The truths are out there

It is the Most Rev. Frank Tracy Griswold III's custom to begin his day at 5 a.m. with prayer and yoga, a heels-over-head ritual that symbolizes what some call his Zen-Benedictine approach to faith.

The graceful, bookish cleric didn't stand on his head in the National Cathedral during the festive rites in which he was installed as the Episcopal Church's leader. But the new presiding bishop did challenge his church to wholeheartedly embrace the ambiguity of modern life.

Each person must discover "the truth which is embodied in each of us, in what might be called the scripture of our own lives," he said, in his sermon on Jan. 10. With their legacy of "graced pragmatism," Episcopalians are uniquely gifted at blending the "diverse and the disparate," the "contradictory and the paradoxical," the "mix and the muddle," he said. In a flock committed to finding the "via media," or middle way, "different dimensions of truth, different experiences of grace, can meet together, embrace one another, and share the Bread of Life."

Here is a postmodern credo for the next millennium: The truths are out there.

The problem is that there are so many people with so many truths and so many of them clash. Thus, Griswold faces a challenge: promoting unity in a deeply-divided church in which, if he has his way, the only Gospel truth will be that truth is essentially personal and experiential and discovered in compromise. Thus, the only heretics will be traditionalists who insist that scripture and church tradition contain transcendent, eternal truths that must be defended.

But some issues defy compromise. Consider this biblical commandment: "I am the Lord thy God. ... Thou shalt have no other gods before me." On the other side are those who teach that the God of Christianity is merely one image of an older god or gods and who, on occasion, use rites blending Christianity with other religions. The "via media"? Thou shalt only occasionally have other gods before me? Or there is the issue that haunts Episcopalians and other old-line Protestants -- sex. On one side is the biblical teaching that sex outside of marriage is sin. On the other side are those who insist this teaching must change. The "via media"?

Griswold has sought compromise on this and other related issues. But the former bishop of Chicago has made his own stance clear. He has ordained priests who are sexually active outside of marriage and was one of more than 100 bishops to sign a 1994 statement saying sexual orientation is "morally neutral" and that the church must recognize "faithful, monogamous, committed" same- sex relationships. He is active in efforts to modernize church liturgies.

The new presiding bishop has said that his love of ambiguity is rooted in his education, which took him from New Hampshire's high-brow St. Paul's Episcopal prep school to Harvard University and then on to Oxford. His critics note that these settings have consistently served as Anglicanism's laboratories for theological innovation.

Griswold says his goal is to find middle ground between different truths. Others are more blunt. In a new book called "Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity," gay Episcopalian Bruce Bawer describes a titanic struggle between "legalists" who preach a faith based on law and compassionate Christians who base their faith on love.

"Legalists," argues Bawer, view "'truth' as something established in the Bible and known for sure by true Christians." Others see "truth as something known wholly only by God toward which the belief statements of religions can only attempt to point the way."

Griswold states this another way. Those who are committed to compassion, conversation and true communion accept the reality that "absolute truth is beyond our accessibility," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"Broadly speaking, the Episcopal Church is in conflict with scripture," he said. "The only way to justify it is to say, well, Jesus talks about the Spirit guiding the church and guiding believers and bringing to their awareness things they cannot deal with yet. So one would have to say that the mind of Christ operative in the church over time ... has led the church to in effect contradict the words of the Gospel."