Reflecting on the Past Year

A Conversation with the Presiding Bishop
January 21, 2001

January 21st, 2001

MR. ENGLAND: I'm Dan England, Director of Communication of the Episcopal Church, and I'm here with Frank Griswold, who's the Presiding Bishop.

We're now at the end of the first three years of the triennium, and we all thought it would be a good idea to review where we are, where the church is and where we're going. And so we're going to do that in a conversation.

I'm going to ask, to begin with, thinking back to your installation, you challenged the church to rebuilding. It's been three years now. How do you view the work of that rebuilding? Or, put another way, what kind of church are we now as the People of God?

BISHOP GRISWOLD: Well, one of the things I said when I talked about rebuilding the church, which was actually a quotation of the words of Christ addressed to St. Francis of Assisi, I pointed out that the church is not a thing or an it, but it is actually the people who through baptism are members of the Christ body. And therefore they become, in the words of 1 Peter, living stones.

And so the rebuilding of the church isn't fixing an institution. It is the commitment or the recommitment of the members of the church as living stones to the mission of the church. And the mission of the church, as we're told in the Book of Common Prayer, which is of course the essential document that not only orders our worship but defines us as a faith community, the mission of the church is described as restoring all people to unity with God and one another in Christ. And the outline of faith in which this definition of mission is situated goes on to say how does the church pursue its mission. The church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel and promotes justice, peace and love.

And then the next question is, through whom does the church carry out this mission. The church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.

So the renewal of the church really is about the recommitment of the total body to this ongoing work, which is Christ's own work of restoring all people to unity with one another and with God. And as I look back over the last three years, I see that there has been a real refocusing of the life of the church on mission in this sort of broad sense of working to reconcile, working both within the community and beyond the community in terms of justice, peace and love. And I see a lot of very good energy coursing through the veins of Christ's body as it is represented within the Episcopal Church. I see a recovery of confidence, a sense that our tradition actually is a life giving tradition. It does authentically carry the Gospel of Jesus. And so there is a new sense of being able to proclaim the mystery of Christ through the tradition that we have been given as Anglicans.

I also think that this tradition we have inherited is profoundly applicable to today's world, in that Anglicanism came into being as a way of containing difference in the context of common prayer. When you look at the beginning of the Church of England, of which we are an offshoot, you see violently opposed theological points of view. On the one hand, the old Catholic families of England. On the other hand you have sort of the emerging mercantile class sort of caught up in the vision of the continental reformers. And the Anglican settlement, the Elizabethan settlement, really was about bringing together these divergent points of view in the context of common prayer.

So it was really about finding national unity in an expression of religious community, which I think still has incredible relevancy to our own day. And I do think that our church, as I look back over the last three years, has become less contentious and begun to appreciate more deeply what it means to reconcile difference in a context of common prayer.

So those are broadly some of the ways in which looking back over the last three years I see this work of rebuilding going on.

The last thing I would say here is we are not in charge of the building. And so we build, but it is Christ who is the master architect. And so our efforts are always fitted into a larger plan, a larger pattern that is not ours to fully understand. If we fully understood it, I think we would be in danger of various kinds of idolatry.

MR. ENGLAND: Can you say just a little bit more about the place of common prayer in the church's life.

BISHOP GRISWOLD: Yes. I think that our tradition more than any other I know of really defines itself and sees itself in terms of its common prayer. We have no great reforming figures whose writings we treat as sacrosanct. What we have is a liturgy. A liturgy of course shaped by men and women across the centuries, to be sure, in reflecting various turnings in the life of the church. But it really is that liturgy that allows us to find our center and understand who we are.

And this has come home to me not just because this is my observation, but people in other ecclesiasial traditions have commented on the power of Anglican worship and how it really seems to be the core and the center of who we are, in a way that their worship, though extremely important, is not in the same way the core and center. And I think here too, with the present prayer book, we've become over the last 20 years or so, very much a eucharistic church, a church that sees itself as gathered around the table, a church that defines itself in terms of baptism, being incorporated in Christ through rebirth and the outpouring of the spirit.

