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Frank Griswold, Who Led Episcopal Church During Conflict and Decline, Dies at 85

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Bishop Frank Tracy Griswold III, who led the Episcopal Church in the late 1990s and early 2000s, died March 5 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at age 85.

Griswold served as presiding bishop of the mainline denomination as it saw the consecration of its first openly gay bishop in 2003, a move that resulted in a precipitous decline in membership in the once influential mainline denomination.

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.

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.”

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.”

Griswold’s participation communicated that the Episcopal Church’s departure from biblical norms “went to the very top,” Robinson said, “and there’s almost no comparing it to anything.”

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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, another mainline denomination that has embraced progressive theology, and has also experienced significant numerical decline.

When Griswold took the reins of the Episcopal Church in 1997, it claimed membership of more than 2-million people. Today, the Episcopal Church officially claims about 1.5-million members, but average Sunday attendance is less than a half-million.

Born in 1937 in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, Griswold was descended from two previous bishops in the Episcopal Church: Bishop Alexander Viets Griswold, the denomination’s fifth presiding bishop, and Bishop Sheldon Munson Griswold, the missionary bishop of Salina in what is now the Diocese of Western Kansas, according to Episcopal News Service.

He earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College and a master’s degree from Oriel College at the University of Oxford, according to a biography provided by his family that was shared by the Episcopal Church.

Ordained in 1963, he served three parishes in the Diocese of Pennsylvania before he was elected the 10th bishop of Chicago in 1987.

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

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Emily McFarlan Miller contributed to this report.

Main photo: The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold III in 2019 / Video screen grab

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Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.