It was a somber group of bishops that gathered Thursday night, September 20, in Burlington, Vermont, for their annual fall meeting. On the wall of the ballroom in the Radisson Hotel was a makeshift crucifix fashioned by Episcopalians from Rhode Island, made of scraps from the wreckage of the World Trade Center towers in Manhattan. A Spanish phrase was attached--'Build a new world.'
The world is high on the agenda at the meeting as it deals with the broad theme of globalization, its impacts and implications. In welcoming the 135 bishops, many accompanied by their spouses, Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold said that he couldn't think of a topic 'more pertinent.' In the wake of the terrorist attack last week on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon--two icons of the power of the United States in today's world--it is time 'to look at how our national interests are perceived in the rest of the world,' he said. 'Even some of our friends are questioning our commitment to the common good.'
The underlying issue is one of reconciliation, Griswold argued. 'What does it mean to be reconcilers as a church and as a province of the Anglican Communion?'
A common wound
Griswold thanked the bishops for making the difficult decision to attend the meeting. 'It is terribly important that we gather as a community,' he said. Acknowledging that the meeting was taking place in 'unusual and troubling circumstances,' he said that 'we have all personally and collectively suffered a trauma. All of us have been wounded' and it is best to deal with the effects 'in community.' Following the attack, he wrote a letter to the bishops urging them to attend the meeting.
Part of the trauma, he added, is the loss of 'our sense of immunity' and being forced to 'face our vulnerability and fragility.' He said that 'it is a thin place in which we find ourselves' but he noted that many people are expressing 'a need to be in sacred space. They are open in deeper ways to the mysteries of God.'
Bishops play a special role, he said, in supporting their clergy and people in this traumatic situation. But this meeting is also a time for the bishops to lay down some of the emotions of the last week and share their pain. 'If you don't name your emotions you are the victim of those emotions,' he warned, asking the bishops to 'be available to one another.' He hoped that the meeting and their mutual support would help them return to their dioceses 'more fresh, grounded and renewed.'
From the frontline
Griswold called on the bishops most directly affected by the terrorist attacks--Bishop Mark Sisk of New York and Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon of Washington, DC.
Sisk described the 'eerie experience' in the wake of events. He went to St. Luke's Hospital near the cathedral, which wanted help from the diocese in setting up a blood donor station and a temporary morgue, and later to Roosevelt Hospital nearer the World Trade Center. He had expected to see an influx of survivors and realized it was a bad sign when none arrived at the hospitals.
When he visited Ground Zero the next day he was stunned that it was so quiet. He walked the area near Trinity Church and St. Paul's Chapel and was relieved that they seemed to survive intact. As he visit the rubble of what was the World Trade Center, 'we realized we were standing at the grave of thousands of people,' he said.
Dixon said that the experience in Washington was quite different. Because the Pentagon is quite isolated from the city, 'we haven't experienced the immediate horror but we do live in the terror of what will come next.' She said that the city was filled with rumors, feeding into that sense of terror.
The diocese had to decide if the cathedral could be a target and, after discussing options, they closed the cathedral and worship outside the buildings. With planes back in the air, many of them military jets, 'people now are more afraid than before,' she said. Churches in the diocese are packed and people face the difficult task of sorting through the differences between justice and revenge.
Dixon said that the trauma had fostered 'one hope in this horror--people of different faiths are coming together in a new way. Since events on that Tuesday we have reached out to one another.' For her personally, Dixon said that 'the trauma is still with me and I haven't been able to cry yet,' trying to deal with 'much fear of the unknown.'