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Remembering Frank Griswold, an Episcopal bishop who championed gay rights

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. When Gene Robinson became the first openly gay bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church in 2003, it was Bishop Frank T. Griswold who presided over Robinson's ordination and consecration. Griswold was then the head of the Episcopal Church in America. His support of Robinson and of the ordination of women made him a controversial figure in the U.S. Episcopal Church and the Worldwide Anglican Church, which the Episcopal Church is part of. Bishop Griswold died March 5 at the age of 85. We're going to listen back to an excerpt of the interview I recorded with him in 2006 when the Worldwide Anglican Church was on the verge of splitting apart over these and other issues. When we spoke, he was just a few months away from completing his nine-year tenure.

Bishop Griswold opposed schism in the church, and it was avoided. When his term ended, he was succeeded by a woman, Katharine Jefferts Schori. In 2009, the Episcopal Church officially removed gender and sexual orientation as barriers to the election of bishop. When Griswold was a priest in Pennsylvania, he helped revise the Book of Common Prayer, the church's main text. Here's an excerpt of our interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: How has the controversy over gay bishops affected your relationship with other bishops? I understand some bishops declined to take communion with you, for example.

FRANK GRISWOLD: I would say that, yes, some bishops probably see me as the incarnation of evil - few, but I think some probably do. And others have seen me, at least until the General Convention, as a sort of a hero. And I think - I pray that I'm neither. I hope in some way that I am faithful to the complexities of trying to be a faithful person and a leader in a world in which there are so many divergences and diversities and contrary points of view. Sorting and sifting all that and trying to find what is God's larger purpose is certainly where I've put my best energies over these years.

GROSS: When Bishop Robinson was ordained and became the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, to the ordination ceremony, you wore a flak jacket, as, I believe, did he. Did you say to yourself, what is this world coming to that I have to wear a flak jacket to be part of this ceremony?

GRISWOLD: Well, quite frankly, I was more amused than scared by that. I went along with it because that's what I was asked to do. And I also thought that if indeed something did occur, which I felt was completely unlikely, it would have been foolish for me not to have taken that step to protect myself.

GROSS: Being a bishop, do people assume that you have a special connection to God and that being a bishop just inherently brings you closer to God or is a sign that you already were closer to God?

GRISWOLD: The wonderful paradox of being a bishop, at least in the Anglican tradition, is the more elaborate your title becomes and the more magnificent the vesture you put on, the more you are stripped inwardly and the more you have to confront your own interior poverty. And in the midst of that discovery, you discover your companionship with Christ in a whole new and much deeper way. So I would say my own faith as a Christian has deepened tremendously because I'm shot at from a number of directions and all sorts of projections are thrust upon me. You must do this, you must do that, or a good bishop does this, and if you want to be a good bishop, you must do this - those sorts of things. And so you ultimately have to sort of find your grounding beyond the externals of the institution and beyond the perceived grandiosity of your own office. If you take yourself too seriously, I think you are in great danger. Fortunately, I've been given - what would I say? - insight into the Divine's sense of humor and can apply it to myself.

GROSS: It seems to me from the outside that being a bishop would probably immerse you in the power, politics and administrative work of religion, and that can sometimes not be the most spiritual place to be - power, politics and administration. So are there things you have to be wary of when you're a bishop?

GRISWOLD: I think you have to be wary of taking yourself too seriously. I think you have to stay rooted and grounded in an active and authentic faith life that is beyond the institution. One thing I do every year, I go off for a 10-day retreat with a wonderful Jesuit who, though blind, can see better than any sighted person I know. And he can see right into Frank Griswold and isn't interested in Frank Griswold as bishop. And that is very, very helpful to me. And my daily patterns of prayer and spiritual direction, occasionally, with a wise counselor, keep me from becoming - what would I say? - the victim of the institution.

GROSS: What are your vestments as a bishop?

GRISWOLD: Well, there's a hat, a pointed hat, called a miter, and then you carry a staff, which is called a crozier. Or since I'm the presiding bishop and primate, it's a primatial cross, but it's the same idea. And, you know, there are various overgarments called copes and chasubles that you put on. So you can stand in front of a mirror and - fully dressed, and feel quite self-important if you forget that underneath it, you are simply a human being trying as best you can to respond to the emotions of the spirit and trying to be faithful to what God has placed before you.

GROSS: Does putting on those vestments give you the sense of either spirituality or theater that you feel you need or that is helpful in conducting a service?

GRISWOLD: I think in the midst of conducting a service, I feel very much that I am an instrument of God. That also means that I'm aware of myself as myself, and I'm also aware that the gestures and movements all are a form of punctuation and underscoring the larger purpose of what I'm doing. So I take seriously what you might call the theatrical dimension of it as well.

GROSS: Oh, I love theater, and I don't mean that in a negative way (laughter).

GRISWOLD: No, no. I know you don't. I know you don't. But for some people to say that there's theater associated with this would sound demeaning. But how you move liturgically, you know, how you go down an aisle, all that sort of thing, is part of how you serve the larger mystery.

GROSS: How did your parents practice religion when you were growing up? What was the style of religion that you were brought up with?

GRISWOLD: I was brought up in what I would call cultural Episcopalianism. I was baptized on the 1 of January 1938, which would have been my grandfather's 100th birthday. That was the reason for the day being chosen, though it also turned out to be a holy day. But that was incidental. And I never went near a church except for an occasional Christmas pageant when my mother felt guilty around Christmastime until I was sent away in the eighth grade to an Episcopal boarding school in New Hampshire. And there, I was in the choir and fascinated by the liturgy and the complexity of the rights of the church. And there were seven priests on the faculty who took an interest in me. And so I, in a very organic way, simply evolved into a person of faith. And by the end of my time at that school, it was clear to me that I wanted to be ordained. And this was supported by several of the clergy.

GROSS: Did you feel called to be a priest? And if so, would you describe what that means to you?

GRISWOLD: My call happened in a very funny way. My roommate at the boarding school I mentioned came back one Sunday afternoon from a visit to one of the clergy, fell on his bed roaring with laughter and pointed at me and said, Father Jones says you should be a priest. And the idea was so shocking and yet fascinating that it sort of stayed with me and developed over time. And I think sometimes a sense of vocation overtakes you in a way that surprises you. And my sense of vocation has changed tremendously over the years. I mean, I saw myself as the sort of perfect priest when I was still in school in college, and certainly the vicissitudes of actually living the life of a priest in several congregations and then life as a bishop has stretched and changed my sense of vocation. But I feel very much that it's a right thing for me to have undertaken, and I feel very much at peace with it.

GROSS: Is there anything that you really hoped to accomplish in your tenure as presiding bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church that you feel like you wish you had, but you're not going to be able to do it?

GRISWOLD: What I've hoped to do, and only time will tell, is keep people with differing points of view together in one larger conversation, to the point where they can recognize Christ in one another and, having done so, ask the question, how can we be about mission together? How can we serve this broken, bleeding world?

GROSS: Thank you very much for talking with us.

GRISWOLD: But thank you very much. I've very much enjoyed this.

GROSS: My interview with Bishop Frank Griswold was recorded in 2006. He died March 5 at the age of 85. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "SELF-PORTRAIT IN THREE COLORS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.