Frank’s swan song

[Episcopal News Service] Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold presided and preached at St. John’s Anglican Church in Notting Hill, London, on October 29, the last Sunday of his nine-year tenure as Presiding Bishop, chief pastor and Primate of the Episcopal Church. The full text of Griswold’s sermon follows:St. John’s Anglican Church,
Notting Hill, London

October 29, 2006

The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold
Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church

(the readings: Job 42:1-6,10-17; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52)

I am very grateful to your vicar, Father Taylor, for the invitation to preside at this morning’s Eucharist and to break the bread of God’s word. I do so with a mixture of emotions on this, the last Sunday of my time as Presiding Bishop, chief pastor and Primate of the Episcopal Church. Next Saturday my successor, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, will be formally proclaimed Presiding Bishop during a liturgy at the Washington Cathedral.

My reason for being here in London has been to introduce Bishop Katharine to his Grace, the Archbishop of Canterbury. While I have known Archbishop Rowan for many years – our friendship dating back to his days as a professor at Oxford – my successor had yet to meet him. It was an immensely positive and fruitful exchange. During our meeting we were able to share mutual concerns and hopes for the future of our Communion and its ministry of service to our broken and needy world.

The Anglican Communion, through its international consultative council, has committed itself to gender equity in all of its representative and consultative bodies. The election of Bishop Katharine to serve as 26th Presiding Bishop, and therefore Primate, is a first step toward bringing gender balance to what until now has been an all male preserve.

There are those who have indicated that they will not sit at the same table with her. I do hope that once they meet her as a person, rather than as a fabrication of the Internet, they will be able to sense the depth and authenticity of her faith, and to recognize her as a sister in Christ and a fellow bishop.

It is ironic that though women represent the majority of the Anglican Communion, their voices and their reconciling views are woefully underrepresented. In so many situations of conflict and division throughout the world it is women who, because of their passion for life and the wellbeing of the family, are the peacemakers. It is women who courageously refuse to play the largely male power games of who is in and who is out, who is strong, who is weak. These invidious games afflict not only nations but the church as well.

Today’s gospel reading presents us with blind Bartimaeus who encounters Jesus making his way through the town of Jericho. If today you visit Jericho you will be shown an ancient tree in the center of town, and told – confidently – that it is the very tree under which blind Bartimaeus sat on that fateful day.

There is, however, another way to approach today’s gospel. While it is clearly an account of Jesus healing a blind man, it can also serve as an invitation to explore blindness as a spiritual condition in which we see but do not see. Here I am put in mind of John Cosin’s paraphrase of Veni Creator, the hymn sung at ordinations in which we pray to God the Holy Spirit “enable with perpetual light, the dullness of our blinded sight.”

How easy it is for us – personally, ecclesially and nationally – to live with blinded sight. Unquestioningly and uncritically we accept prevailing attitudes, opinions and biases as self-evident, as true. The dullness of the familiar can so easily keep us from seeing the inequities, the untruths, the injustices that surround us.

In my own country the naïve belief on the part of many that the United States can only do good in the world meant that many of us who spoke against the impending invasion of Iraq were labeled unpatriotic. Now, as this unconscionable war drags on and on – costing thousands of lives due to deception and a president’s blind insistence on the rightness of his course – the eyes of many have been opened. Now, a season of sober self-examination has begun. But, alas, how quickly we forget what we have learned. How easily we revert once again to blinded sight. How eagerly we wrap ourselves again in the security of old chauvinisms and certitudes and the dark comfort they afford.

Nowhere is this danger more present than in the life of the church with its built in bias toward the past and the continuum of tradition regarded as fixed and immutable. Of course, tradition itself is made up of a series of provocative inbreakings of divine outrageousness focused for us as Christians in the scandal of the Incarnation: God’s pitching his tent and dwelling among us as one of us in the person of Jesus, paradoxically both fully human and fully divine as the Council of Chalcedon declared in 451.

It was that same Jesus who said to his disciples “I still have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…He will take what is mine and declare it to you.” The historical Jesus has ascended as the risen Christ to the Father and is no longer with us. Therefore, wristbands which you see from time to time in the United States bearing the letters WWJD – What Would Jesus Do are irrelevant. The proper question is: what is the risen Christ up to right now through the agency of the Holy Spirit – unsettling, prodding, challenging, stretching, illumining and sometimes causing havoc?

