When Presiding Bishop Frank Tracy Griswold III was installed earlier this month as leader of the Episcopal Church, he preached about keeping an open heart and mind and about helping his fractured fellow church members find common ground.
Griswold - a charming, patrician East Coast liberal who served as bishop of Chicago before his election to the denomination’s top post last summer - is taking over a 2.4 million-member church that is in one of its worst crises ever.
Since the church’s convention last July, the long-running war between conservatives and liberals has intensified, with stealth conferences, angry public statements and name calling. Conservatives are increasingly predicting schism over the church’s continued liberalizing attitudes toward ordaining women and gays and toward blessing homosexual unions.
All of this has turned the staid Episcopal Church, historically the denomination of presidents and intellectuals, into the nation’s most conflicted church.
“I want to bring the community together as much as I can,” Griswold said during an interview before his installation at the National Cathedral in Washington. “But I acknowledge it won’t be easy.”
He views his new position as a kind of hub around which the various spokes of the church circle.
“I think the essential role of the presiding bishop is to preside over the whole community and to be a minister of connection between the different voices and perspectives that make up the church,” he said. “It’s very much my hope that we will be able to make room for one another’s dimension of truth.”
He’ll meet with bishops in March. After that, he intends to visit as many dioceses as he can.
But Griswold was careful not to say too much about his plans for dealing with traditionalists who are threatening to split.
“I don’t want to indulge in hypothetical imaginings because these things can come back to haunt you,” he said.
There is no doubt, however, that he has his work cut out for him.
In December, Episcopal Church leaders discovered that conservatives had incorporated an entity called the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America Inc.
Conservatives say the new group will become a new traditionalist province of the Anglican Communion. Episcopal Church officials have demanded that the new entity, registered in 26 states, be dissolved. Discussion are at an impasse.
This doesn’t surprise the Rev. Samuel Edwards, executive director of the Episcopal Synod of America and a supporter of the new Protestant Episcopal Church.
“One word that would describe what’s going on now is ferment,” he said. “I’m going to stick my neck out (and say that) it’s practically inevitable there will have to be an eventual parting of the ways (between conservatives and church leaders).”