By Yehezkel Landau
On March 5, the Rt. Rev. Frank Tracy Griswold, who served as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church from 1998 to 2006, ended his earthly sojourn. The news of his passing evoked in me deep feelings that prompt this reflection. I feel profound sadness and grief, as I mourn the loss of a dear friend and spiritual companion while, at the same time, I am deeply grateful to God for bringing us together and sustaining our mutually nourishing relationship over three decades.
I first met Bishop Frank in the early 1990’s, when I was living in Jerusalem and co-directing the Open House peace education center in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Ramle. I also taught classes on Judaism, interfaith relations, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at various Christian institutions in the Holy Land. Among them was St. George’s College, the Anglican institution in East Jerusalem that hosts visiting groups of student-pilgrims from around the world. When we met, Frank was serving as Episcopal Bishop of Chicago. With his gracious, outgoing, and equally distinguished wife Phoebe, he participated in an educational program at St. George’s that combined lectures (including mine) with guided tours to Christian holy sites throughout the country.
Over the course of our friendship, Frank and I often conferred about issues related to peacemaking in the Middle East or interreligious relationships. His spiritual leanings, as well as his professional interests, inclined toward such matters. It seemed that bearing witness to a religious and moral truth that incorporates multiple perspectives, even in the midst of conflict, was grounded in Frank’s very being. He asserted (see The Living Church, February 25, 2001):
Heresy can be corrected over time by the community and sometimes what is thought to be heresy…is later found to be true. Schism, on the other hand, is difficult to repair once a break has been made. Truth is discovered in communion. Schism is the shattering of communion. In order to discover God’s truth, everyone has to be at the table…The truth of God rests on the consensus of our experiences because seeking truth is a corporate task.
This comprehensive, dialogical, non-dogmatic view of truth resonates strongly for me as a Jew, shaped as I am by Rabbinic attempts to discern a higher wisdom that integrates seemingly opposed viewpoints. One example is Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s sublime teaching from a century ago (Olat Reiyah, vol. 1, p. 330):
It is precisely the multiplicity of opinions that derive from variegated souls and backgrounds which enriches wisdom and brings about its enlargement. In the end all matters will be properly understood, and it will be recognized that it was impossible for the structure of peace to be built without those trends that appeared to be in conflict.
A vital part of Frank’s pursuit of truth was his ability to acknowledge when he was conflicted and felt compelled to change his heart and mind on critical issues, as he did regarding the ordination of women to the priesthood. I wish more religious leaders could be so humble, honest, and vulnerable in public. Too often they are prisoners of their own “certitude,” a term Frank used for the tendency to double down on matters of doctrine when they are challenged in good faith by others. He demonstrated how a religious leader can, and should, engage in ongoing soul work — unflinching introspection and, when necessary, conversion to a more authentic understanding and witness.
The foundation for everything Frank did was a profound devotion to the triune God — Father, Son, and Spirit — known and professed by faithful Christians. As he did during his investiture as presiding bishop, Frank often invoked the experience of his saintly namesake, Francis of Assisi, who saw a vision of Christ on the cross saying to him, “Go rebuild my church.” Frank’s public ministry, as priest and then bishop, was grounded in a contemplative spirituality often associated with monastics. His personal piety resembled that of a monk, and one of his closest spiritual companions was his fellow Episcopal bishop, the late Thomas Shaw, who belonged to the monastic Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA.
Frank had ample opportunity to put these twin commitments — to the pluriformity of truth, and to the triune God — to work. For instance, during his years as presiding bishop, bitter disputes related to gender and sexuality threatened to split his church and the entire Anglican Communion. The ordination of women as priests had divided Episcopalians and other Anglicans before Frank was chosen to lead the American Church. That contentious issue was still unresolved when, during Frank’s term as presiding bishop, the Diocese of New Hampshire nominated Rev. Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, to be its bishop. Robinson was confirmed for that position by the church’s House of Bishops and General Convention, with Bishop Frank voicing his unequivocal support for that historic decision. Despite his ardent efforts to keep the Episcopal Church united, in 2009 (three years after Frank’s term as presiding bishop ended) a network of conservative churches and bishops formally broke away to establish the Anglican Church in North America. From my conversations with Frank, I know how saddened he was by the emerging schism among Episcopalians.
Frank was also a fervent proponent and exemplary practitioner of both intra-faith and interfaith dialogue. In his spiritual memoir, Tracking Down the Holy Ghost: Reflections on Love and Longing, he wrote:
It is worth noting that the words “conversation” and “conversion” come from the same Latin root, meaning “to turn” or “to change.” Conversation has an enormous power to lead to conversion, particularly when we risk opening ourselves to one another in trust with undefended hearts. True conversation is a spiritual discipline whereby we render ourselves vulnerable to being changed in some way by the truth present in another. Conversation is not about the triumph of one point of view over another but about the discovery amidst our differences of a common ground of mutual respect, and even affection, where we can stand together. (p. 148)
This commitment to the spiritual discipline of compassionate conversation informed his religious leadership. Even though he could not prevent the schism within his own church, he presided over an ecclesiastical rapprochement between Episcopalians and Lutherans, co-chaired the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission from 1998 to 2003, and participated in many multi-faith initiatives over several decades, extending well beyond his term as primate. One of those initiatives was the Elijah Interfaith Institute headquartered in Jerusalem.
Tracking Down the Holy Ghost offers a wide-ranging account of Frank’s faith journey — as a boy, a man, a priest, a bishop, and then primate of the Episcopal Church, and also as a son, a father, a husband, and, above all, a beloved child of God. It is an exemplary memoir that should be required reading for seminarians in any religious tradition. When I taught an online graduate seminar on interfaith leadership at Hartford Seminary in 2019, I asked Frank to join one of our Zoom sessions so that he could share his experiential wisdom with my Christian and Muslim students. He graciously agreed, and his interaction with them was a highlight of the course.
In another of his publications, a short book entitled Going Home: An Invitation to Jubilee, Frank reflected on the temporal rhythm of sevens programmed into Creation by our loving and liberating Creator: the weekly Sabbath, the Sabbatical Year, and the Jubilee culmination every fifty years. On page 14, he gifted us with this evocative statement:
Communion is God’s deepest desire for us; communion is to go home, to return to our roots, to reclaim who we are and are called to be in grace and truth. And therefore we need to have regular opportunities to release ourselves from useful productivity and purposeful accomplishments and to let Christ, through the agency of the Spirit, lead us home, back to our roots as persons of faith, back to those places and moments in our lives when the Hound of Heaven nipped us in the heel and God laid claim to us and called us by name.
Frank has been brought home to enjoy the ultimate communion with the Divine that awaits the faithful of any tradition after their earthly sojourns are completed. He has been blessed by God’s final release from expansive productivity and a sterling record of accomplishments. The devoted servant is now reunited with the Source of life and love. Whatever his true name in the eyes of God — Frank, Francis, or some other appellation — I am consoled by the knowledge that the Divine has claimed him for all eternity, and that his legacy on this plane will forever be a shining example to all who aspire to genuine fidelity and righteousness.
Yehezkel Landau, D. Min., is a dual Israeli-American citizen, interfaith educator, and author active in Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations and Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding for over 40 years. He directed the Oz veShalom-Netivot Shalom Israeli religious peace movement in the 1980’s and co-founded the Open House peace center in Ramle. He then taught Jewish tradition and interfaith relations at Hartford Seminary, where he held the Abrahamic Partnerships Chair. See www.landau-interfaith.com
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