To be delivered from blinded sight involves a cost. For Bartimaeus to cry out after Jesus involved a risk. The safety provided by his status in the community as the blind beggar under a tree was cast off, along with his cloak, as he rose up over the objections of the townspeople who saw him only as a familiar passive and dependant fixture within their limited landscape. They were not prepared for his transformation and liberation at the hands of Jesus. Nor were they prepared for a change in their perceptions. Neither, quite frankly, are we. Nor is the church, as Christ animates his risen body and us – its members – with his death-defying life which makes all things now. This is not a newness are always ready to receive, but a newness that is being worked among us by the Spirit.

“Unawareness is the root of all evil,” observed one of the Desert fathers of the fourth century. And how true this can be. The tactic of the evil one whose nature, Jesus tells us, is to lie, to keep us from the truth, invites us not to notice certain things, or – if we do take notice of them – to deny their reality or not to give them room in our consciousness.

“Me racist? What do you mean?” This is the offended outcry sometimes heard in the United States, which, in spite of advances in the area of civil rights, is still profoundly racist. And here I am obliged to acknowledge the historical complicity and studied unawareness on the part of the Episcopal Church, which we in recent days have publicly acknowledged and are seeking, with the help of the Spirit of truth, to overcome. The pain of that acknowledgement, particularly in the North – which is having to own its long overlooked participation in, and economic benefit from, the slave trade – is difficult to bear because it calls into question much of the presumed virtue of our forebears.

Two days ago I presided at the Eucharist in Christ Church, Philadelphia standing over the tomb of Bishop William White, the first Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, whose own views on the subject of slavery or the status of his domestic staff are in dispute. It is always easy with hindsight to see what those before us should have seen and been able to acknowledge. Rather than condemn them for their blinded sight we should ask ourselves what is it that I am afraid to see or to acknowledge? We ask this recognizing that if we did see clearly, the status quo would be threatened or undermined.

How many families or relationships survive only because truth is not told and dysfunction remains unacknowledged? And how frequently the one who tells the truth is castigated and declared an enemy and disturber of the peace.

Jesus declared that the truth will make you free. This text serves as the motto of the Anglican Communion. In reflecting upon these words Archbishop Rowan has observed that, in actual fact, the truth can make things very difficult.

What are the many more things the risen Christ – who is himself the Truth – seeking to reveal to us through the workings and motions, the proddings and promptings of the Spirit of truth? How do we distinguish the authentic manifestations of the Spirit from those that are false? Are we able to recognize the fact that the Spirit of truth is not confined to the church and is involved with things secular? The changing role of women in society, and more particularly as they ever more assume positions of leadership, leads quite naturally to the same changes in the church. At times the secular challenges the sacred and becomes the means by which the Spirit of truth stretches and expands the church’s consciousness.

In the Acts of the Apostles, which is an account of what happens when the Spirit of the risen Christ is unleashed in the world, we find the apostolic church challenged in its Jewishness by the Spirit who ignores the boundaries established by the law and descends upon the Gentiles – those outside the law and therefore outside the community of faith. The church had to struggle, therefore, with the provocative and unsettling fact of the Spirit’s presence in the lives of those heretofore considered unredeemed. The church, faced with this new reality, found itself challenged and obliged – not without struggle and debate – to modify the law, and therefore its self understanding, in order to make way for those whom the law would exclude.

The result was not simply a compromise, but a new way of seeing: the marginalized and excluded and unclean were now regarded as brothers and sisters held fast within the arms of Christ’s saving embrace. Is it not possible that the Spirit of truth is profoundly present in our own day in the struggles and tensions we are experiencing in the life of the Anglican Communion?

To be faithful to Scripture requires a willingness, indeed an eagerness, to follow the Spirit of truth wherever we may be led. However, to pray Come, Holy Ghost…enable with perpetual light the dullness of our blinded sight is dangerous and involves risk – the risk of being obliged to change our opinions, to cast away protective biases, to make room for the unfamiliar and sometimes unwelcome. This is what it means to bear the cost of unblinded sight. And yet, as painful as this may be, as our certitudes are challenged and purified by the Spirit of truth, there is worked within us an increasing ability to see as God sees and to love as Christ loves.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, let us dare to rise up with blind Bartimaeus. Let us dare to cry out to the risen and ever merciful Christ, “I want to see.”

Amen.

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