And so these two sacramental moments or foci, you might say, baptism and eucharist, really have become the way in which we see ourselves. I mean, when we talk about the community containing divergent perspectives and different cultures, I think we see it always in terms of the eucharist. The image is always gathered around one table in all our difference. It always has to do with being baptized into Christ, the different limbs and members forming one unity.

So in that sense I really think worship, more than we even realize, is the way we understand ourselves as Christians.

MR. ENGLAND: I think a lot of people would like to know more about your role as Presiding Bishop. And perhaps as a way to get to that you could reflect on your schedule over the last few weeks and months and describe sort of what you've been up to.

BISHOP GRISWOLD: All right. Well, in September I had an operation, so that sort of knocked me out for about five weeks. But since then here are some of the things that I've been up to, and these aren't in chronological order, these are just the way in which they pop into my head.

I spent some days in Rome. This was an ecumenical trip that had to do with informal meetings with the Vatican to plot the future of the International Anglican Roman Catholic Commission and its work. It also included convening a meeting of the Board of Governors of the Anglican Center, which is the Anglican presence in Rome. And then I came back and took part in a planning meeting of the House of Bishops. The House of Bishops meets twice a year and its spring meeting is always a kind of retreat and learning opportunity. It's not a legislative meeting at all. And so I spent time with other bishops working on the content and flow of that particular event.

I also met with the executive committee of Executive Council -- Executive Council is the governing body between general conventions -- to plan their forthcoming meeting. I went to Richmond, Virginia, and delivered a lecture as part of the diocese of Virginia's Burning Issue series. The lecture was on authority, which I defined in terms of life-givingness, because authority really, if you go back to the Latin root, it doesn't mean simply power imposed or wielded in some way. Authority really carries with it the notion of increasing or enriching. So I defined authority in terms of life-givingness, look at Jesus and the Gospel and His exercise of authority, which was always about giving life, and suggested that when we talk about authority in the church this is the way in which we need to frame our reflections.

I then also met with the theology committee of the House of Bishops, which is made up not only of bishops, but we've added some academic theologians and we hammered out in a quite wonderful way a charter for the theology committee, because if we're going to look at various issues and concerns in the life of the church the important thing is to know the context in which you place those concerns and issues. So that was a very exciting meeting.

I then went across the Atlantic again to England to convene a group of 12 bishops drawn from different parts of the Anglican communion to consider the whole question of human sexuality and the different points of view that are abroad in the communion.

After that I took a train to Norwich and allowed myself what you might call a retreat day by visiting the cell of Julian of Norwich, which is attached to a church in that town where Julian of Norwich in the 14th and early 15th century led a life of prayer and wrote those wonderful revelations of divine love which I think are just so rich and so filled with wisdom that we can use now. And it was just wonderful to be sitting in complete silence in that wonderful holy space with the former chaplain to the shrine, Robert Lewellyn, a marvelous Church of England priest, who welcomed me and shared conversation with me and said some wise things to help me in my ministry.

I then went to London and spent some time with the Archbishop of Canterbury talking about ways in which we can build a stronger relationship of the communion. And then I came back and spent a day and a half writing a column for Episcopal Life, which is a monthly responsibility, that's probably the best way to put it.

And then we had here at 815, because of our commitment to anti-racism, we had a staff dealing with multiculturalism.

So those are some of the things I've been up to. I've also spent some time with missionaries of the Episcopal Church who are working in Zimbabwe and Haiti, medical missionaries very much focused on the pandemic of AIDS and trying to bring the ministries of the church to those countries in ways which can help them cope with this overwhelming problem that is leaving children orphaned and absolutely decimating whole generations.

So those are some of the things I've been up to over the past couple of weeks.

MR. ENGLAND: You mentioned your meeting with the Archbishop. Briefly, how would you describe your relationship with him?

BISHOP GRISWOLD: We couldn't be better friends and stronger colleagues. We have very much the same sense of the diversity of the communion and the richness of that diversity and are always looking for ways in which that diversity can be positively perceived and the energies channeled in ways that allow what I might call the full Christ to be recognized across the communion in all the cultures and historical contexts in which Anglicans are seeking to proclaim and live the Gospel.

