Frank T. Griswold, 25th Presiding Bishop, 1937-2023

Former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, right, is shown in a 2015 photo at Virginia Theological Seminary with then-Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and Michael Curry, who had been elected to succeed Jefferts Schori | Neva Rae Fox photo

By Kirk Petersen

The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold, the presiding bishop at the turn of the century who sought to hold the Episcopal Church together as the winds of division began to howl, died March 5 in Philadelphia. He was 85 years old.

He served as Bishop of Chicago at the time of his primatial election, and led the church from 1998 to 2006 as the 25th presiding bishop. “Please join me in prayer for Bishop Griswold’s family and for all of us who give thanks for a remarkable and faithful servant of God,” wrote the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, the 27th and current presiding bishop. No cause of death was announced. Memorial arrangements are pending.

Griswold began his tenure in a church that was not fully acclimated to the idea of female priests. He ended it in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to avoid widespread departures after the consecration of the church’s first openly gay bishop, the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson in 2003.

The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold

That event touched off a firestorm that has not entirely abated, as some priests and parishioners quickly left the Episcopal Church, and some bishops began planning to do so. Ultimately the bishops of Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, Quincy, San Joaquin, and South Carolina led a majority of their congregations out of the church, although the actual departures occurred during the tenure of Griswold’s immediate successor, the Most. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori. Human sexuality controversies continue to roil the global Anglican Communion to this day.

When the House of Bishops considered whether to confirm Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, “I cast my own ballot in the affirmative because I see no impediment to assenting to the overwhelming choice of the people of New Hampshire,” Griswold said.

Even before Robinson’s election, Griswold was working to maintain the bonds of unity on a different front. The ordination of women had been authorized by the 1976 General Convention, but some dioceses resisted for more than a quarter century. Some bishops refused to ordain women, insisting on biblical authority for an all-male priesthood — in the words of 1 Timothy 2:12: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” Pressure had been mounting to open the priesthood to women throughout the church.

At a 2001 Executive Council discussion on the remaining all-male priesthoods in Fort Worth, Quincy, and San Joaquin, Griswold mused that heresy might be preferable to schism. “Heresy can be corrected over time by the community and sometimes what is thought to be heresy … is later found to be true, Bishop Griswold said,” as reported by TLC. “Schism, on the other hand, is difficult to repair once a break has been made, he noted. Truth is discovered in communion. Schism is the shattering of communion. In order to discover God’s truth, everyone has to be at the table.”

Ironically, Griswold’s devotion to “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” bore fruit in a different vineyard, as he helped lead the movement toward full communion between the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. As a result of the agreement finalized in 2001, clergy from each church are now eligible to lead congregations in the other. Griswold also reached across the Tiber as co-chair of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) from 1999 to 2004.

Born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, on September 18, 1937, Griswold earned a bachelor’s degree at Harvard College. He attended General Theological Seminary, and earned a master’s degree in theology from Oriel College at the University of Oxford. He was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1963.

Griswold was elected presiding bishop on July 21, 1997. TLC reported that the election was held “in the place where the Episcopal Church began, old Christ Church, Philadelphia, the site of the first General Convention in 1789.” (Another connection to history: A distant cousin, Alexander Viets Griswold, was the fifth presiding bishop, from 1836 to 1843.)

“He is well known for his deep interest in monastic spirituality,” TLC reported. “He also signed the Koinonia Statement, which advocates blessing same-sex relationships and ordaining non-celibate homosexual persons, at the 1994 General Convention in Indianapolis.”

“Asked if he has ever considered the monastic life for himself, he replies that in his 20s, “I knew that by age 30 I had to be either in community or married,” according to a TLC profile in advance of the election. “He was 27 when he met Phoebe Wetzel. ‘I saw her across the font.’  He was the curate at the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania; she was godmother for the rector’s first grandchild.” They married in 1965.

After completing his term as presiding bishop, Griswold served as a visiting professor at seminaries and universities in South Korea, Cuba, and Japan, as well as at the Episcopal Divinity School, the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Virginia Theological Seminary, and Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. He also served as bishop visitor to the Society of St. John the Evangelist.

His books include Going Home; Praying our Days: A Guide and Companion; Tracking Down the Holy Ghost: Reflections on Love and Longing; and, with the Rev. Mark McIntosh, Seeds and Faith and Harvest of Hope.

In addition to his widow Phoebe, Griswold is survived by their two daughters, Hannah and Eliza, and three grandchildren.



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