Hours after her husband was elected presiding bishop in 1997, Phoebe Griswold spoke of needing to find new work as she assumed a new role. Now, reaching the end of her time as the church’s “first spouse,” she finds she cannot let go of this work – or that it won’t let go of her.
Griswold spearheaded the creation of a global Anglican women’s network and of Anglican Women’s Empowerment, an organization that enables women from throughout the Anglican Communion to attend the annual meetings of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.
“Her presence and her leadership moved us to where we are,” said delegate Marge Christie of Newark diocese, who recalled answering a last-minute appeal in 2002 to become the communion’s sole representative. “I hitched up with a woman from Canada, and we said, ‘Well, this doesn’t make any sense for us to be the Anglican Communion.’
“And, so, we grew a little bit the next year, and Phoebe got her feet wet and began to dream of what we could turn it into -- and succeeded in doing that,” Christie said. “We’re still struggling, but we’ve had some highly profitable, successful years under her leadership. Just the fact that the Anglican Consultative Council’s NGO delegation [in 2006] was the largest one present ... the work that those women did with their various embassies ... the knitting together of a network of Anglican women across the globe, across the communion, is all really attributable to her leadership.”
“We will miss Phoebe as our leader, convener, and my hope is that after two or three months [of retirement] she’ll feel comfortable enough to come back and be a player,” Christie said. “She’s got a passion for the church. She’s got a passion for women. And those are important ingredients.”
Responding to real call
She needn’t worry about Phoebe Griswold disappearing.
“I love the experiences of the ‘other’ in different cultures,” said Griswold. “That all has come together for me through this Anglican women’s empowerment movement.”
“I’ve come across something that feels like a real call to me,” she said. “I can’t let go. I see the possibilities. ... Women are being called at this time.”
It’s important to get women’s perspectives at the table, she said. At the Episcopal Church Women’s Triennial Meeting in June, she challenged them to write a program “for the whole church,” to enter the public arena with their values.
“The most important thing for women is relationships,” Griswold said. “Our context is largely shaped by our concept of family.” While men react to conflict with “fight or flight,” for women it’s “tend and befriend,” she said. If she were discussing going to war, she’d ask: How many people will die? How are the hospitals? Who will care for the orphans?
And if people still decided to wage war, they next should line up medical equipment and other necessities to care for those affected. “Otherwise,” she said, “it’s the worst human depravity not to figure out how you’re going to care for those people who are suffering.”
Buying mattresses on credit
Alleviating suffering has been a prominent part of Griswold’s work. She did development work as Heifer Project’s Chicago director before moving to New York. She continued with development projects, and learned about relief work, through Episcopal Relief and Development (formerly the Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief).
Griswold recalled visiting Honduras with Ann Vest, then interim director of the fund. “Intuition told me that I wanted to go and be in that place that was suffering so from Hurricane Mitch. When I went, I had ... the church credit card.”
They visited a gymnasium that was housing hurricane victims. Floors were wet. Children were sick. The need for mattresses came up. “Ann and I looked at each other. We said, ‘Let’s buy mattresses.’”
Griswold handed over the card, and the fund bought 100 mattresses. Years later, when she visited Honduras with her husband, a woman rushed from her house to show them one of those mattresses.
“Part of that is, how -- in your role as a bishop’s spouse – can you engage the system the way you want to that is appropriate,” Griswold said. “How do you find the places where no one else is standing, that you want to stand?”
One place she stood as presiding bishop’s wife was as leader of the community of spouses of bishops, which grew to tackle major service projects as well as provide friendship and support to members.
An arts history major, Griswold also helped launch Episcopal Church and Visual Arts. “I’m very visual,” she said. “My spirituality has a lot to do with seeing, and [I] love seeing what the artist is saying, and that’s a voice of God that has got to come to the table. Otherwise we’re missing a huge piece of what God is trying to say.”
Looking back, Griswold said she had learned to wear “gender glasses,” a way of looking at the world and asking: “Where are the women?”
Don’t be surprised if those metaphorical glasses develop a physical incarnation. “I want to make them,” Griswold said. “I think God is fun. It’s hard work, but if you’re not having fun, something’s missing.”