So that's essentially our relationship. Of course, he hears a great deal from the United States, and I'm very glad that we have such a good and direct means of communicating with each others so that e-mails cannot lead us astray or manage to misrepresent the wonderful vitality and faithfulness of the Episcopal Church.

I might say also that the Archbishop of Canterbury visits the United States quite regularly. I've joked at times that maybe he's visited more dioceses than I have. Which simply means that he has a very direct sense of the Episcopal Church. And that's extremely helpful when misrepresentations get out there. He knows the truth, and that helps tremendously. And he also sees the Episcopal Church as in so many ways a generous church, not just money but our willingness to send people places and engage in partnerships around the world in a variety of ways. And so he sees us as a very important ally in his ministry, as a sign and symbol of unity in the Anglican communion.

MR. ENGLAND: What you've described is a pretty busy and full schedule. And I suppose that all of us are, I think the phrase is, feeling time starved these days. Everybody seems very busy, sometimes overwhelmed by life.

But in the midst of your business, how do you stay grounded and centered?

BISHOP GRISWOLD: Well, there are a number of ways. First of all, I always carry in my pocket a Jesus prayer rope, which consists of 50 knots. And between every ten knots there's a wooden bead. And it's made out of wool. And it doesn't clatter and bang and that sort of thing. And I just sort of have it in my pocket. And if I'm walking around the city I usually finger it and simply say my prayers. And when I'm stuck on a bridge somewhere and about to get frantic, or particularly, I'll tell you, in airplanes, when you've left the gate and you are told with no explanation that it is going to be an hour and a half before the plane takes off, and you're given the choice of becoming absolutely enraged or choosing some more ameliorating way of dealing with the situation. I sort of reach for my Jesus prayer rope.

And I mean this quite seriously. Because my life is so hectic and busy, it's very easy to sort of lose the center and become totally reactive and live in a state of constant agitation. And just the discipline of saying the Jesus prayer quietly to myself and trying to bring my breathing into relationship with the words of the prayer, which is part of the discipline, often reminds me that I am not the answer, but Christ is the answer, and that all I have to do is be faithful and not get in the way.

And so often just walking around I can kind of find my stability that way.

Another very grounding and centering reality is the liturgical life here at the Church Center. It's a real gift to have morning prayer every morning and the eucharist at midday. And if I'm here I'm at both morning prayer and the eucharist. And I think part of what it does, and I understand the whole sort of monastic discipline of stopping what you're doing, no matter what you're doing, and going to prayer. Because particularly in the middle of the day -- I mean, not so much morning prayer, before that comes before the day begins and sort of gets me oriented, but by 11:45, I mean things can be thick and heavy and I just stop at 12 o'clock and go downstairs and listen to the Scripture and often the homily has something in it that unlocks the Scripture in a way that sort of reorients me or rebalances me.

And then the sheer act of putting my hands out day after day to receive the body and blood of Christ, no matter how I'm feeling, just that physical act of going forward and being told this is the body of Christ, this is the blood of Christ, says to me no matter what I'm feeling or thinking, or no matter how disconnected I may feel, Christ is right there saying, "I am with you, and don't forget that." I mean, that is sort of what the eucharist in large measure says.

Also I make an annual eight-day retreat, which is very important. I go to a priest I've gone to for years, well before I became Presiding Bishop. He's blind but he has an acuity of sight that surpasses any sighted person I know. He knows my soul and he's tough, which is good. And that's a wonderful point of orientation, annually to sort of take stock of the previous year with his help and sort of see where I'm heading. And then once a month or so I go to see someone more locally, who checks out my soul.

Another thing I do, I try to do some spiritual reading. I sort of have a book in hand. It may be one of the great classics of the spiritual life, it may be something quite contemporary, but something that gives me some things to chew over and think about and again sort of reframes things for me in terms of life in Christ, and that's very, very important.

