A legacy of courage for a trailblazing bishop


The Rt. Rev. Frank Tracy Griswold, III, of Chestnut Hill, the 25th presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church who came under fire after supporting the ordination of women and gay Christians, died of respiratory failure on March 5. He was 85 years old. 

Griswold was serving as bishop of the Diocese of Chicago when he was elected to lead the national denomination at the 72nd General Convention in Philadelphia in July 1997. He officially took office on Jan. 10, 1998, after a ceremony at Washington National Cathedral and served until Nov. 1, 2006.

As presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church, Griswold oversaw the ordination of the church’s first openly gay bishop in 2003, a controversial event that led many conservative Episcopalians to break with the denomination. 

 “We’re learning to live the mystery of communion at a deeper level,” Griswold said at the historic ordination of Bishop Gene Robinson, who went on to lead the New Hampshire Diocese for ten years.

Robinson, who said he was receiving daily death threats at the time, told the Religion News Service that he later learned that the presiding bishop, Griswold, like himself, had been wearing a bulletproof vest under his robes during the service. “That’s how dangerous those times were,” he said. 

In the interview, Robinson described Griswold as a courageous man. “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,” Robinson said. “There’s almost no comparing it to anything.”

Griswold understood there would be challenges ahead when he became the denomination’s bishop. The church had been divided over issues including the ordination of women as priests and role of gay congregants in the church.

“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,” Griswold told reporters before leaving the Diocese of Chicago.

Griswold also sparked controversy when he invited a Muslim leader, Sulayman S. Nyang, president of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, to speak during his installation service, believed to be the first time a Muslim had done so for any presiding bishop. 

The Rev. Thomas McClellan, retired rector of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Andorra (next to Cathedral Village), told us last week, “I knew Bishop Griswold for 45 years. He was a man of deep spirituality. He had the gift of conveying that in homilies, retreats and multiple other venues. He was also a mentor to many other clergy members in this diocese and beyond. He had an impact on so many people. This is a very big loss, especially to those who knew him personally. I feel very blessed to have known him.”

According to Griswold's daughter, Eliza, a journalist who writes for The New Yorker magazine and who said she was speaking on behalf of her mother, Phoebe, and herself, “My Dad was a mystic. People saw him as a figurehead wearing robes, but he was really happiest praying alone in the Middle East. He understood what was required of a public figure in the church, but his private mystical devotion was where he really found God...

“He was a devoted husband and father, and he told terrifying ghost stories to his grandchildren. He was very funny and a little naughty with the ghost stories. He also did great puppet shows for the grandchildren. He was really funny. He loved laughing and he loved people.”

Griswold was ordained as a priest in 1963 and then served at three parishes in the Philadelphia area, the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, St. Andrew's Church in Yardley, and St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Chestnut Hill, where he served as rector from 1976 until he was named bishop of Chicago. He served in the post from 1987 to 1998.

Griswold's term as presiding bishop lasted from 1998 to 2006, when he and Phoebe moved back to Chestnut Hill. He was succeeded by the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman to become a primate in the Anglican Communion. (The chief bishop in an Anglican Province is called a primate.)

After his term as presiding bishop, Griswold continued a ministry of teaching, preaching, writing, lecturing and leading retreats. He served as a visiting professor at seminaries and universities in South Korea, Cuba and Japan, among others.

Griswold, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard College and a master’s degree from the University of Oxford, was also the author of several books, such as “Going Home,” “Praying our Days: A Guide and Companion,” and “Tracking Down the Holy Ghost: Reflections on Love and Longing.” 

According to Bishop Daniel G. P. Gutierrez, of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, “Frank served gently, quietly and pastorally. I treasured his advice, wisdom and friendship … We will miss him, and with certain confidence, we know we will see him again.”

Bishop Michael Curry, leader of the national denomination, will preach at a celebration of Griswold’s life, Saturday, March 18, 11 a.m., at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 5421 Germantown Ave.  Curry called Griswold “a remarkable and faithful servant of God.”

Griswold is survived by his wife, Phoebe, daughters Eliza and Hannah and three grandchildren.

Clark Groome contributed to this article. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com