gene Robinson’s 2003 consecration, “but a few years later that simply faded away.”
He described the Primates’ Meeting as a body that “has no authority whatsoever to issue these pontifical declarations.” He said the consequences may have emerged “for the sake of certain primates needing to go back with something that had a disciplinary feel to it.”
“It’s intense conflict at some levels of conversation,” he said. “It’s not intense conflict at the level of congregation-to-congregation and diocese-to-diocese relationship. That’s thriving. And ultimately it’s those relationships that really define the Communion.”
Griswold added that the Communion’s networks thrive despite divisions: “That’s where the real work of the Communion goes on, and they’re unaffected by pontifical goings-on.”