And then I would say also one of the things that centers me most profoundly is to visit dioceses and congregations. Because, you know, you can live in this kind of 815 environment and deal only with sort of crises and problems. And you begin to see the whole church as one gigantic difficulty. But then you get out there where the people are and you see incredible things going on in dioceses and congregations. You see wonderful people who are passionate about Jesus and the mission of the church and gracious about what's going on in the world and seeing it in ways that are so filled with real sort of love and compassion. I think wow, these are my people. This is what it's all about. And it sort of reminds me what the center is, because they reveal Christ in such a living way to me.

So those are some of the things that center and keep me focused.

MR. ENGLAND: A lot of people want to focus on what they see as problems in the church. But from what you just said about going out and meeting with people, it has a different sort of feel to it. Can you talk a little bit about that?

BISHOP GRISWOLD: Well, there are some real issues in the life of the church. And it would be completely unrealistic to say they don't exist. And there are some people who are deeply distressed by what they perceive to be the directions of the church.

But by and large the overwhelming majority of people, I'll call it the diverse center, for want of a better term, have as their sort of ground a love of the church not as an idol but because it really is the context in which they meet Christ in word and sacrament and in fellowship with others. They love the church. They have a deep sense of its unity. And the deep sense of unity gives them then the capacity to make room for difference without being fractured or feeling that everything is falling to pieces.

We need the extremes. You absolutely need the extremes or you're not going to have any life at all. You need people who are impatient and tugging and pulling you toward a yet to be disclosed future that may be problematic or frightening. On the other hand, you need people who are reminding you of your grounding, the tradition, Holy Scripture, of the creeds, you know, the classical life of the church. You need these sort of tensions. But it is very much this sort of a broad middle, and I don't want to suggest for a moment it's sort of colorless or bland, because it's not. I mean, every point of view is represented in this sort of middle. But it is this sort of deep sense of being grounded in the mystery of the church, and the confidence that that mystery will allow us to ultimately reconcile the differences, not by reducing them all to one reality, necessarily, but by being able to live with difference in a way in which the people can recognize Christ in the different other.

So that's a little bit of what I mean.

MR. ENGLAND: What you're describing seems to have come together at the General Convention. Can you talk a little bit about that?

BISHOP GRISWOLD: I was amazed by the General Convention. Not that everyone was happy, but the overwhelming majority of people who attended that event, me included, really found it an experience of being the church. I think that was its real gift. It wasn't simply a gathering, but people sensed in that coming together of the Episcopal community, not just the formal legislative parts of it, but so many groups and various freestanding associations of Episcopalians were part of that event. And I think people listened to one another with much greater sensitivity than in the past. They realized by and large that simply passing resolutions isn't necessarily the way to seek the mind of Christ, that there needs to be a deeper level of conversation and listening as part of that discovery of who Christ is in our midst, mediated by all the differences that exist within us.

And so just the way people listened to one another, behaved toward one another, created a spirit, and this is one of the difficulties of something like the General Convention, if you're there you participate in a spirit that is very hard then to translate into terms that others who weren't part of that event could easily understand.

I mean, it was an experience of incarnation as well as legislation. But the incarnation dimensions of it I think were much more strongly felt.

And I do know that partway through the Convention, when we suspended business for half a day in order to have really a kind of retreat experience, quite frankly I was a little nervous about whether it would work, whether people would be restive and sort of feel, you know, I've come all this distance to make decisions and here I am having to waste time doing nothing. But I was absolutely stunned by people's response. And sort of listening around the edges.

I mean, people said how grateful they were that space was being given to their deepest spiritual yearnings. That the deep desires of their heart to be in fuller communion with Jesus was actually recognized within the corporate life of the Convention. That the church would stop and say, "We don't have to legislate, to pass things. We can actually be in silence together, we can simply pray together. We can invite the spirit into our lives in a renewed way together, without having to make a decision." I think all that was incredibly encouraging.

And I remember one thing I said in the context of that retreat morning, using the words of God addressed to Jesus at his baptism: "You are my Son, my beloved." I said, "I want you to think of the ways in which God has been loving you. And I want you to hear God and Christ through the Spirit say to you, you are my beloved."

And I was just amazed at some of the experiences people had. Clergy sort of rediscovering why they'd been ordained. And one person, I was walking around and one person literally fell into my arms sobbing and said, "I just never had thought of my belovedness."

