MARQUETTE - The controversy surrounding Bishop-elect Kevin Thew Forrester is deepening as bishops and diocesan leaders around the country decide whether they will consent to his election or not.
Thew Forrester - elected bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan in February - has been criticized for his views on Jesus, his practice of Zen Buddhist meditation and his revisions to the Episcopal church's Book of Common Prayer.
His election started a fierce debate, mostly on the Internet, as Episcopal bloggers weighed in with their opinions. At the same time, about 100 bishops and 110 standing committees from dioceses all over the country are either pledging their support or refusing to confirm Thew Forrester's election.
Episcopal bishop-elect Kevin Thew Forrester and Charlie Piper, rector of the Holy Trinity Church in Iron Mountain stand in front of St. Paul’s church in Marquette. (Journal photo by Christopher Diem)
Thew Forrester has been questioned for incorporating Zen Buddhist meditation into his spiritual life and for receiving a Buddhist lay ordination. Critics have said a bishop cannot follow both Christianity and Buddhism.
Thew Forrester said his only religion is Christianity and the ordination ceremony deepened and confirmed his practice of meditation.
"I can say what it was for me, in terms of how I experienced it. I can't say what it is in terms of how Buddhists are in dialogue with one another," he said. "For me it was a beautiful affirmation of the role that meditation plays in my life and a commitment to the role of meditation as it deepens my own contemplative prayer life."
At broader issue is Thew Forrester's views on Jesus and the relationship between God and humans. The ancient teachings of early church leaders, such as St. Ephrem the Syrian, according to Thew Forrester, reveal that the motive for creation was so that God could share the divine life with humans and that divine desire is embodied in the incarnation of Jesus.
Thew Forrester said God did not desire that Jesus be killed to atone for the sins of mankind; rather he was killed because the Romans could not tolerate an incarnation of God who showed uncompromising love for all.
"God does not demand that Jesus be killed ... (W)hat the cross reveals is that even in the face of Roman and human crucifixion, Jesus would not hold back on his embodiment of God's love and would share it with us to the end, even if it meant his own death. And that expression of divine love is redeeming for us," he said.
That belief concerns some bishops. In a letter to his diocese - available online - Tom Breidenthal, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio, said Thew Forrester's belief "flies in the face of what I take to be the conviction at the heart of our faith tradition, namely, that we are in bondage to sin and cannot get free without the rescue God has offered us in Jesus, who shouldered our sins on the cross."
Thew Forrester said his beliefs are not new or progressive. In fact, he said they hearken back to the first 1,000 years of Christianity. According to Thew Forrester, the 'crucifixion as atonement' theology only became widespread starting in the 11th century with the teachings of St. Anselm.
"For Anselm, God became human to convince God, in a sense, to love us again, to fulfill a debt that humanity could not repay, so Anselm recast the story of Jesus into those terms and those terms took hold," Thew Forrester said.
Anselm's theology became so dominant, Thew Forrester said, Christianity lost sight of the other theologies "which are quite beautiful and nurtured Christianity for 1,000 years."
Thew Forrester has also developed a trial liturgy which he says draws on the work of early church leaders and replaces some language in the Book of Common Prayer.
Dioceses elect their own bishops, but those elections have to be consented to by a nation-wide majority of the bishops that have jurisdiction and a majority of standing committees - committees of ordained and non-ordained people who have a variety of church functions.
Posters to religious blogs such as standfirminfaith.com and biblebeltblogger.com have been tracking the consent process and according to them, 34 bishops and 38 standing committees will withhold consent while 14 bishops and 13 standing committees support Thew Forrester's election. The remainder have not yet publicly commented on the issue.
Charlie Piper, rector of the Holy Trinity Church in Iron Mountain and member of the northern Michigan diocese's ministry support team, said the consent process lasts 120 days and there are two months left to go. He said there is no strategy if Thew Forrester's election is overturned.
"We're aware that it's a possibility. We're aware of the conversations taking place out there," Thew Forrester said. "Once the process has run its course then we'll respond in a way that's appropriate."
Neva Rae Fox, the public affairs officer at the Episcopal Church's national office said if Thew Forrester's election is not consented to, it would go back to the diocese for another nomination and election.
Piper said regardless of theological views, bishops and standing committees should support the Diocese of Northern Michigan in making its own decisions.
"This consent process I don't think was originally intended to be a kind of inquisition but rather to see that the process had been followed and confirm the decision that a local diocese has made for its own life," he said.