Commentary on the investiture service
for Frank Griswold

Conservatives also will 'rebuild my Church'

Commentary by Doug LeBlanc United Voice

WASHINGTON -- Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold's service of investiture on Jan. 10 was a mix of booming sounds, vivid images and four disparate themes: St. Francis, the Koran, conversation and baptism.

The service at National Cathedral incorporated such diverse elements as a fourfold alleluia from Zimbabwe, an energetic and plaintive song of welcome performed by Little River Drum, the work of Benjamin Britten, the hymn "Songs of thankfulness and praise" (with its stirring refrain of "anthems be to thee addressed/God in man made manifest") and the joyous South African hymn "Siyahamba (We are marching in the light of God)."

One of the more happily quirky images was of a deacon, the Rev. Elizabeth Colton of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, circling the altar and holding the Book of the Gospel aloft, her sweeping movements suggesting that the Gospel really is good news of Jesus.

*St. Francis* dominated a story Griswold told about attending a conference in Assisi, Italy, soon after his election as Presiding Bishop. Griswold spoke of being transfixed by a 12th-century crucifix that once spoke to the saint. Griswold tried to remember what the crucifix had said to Francis, and eventually he found the answer on a plaque: "Francis, go rebuild my Church."

"Later that evening I began to share what had happened with a Roman Catholic nun. I got no further than saying, 'I was praying in front of the San Damiano crucifix,' when she pointed at me and declared, 'That's it. That's what your vocation is all about. Repair my Church.' Hers was the confirming word I needed before I was able to allow Christ's words to Francis to find a home in me."

The new Presiding Bishop showed a refreshing courage and candor in acknowledging that the Episcopal Church needs rebuilding.

Early in the service, Bishop Griswold received a copy of *the Koran* and the Torah as "symbols of the other Abrahamic traditions" and as "sacred writings from our faith traditions."

This copy of the Koran may linger as a symbol of an interfaith inclusion that is encouraging to liberals but troubling to conservative Episcopalians.

Some conservatives may wonder, for instance, what today's Christian martyrs of Sudan would think about receiving the Koran as a sacred text. (Granted, the Sudanese Muslims who enslave and behead Christians are not the sort who also engage in symbolic gestures of interfaith good will.)

Griswold's receiving of the Koran does illustrate how deeply he means it when quoting from the Roman Catholic Archbishop Helder Camara: "My door, my heart, must be open to everyone, absolutely everyone."

The Koran gesture and the Presiding Bishop's emphasis on *conversation* illustrate that Griswold embraces some of the concepts of postmodernity

-- especially when he speaks of pluriform truth and of what liberals call "continuing revelation."

"Broadly speaking, the Episcopal Church is in conflict with Scripture," Griswold said in a profile published on Dec. 28 by *Inquirer Magazine* (the Sunday insert of *The Philadelphia Inquirer*).

"The only way to justify it is to say, well, Jesus talks about the Spirit guiding the church and guiding believers and bringing to their awareness things they cannot deal with yet. So one would have to say that the mind of Christ operative in the church over time...has led the church to in effect contradict the words of the Gospel" (ellipsis in the original).

Such liberal flourishes in Griswold's theology -- and his support of the "Statement of Koinonia," which declared homosexuality morally neutral -- so trouble some conservative Episcopalians that they will not receive communion from him, and rebuke those conservatives who do receive.

As for liberal theology in the Office of the Presiding Bishop, Griswold represents no radical break from what the office was for 12 years under Edmond Browning. While Browning abstained from most important votes in the House of Bishops and spoke often of representing all Episcopalians, he also left little doubt about which side he supported and which side he considered driven by fear, hatred and (his words) "biblical literalism."

Griswold's sermon at the service was gracious and did not pummel conservatives with a sense of theological condescension. When he spoke of fear, he used collective language: "What would happen if instead of defensively declaring where we stand we asked questions of one another such as, 'Who is Christ for you?' 'What does the church mean to you?' 'How have you been challenged to live the Gospel?' Are we afraid that if we asked such questions we might have to modify our position and make room for the ambiguity and paradox another person's truth might represent?"

Indeed, Griswold's concept of truth as pluriform presents conservatives with a new opportunity, if only conservatives will grasp it. Much opposition to conservative Episcopalians springs from the assumptions of modernity -- for instance, that Charles Darwin and "higher criticism" have rendered Scripture a useful myth, at best, or even a source of oppression.

A postmodernist approach, while hobbled by a sort of dogmatic relativism, at least opens a window for conservatives to make the best possible case for a vigorously scriptural Christianity. Even when welcomed only as one of many stories about "faith journeys," the gospel of orthodox Christianity wins converts, because it is objective truth and speaks to people's deepest needs.

"My sense is that I'm ready for conversation," Griswold said in response to a news-conference question about the Episcopal Synod of America. "All one can do is to open the door and say please come in, please sit down and let's talk. The door is open and I do hope that some of those who feel alienated and devalued in the life of the Church will find a way to sit down and possibly together we can find a new way to live in communion with one another."

When the newly installed Presiding Bishop tells conservatives that his door is open, conservatives face fairly simple options: walk through that open door and start talking, or walk through an exit and head for another communion. Conservatives can walk through either door with grace and integrity, if only they will stop worrying about their fellow conservatives' taste in doors.

Finally, but most importantly to the focus of the festive service, the nearly 4,000 Episcopalians in attendance reaffirmed their *baptismal covenant* and felt drops of water sprinkled onto them by a team of bishops.

Liberals often cite the grand promises of the baptismal covenant in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Two liberal favorites seem to be "Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?" and "Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?"

But the baptismal covenant also includes substantial content that bolsters the concerns of conservative Episcopalians. The first three questions ask Episcopalians to reaffirm the Apostle's Creed -- in first-person singular language, no less. The next three questions emphasize disciplines familiar to observant Christians: community worship, the Eucharist, prayer, justification, repentance, amendment of life and evangelism.

Even the final two questions are not the exclusive property of liberals. Conservative Episcopalians need not be intimidated by claims that they somehow fail to "respect the dignity of every human being" simply by engaging in the vigorous moral and theological debates of the 1990s. (Being obnoxious is another matter altogether.)

At their best, conservative Episcopalians express concern about preserving historic teaching and orthodoxy precisely because they love the Church and other Christians so much.

Presiding Bishop Griswold stressed that the Lord Jesus' call to "rebuild my Church" applies not only to him, but to all baptized Christians. That includes the conservative Episcopalians who greet Bishop Griswold's investiture with some substantial concerns about what the future holds.

Bishop Griswold said it well in one paragraph:

"Each one of us is a bundle of agony and idiocy, of grace and truth caught up into Christ. Who I am by the mercy of God is the gift I have to share, is my unique contribution to the ever expanding mystery of communion. 'My brother (my sister) is my life,' observed one of the desert monastics of the 4th Century, which is to say that it is not by accident but by divine intention, and it would seem at times by divine humor, that we, in a phrase from Bishop Rowan Williams, have been 'caught up' by baptism 'in solidarities we have not chosen.'"

So long as we are Episcopalians, we're stuck with one another, much like a family that argues and reconciles with equal fervor. In the next nine years, may Episcopalians find God's grace to speak vigorously about their deepest convictions and to pray and work for biblical reform. Above all, may we find the grace to love one another.
 

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