So I just had a sense that something very profound happened there to all of us that then colored in a very good way the sensitivities that were present in the formal debates and the decisions that were made.

So I have always been suspicious about church gatherings. I think it's sort of ironic that I'm in the position I'm in, because when I was a parish priest I avoided diocesan meetings as much as possible. I was known as the one who never stayed for an entire diocesan convention. And when I was ordained bishop someone said, "Aha. From now on you have to stay for the whole convention."

Well, anyhow, now presiding over the House of Bishops at the General Convention and being an integral part of that event and finding it really could be an experience of grace has changed my whole relationship to church gatherings. They really can be places where we meet Christ in one another, and that was certainly the case of the General Convention for me.

MR. ENGLAND: You've described how incredibly important your own spiritual life is in your journey. And you've described how important it is to so many people that you meet. And yet we know that there's a great many people who have no faith family connection. How do you see the church being able to address the spiritual hunger that we hear so much about in this country and the world?

BISHOP GRISWOLD: Well, I think the church is becoming more and more aware of the vast number of unchurched who are there. In the old days you assumed that people were brought up in the Christian tradition in some fashion, and then they would fall away usually at college age, and then they would return when they got married and had children.

Well, now we have a whole generation that has had no experience of the Christian tradition. There's nothing to fall away from because they've never been engaged in it because their parents really weren't, either. And so there really is a whole new mission field. And in a way I think it's a blessing. I have to be careful here, I guess. But so much damage, quite frankly, has been done by ecclesial institutions over the years to really undermine and thwart authentic faith and to create a kind of cynicism, just because of the internal life of the community or the sort of, what would I say, the lack of grace in the way various ecclesial institutions have lived their life.

And so now we're dealing with people for whom Jesus is a mystery. They don't have to unlearn something that they were taught or they don't have to overcome some bad experience of a local congregation because they've had no experience. So they're virgin souls in a very real way. And I think the church is beginning to figure out that it really has to present the Gospel in its most sort of elementary form to these seekers who have all kinds of yearnings within themselves.

I was talking to one young person not too long ago, a poet, and she had written a poem about finding the sacred in the everyday, in the small events of life. And I said, oh, this is wonderful. This is all about finding God in the midst of whatever is going on. And she sort of stiffened and she said, "No. This is deeper than God. This is about sacred mystery."

And I thought, here's this young woman whose spirit is clearly being tugged at by God. I mean, she has the intuitions. She's describing the discoveries and the yearnings. But the language that has been, that she's sort of heard around the edges, is not helpful. And how can one honor this innate spirituality, because I think lots of people have it. How can you honor it and nurture it without crushing it or making it fit into sort of narrow categories that stifle it.

So how can the Gospel and the sacramental life of the church be presented in ways that are engaging and tempting is a question that I think we're dealing with more and more. And this is part of the whole reorientation of the Episcopal church toward mission. It's not enough to paint the doors red and wait for sensible people to come in. You really have to go out and figure out how you translate the Gospel into terms that meet the deep yearnings that are present.

I also think, since we're a liturgical tradition, I am struck -- I've spent a lot of time these last years at the Washington Cathedral, most recently, a couple weeks ago, with the heads of a number of denominations here in the United States for retreat. And usually when the heads of denominations get together for a retreat it's a working session. It's highly purposeful.

Well, actually, we were just in silence together for a day and a bit. But just wandering around the Washington Cathedral and dropping in on little conversations that we had here and there by young people. I mean, the fascination with the spaces. What does it all mean, what happens here? And I will say attending some of the services, people sort of being drawn to I don't know what it's about, but it's about something that connects. The power of symbols to speak their own language. And I think a far more imaginative use of the symbology that is part of our tradition could be an amazing tool in making the Gospel accessible to people who are unchurched at this point.

But that hunger is there. I'm about to gather up, with the help of a young author, a group of young people who are all writers and have all written stories about Jesus or the spirit, all contained in a recently published volume. None of them have anything to do with organized religion. I mean, none of the authors, not the stories so much. And yet they're all about these sort of deep yearnings. And I can't wait to sit down with them and ask the question, how can the tradition I represent speak to you. How can your yearnings in some way be met by word and sacrament and a communal life.

