Bishop Frank T. Griswold III, who as the chief primate and pastor of the Episcopal Church in America defied a threatened schism in 2003 by presiding — in a bulletproof vest — at the ordination in New Hampshire of the denomination’s first openly gay bishop, died March 5 in Philadelphia. He was 85.
His death, at a hospital, was caused by respiratory failure, his daughter Eliza Griswold said.
A scholarly moderate elected to a nine-year term as presiding bishop in 1997, Bishop Griswold inherited a shrinking but disproportionately influential membership scarred by financial impropriety, hobbled by deficits, and confronted by stark ideological divides, both within the American church and between the church and its global parent, the Anglican Communion.
Those widening divisions had been provoked by discord over the role of women in the church, revisions to its centuries-old liturgy, accommodations to other religious groups, and the acceptance of homosexuality — including the trial, initiated by several conservative bishops, of a retired bishop on charges of heresy because he had ordained an openly gay man as a deacon. The accused bishop was absolved.
Bishop Griswold voted for the appointment of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 “because,” he said at the time, “I see no impediment to assenting to the overwhelming choice” of the diocese’s constituents. Robinson had been approved by the general convention of the Episcopal Church.
Bishop Griswold presided over the ordination and consecration of Robinson amid tight security. Both bishops wore bulletproof vests under their robes, and Robinson’s partner wore one as well.
At the ceremony Bishop Griswold remarked, “As Anglicans we’re learning to live the mystery of communion at a much deeper level.”
The archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Rowan Williams, who headed the Anglican Communion, acknowledged the Americans’ right to choose their own bishops. But he lamented their disregard for the objections of their more conservative church colleagues in other countries.
Bishop Griswold had signaled his more moderate stance as early as 1976, when, as a priest from Pennsylvania, he helped revise the church’s main text, the Book of Common Prayer. It was the first extensive revision of the text since the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.
When he was elected bishop of Chicago in 1987, the diocese’s clergy included no women. When he left early in 1998 to become presiding bishop, 41 of the 146 priests in the diocese were women.
In 1994, he was among about 80 bishops who signed a statement declaring that sexual orientation is “morally neutral” and that “faithful, monogamous, committed” gay relationships were worthy of honor.
At his consecration as presiding bishop at Washington National Cathedral in 1998, he said he wanted to be a unifying figure “to remind the community continually that truth is larger than any one perspective.”
He said he was hopeful that by listening to one another with mutual respect and compassion, Episcopalians would be “capable of rebuilding the church in the service of the Gospel for the sake of the world” because of a “deep desire on all sides to move beyond threat and accusation to a place of conversation, conversion, communion, and truth.”
Taking up the theme of what it might mean to rebuild the church, he asked: “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 read 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?”
Among those he invited to speak at the installation ceremony was a Muslim leader, Sulayman S. Nyang, who was president of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington and an adviser to the American Muslim Council.
After decades of debate, Bishop Griswold in 2001 helped negotiate what was described as a full communion relationship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in which both denominations would share clergy members, churches, and missionary work. From 1998 to 2003, he was a co-chairman of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, an ecumenical effort established in 1967 by the archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Michael Ramsey, and Pope Paul VI.
Toward the end of his term, Bishop Griswold again appealed for reconciliation within the Episcopal and Anglican communities, from the perspective that “God’s truth is always unfolding.”
“If we can accept that there are new truths that science brings us, or new discoveries in medicine, why is it when it comes to sexuality there is no new truth?” he asked. “A number of those most upset about our seemingly ignoring Scripture, though they are solidly heterosexual, have enjoyed the mercy of the church in the case of their own divorce and remarriage.”
In 2006, Bishop Griswold supported a compromise resolution urging dioceses to avoid, at least temporarily, supporting the election of gay bishops as the church explored the issue further. But in 2009, the Episcopal Church eliminated discriminatory barriers to the election of bishops, and in 2015 it provided theological support for same-sex marriage.
In response to Bishop Griswold’s death, the Episcopal House of Bishops praised his “careful and sacrificial leadership as Primate during a sensitive and unsettled season in our history as a Church.”
Frank Tracy Griswold III, the 25th presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, was born on Sept. 18, 1937, in Bryn Mawr, Pa. He was descended from two previous leaders of the denomination: Alexander Viets Griswold, the fifth presiding bishop in the early 19th century, and Sheldon Munson Griswold, the bishop of Chicago in the early 20th century.
His father, Frank Jr., was a race car driver who won the first Watkins Glen Grand Prix in upstate New York in 1948. His mother, Louisa (Whitney) Griswold, was a homemaker.
After graduating from St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., where he decided on pursuing the priesthood, he earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Harvard College in 1959 and a master’s in theology from Oriel College in Oxford, England, in 1962.
Ordained as a deacon in 1962 and a priest the next year, he served in three parishes in Pennsylvania. He was consecrated as a bishop in 1985.
In 2006, he was succeeded as presiding bishop by Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman to become a primate in the Anglican Communion. He later taught at seminaries and universities around the world. He was also the author of several books.
In addition to his daughter Eliza, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a contributing writer for The New Yorker, he leaves his wife, Phoebe (Wetzel) Griswold; another daughter, Hannah Griswold, a fund-raising consultant; and three grandchildren.