Frank Griswold’s Early Formation and Wide Embrace

By Paul Zahl

In 1964 Louis Auchincloss published his novel The Rector of Justin. It concerned the headmaster of a church-related prep school in New England. Students at such schools read it eagerly, for it described the world in which “we live and move and have our being.” Auchincloss observed a world that critics described as “privileged,” though at age 13 one didn’t think of it that way. What we did know was that we were being educated for lives of service to God and country.

This was not a bad world. We were taught in such schools to choose “the hard right against the easy wrong.” My school’s hymn told us that “Christ gave us all the one true aim/When for that aim He died.” The “one true aim” was virtue directed away from ourselves and toward a hurting world.

Frank Griswold came out of that world. His main formation within it was to make him Christianly outward-directed. That formation required Morning Prayer, saturated in the 1940 Hymnal, five and sometimes six days a week, year after year. It was and still is a good thing.

The other major gift I experienced in Frank Griswold was his intentional desire to include theological conservatives and traditionalists in the councils of the church. After the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, Frank invited two definite conservatives to serve on his informal theological cabinet. This “cabinet” met with him in extended retreat in monastic settings. He desired to know what we thought about the issues dividing the church, and he listened attentively. His sincere interest strengthened our desire to remain in the church. I will never forget that.

Photo: Paul Zahl

Once when visiting him in his office at 815 Second Avenue, I remarked, a little ironically, that our main connection might in fact be the membership we shared in an undergraduate fraternity. He smiled and said, “That could well be. But the far more important link is this.” Then he reached over and attached a lapel pin to my jacket that showed his seal as presiding bishop.. I felt so included!

During his first year as presiding bishop, Frank summoned a conference at Virginia Theological Seminary for all the church’s presbyters who were younger than 30. It was a relatively small but enthusiastic group. I gave the first address, which concerned my heroes in the Protestant tradition within Anglicanism. Then the PB rose to speak: “I am your Presiding Bishop. And I have never heard of a single one of the people Paul Zahl just mentioned.” The place broke up. It was a priceless moment.

If Frank Griswold had been free to serve another 10 years in office, I believe the divisions — the separations — in our church would not have become final for many of my old partners in ministry. God bless Frank, and keep him always.

The Very Rev. Dr. Paul F.M. Zahl was dean of Trinity (Episcopal) School for Ministry and served parishes in Westchester County, New York; Charleston, South Carolina; Birmingham, Alabama; and Chevy Chase, Maryland. He is the author of many books, including The Protestant Face of Anglicanism.

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