Because so much of this yearning is very individual and individualistic. And the whole notion that one needs to have one's faith unfolded in the context of a community is sort of a new idea. They're perfectly happy to go off one by one and do yoga, meditation, and be very much sort of centered within themselves. But that whole notion in Scripture of being members one of another, which I think is so important in this highly individualistic culture in which we live, I think is probably a very important growing point for them in their search. I hope when we have this conversation we can talk about some of these things.

MR. ENGLAND: Finally, as that sentence, the beginning sentence in that book, "The Road Not Taken," most famously says "Life is difficult." And I suppose that there are many faithful members of the church who in their journey are finding life difficult and perhaps are finding themselves a bit weary in their journey with Christ.

What pastoral word would you say to those people?

BISHOP GRISWOLD: Well, people sometimes have made fun of what they perceive to be my constant use of a phrase, the paschal mystery. Which really is a way of saying that life is about dying and rising, losing and finding, over and over and over again. It's the pattern of Christ and it becomes, by virtue of our being baptized into Christ, the pattern of our own lives. It is the pattern of our own lives, whether or not we're Christians. But the Gospel gives us a way of situating that ebb and flow within our own lives, within the context of Christ's own life and the life that Christ is seeking to live in us.

And I found that in the United States there's very much a sense of if you do it right you're going to be happy and everything is going to work out in a positive way. There's very little room given in our culture for failure or difficulty. And in fact if you fail or things are difficult there sometimes is the sense that you've done something wrong or you're inadequate or you aren't sufficiently intelligent about the way you're ordering your life.

Well, that's not true. And, I mean, illness suddenly comes upon a person and they've got to cope with the illness. I know that from my own life. I mean, nothing is more unsettling than facing cancer without knowing what the outcome might be. Particularly unsettling when you have to live it in a very public way and everyone is concerned about your health and offering you advice.

In any event, to go back to your question, I think recognizing the fact that, as you say, life is difficult, that it is made up of losses. It is made up of things that are unfair. And if one takes them into one's life in Christ, often those things can be transfigured. And instead of being diminished by them, actually, paradoxically, one is increased by them. They become, as you look back, not as you pass through them -- I mean, suffering is suffering. And if you can sort of distance yourself from suffering by saying, oh, I know what it's all about and it's for my good, that's not suffering. I mean, real suffering is suffering.

But often, looking back, one can see in that excruciating experience some gift, some wisdom has come out of it. I mean, I look at some of the political personalities who were reduced to utter poverty in terms of their own self-image and jailed for Watergate or whatever, and these conversions that occurred. Well, I think they're quite genuine. I think when we are sort of reduced to our most elemental self and have to encounter our own poverty, it's often at that moment that we discover the grace of Christ.

I mean, it's the paradox of losing becomes a way of finding. And only those who have lived it can understand what it means. Otherwise, the paschal mystery of dying and rising in union with Christ is sort of idiotic.

But then Paul talks about the wisdom of the world isn't what this is all about and that it's the foolishness of Christ that is true wisdom. And I think this is where one finds it.

So sort of my experience as a pastor, I mean, living with, accompanying people as they lived the paschal cycle in their lives was what pastoring was all about. And recognizing you couldn't rescue people, you can't sort of make it easier in the sense of air brushing their suffering out of their lives. But you can say, "I'm with you. I will travel with you." And this is certainly true in illnesses that have only one trajectory, namely death. I mean, you can't reverse a process but you can be with people through that experience and you can watch the incredible things that can happen.

I remember once being with a man facing death because of leukemia. And two days before his death taking communion to him. And saying, "John, the body of Christ." And his face, I mean, he was hemorrhaging all over the place, but his face absolutely lit up. I've never seen such joy. A totally joyful face. And he said, "This is the best Christmas present I could ever have."

I saw the risen Christ in the face of the man who was dying. And that's not the only time that kind of thing has happened. So it's real and it takes courage to live the paschal mystery with others. But that's what being a pastor is all about.

MR. ENGLAND: Well, thank you very much.

BISHOP GRISWOLD: You're welcome.

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