(RNS) — Bishop Frank Tracy Griswold III, who led the Episcopal Church through a tumultuous debate over the place of women and LGBTQ clergy in the denomination in the late 1990s and early 2000s, died Sunday (March 5) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at age 85.
Griswold served as presiding bishop of the mainline denomination as it saw the ordination of its first openly gay bishop in 2003, which increased pressure on some conservative dioceses to schism.
His daughter Eliza Griswold, a journalist who writes for The New Yorker magazine, shared the news of her father’s death on Twitter, describing him not only as her “beloved dad,” but as “a revered preacher and teacher and very funny human with a boundless heart, as he believed God’s is.”
Bishop Griswold was elected the 25th presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in 1997 and took his seat at the Washington National Cathedral in January 1998. The first presiding bishop to serve a nine-year term after the denomination’s ruling body had reduced the length of the term from 12 years, his time in office ended in November 2006.
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A Religion News Service article described the Episcopal Church at the start of his tenure as “one of the nation’s most prestigious but chaos-wracked denominations, scarred in recent years by financial and sexual scandals and still bitterly — perhaps irreparably — divided over the ordination of women as priests and the role of gays in church life.”
Upon becoming presiding bishop, he was immediately faced with threats of schism from several dioceses that refused to recognize women’s ordination as priests, with some conservative Episcopalians taking legal control of the name and the flag of the church even as they severed relations with the denomination.
Before leaving the Diocese of Chicago to lead the denomination, he told reporters he spent time in a private prayer retreat.
“By virtue of the office of presiding bishop, I’m going to become a center of controversy, like it or not, and probably in some people’s minds, I’m not going to be a human being. I’m simply going to be a living issue,” he said.
Undaunted, Griswold presided over the ordination and consecration of New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson, the denomination’s first openly gay priest to be elected bishop, answering objections during the service with the words: “We’re learning to live the mystery of communion at a deeper level.”
Robinson, who said he was receiving daily death threats at the time, told Religion News Service he later learned that the presiding bishop, like himself, had been wearing a bulletproof vest under his robes during the service. “That’s how dangerous those times were,” he said.
The former bishop of New Hampshire said he’s been thinking of Griswold since he learned of his passing Sunday morning and remembering how brave he was.
“He could easily have avoided presiding at that service of ordination to be a bishop, and he didn’t, and that was a remarkable thing on several levels,” he said.
Griswold’s participation communicated that the Episcopal Church’s welcome to LGBTQ people “went to the very top,” Robinson added, “and there’s almost no no comparing it to anything.”
As presiding bishop, Griswold also stressed ecumenical and interfaith relations, inviting a Muslim leader — Sulayman S. Nyang, president of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington and an adviser to the American Muslim Council — to speak during his installation service, believed to be the first time a Muslim had done so for any presiding bishop. He helped bring the Episcopal Church into full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Bishop Michael Curry, current presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, praised Griswold as a “remarkable and faithful servant of God” as he asked for prayer for his predecessor’s family and all who mourn his loss.
The Washington National Cathedral remembered Griswold as “a kind and gentle priest who held the church together despite enormous pressures from around the world.”
“Through thoughtful and prayerful leadership, he expanded access to God’s table for LGBTQ Christians and leaders, and helped establish a life-giving Full Communion agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” reads a statement on the cathedral’s website.
“When it would have been easier to say no, Bishop Griswold walked with God to find a way to say yes. And for that, we are grateful.”