On the episcopal election in Northern Michigan

In case you haven’t been following it (not everyone who reads 7WD is a church geek), there’s been a brouhaha surrounding the election of Kevin G. Thew Forrester as the next bishop of the Diocese of Northern Michigan. As bona fide church geeks will know, this election must be ratified by other bishops and by diocesan Standing Committees in order to be considered valid. And the consent process, as it’s called, has run into some snags.

Several websites are keeping track of bishops’ votes in the matter. As of this writing, the Anglican Centrist says 33 bishops have voted no, and Stand Firm says 31 bishops have voted no. By the calculations of Fr. Rob Eaton, there are about 99 bishops with votes. That means 50 no votes will scuttle the election. Based on my look at who has voted yes and no, this election seems unlikely to receive the required number of consents. To have an episcopal election overturned this way is very rare, indeed. I believe one can just about count the number of times it’s happened since 1792 on one hand. But this is, I believe, as it should be.

By that, I mean it should be rare for elections to be overturned. Dioceses typically follow a careful, deliberate process in selecting their bishops. In good faith, they invite the Holy Spirit’s presence as they vote. These votes are not meant to be political competitions or popularity contests. Rather, they are intended to be opportunities for discernment in who God might be calling as the next bishop of a diocese. (No, I’m not totally naive; I understand that both popularity and politics do play in elections. I’m interested in what’s meant to happen.)

That said, sometimes elections must be overturned. The very reason consents are required is to prevent a diocese from choosing someone who is not fit to be a bishop. Bishops, after all, are ordained not just for their diocese but for the whole catholic church. So why do I believe that Thew Forrester’s election should be overturned?

Some opponents are concerned about the election process, saying that there was no valid election — since there was only one candidate. This does not trouble me. First, “normal” elections are costly and are not flawless. It seems appropriate for a diocese to experiment with other election methods, so long as all canons are strictly followed. No one has yet made a credible claim that any churchwide or diocesan canons were violated. Moreover, we present vestries with a single candidate for election as rector all the time. Most discernment in that case happens with the search committee, not in the final vote. I see no reason why most episcopal discernment can’t happen in the search process, not in the final vote at a convention.

Other opponents are upset by Thew Forrest’s involvement with Buddhism. Here I will confess ambivalence and some ignorance. If I were casting a vote whether or not to consent, I’d have to do some homework. As it is, I only know what I’ve read — second- and third-hand testimony. Based on my current understanding of most Buddhist meditation practice, I have no problem with a Christian who engages in Buddhist meditation techniques. However, Thew Forrester’s “lay ordination” is something that I find puzzling, if not troubling. I do not know exactly what that means, but it appears to blur lines in ways that do not seem appropriate for a bishop in the church. If it is akin to ordination, then it is clearly problematic. If it is akin to an honorary degree, then it might be appropriate. I am unclear, and I’ve read little to help me on this one.

I’ve read that Thew Forrester “walks the path of Christianity and Buddhism together.” If a lay member of the parish I serve approached me and said this was their intention, I would want to explore this further with them. I would not have an immediate reaction leading to their instant excommunication. But I would encourage the person to contemplate the demands Christ makes upon disciples. However, there can be no ambiguity or question of loyalty for a person in holy orders, especially a bishop. As a sign of unity in the church, a bishop’s call as a Christian must be above reproach. The ordination vows must be said without any asterisks or crossed fingers.

There is a third objection to Thew Forrest’s election, and it is here that I find myself in agreement with those who cannot support his election. Thew Forrester has routinely crafted his own liturgies for his home congregation. This would be fine in many denominations, but in the Episcopal Church, we do not have the option to use liturgies other than those approved by General Convention. Even bishops cannot waive this requirement. Here, for the record, I am speaking about principal liturgies on Sunday mornings. Other occasions may invite considerably more creative license; canons and rubrics govern all this.

If Thew Forrester had merely used non-approved formularies (say, from the Church of England, or another Anglican province, or the 1928 prayer book), I would be concerned, but not gravely so. No, he has created texts of his own. Most troubling, he has rewritten the baptismal rite, including the blessing of water, the examination, the Apostles’ Creed, and the baptismal promises. Fortunately, the words of administration were unaltered. I do not question the validity of the sacrament he performed, but it was outside the order of the church. It was, most troubling, also outside the doctrine of the church.

We clergy do not have the freedom to decide which bits of the liturgy we might like to leave out or to edit. Though Thew Forrester may have trouble with the notion of profound, real evil, he must still ask his baptismal sponsors if they renounce Satan and evil forces. It was an error for a priest to make these changes. For a person who clearly stands ready to cast aside the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the church, he has no business becoming a bishop. This would be, I’m afraid, a scandal for the church.

I do not object to Thew Forrester because he is liberal — even more so than me. We must not allow the consent process to become a litmus test of liberal/conservative ideology. The fact that one might hold divergent views from another is not a reason to deny consent. The stream of Christian tradition is broad, and there are many issues upon which one can legitimately disagree and be firmly within the ambit of the church. But those of us in holy orders must be willing to profess and to teach the ancient creeds of the church. We must be willing to follow the worship forms approved for use in our church. And we must be obedient to our calling as Christians, as ordained persons, and keepers of the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the church.

Is there room for experimentation? Of course there is. New liturgical expressions are essential. But the church has a process for these things to take place, and that process ensures that our liturgical expressions, while always fresh, are also consonant with the ancient faith handed down from generation to generation.

Unless he were to offer a substantial apologia for his teachings and actions, I would be unable to consent to the election of this person as a bishop in the church. This is one time when I’m glad I don’t have to bear the responsibility of this weighty matter.

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6 Responses

  1. Thanks, Scott, for a bit of clarity about this one. I understand exactly what you’re saying.

    If someone struggles with the basic accountability to the whole Church involved in using a recognised baptismal rite, this may well not be the job for them. How accountable can they hold themselves to those they serve?

    Bishoprics are not personal fiefdoms, not even in the C of E! Squirt pixie dust over someone who doesn’t quite get this yet, add a little purple haze, result misery.

    This is the component in the proposal that now needs rigorous testing.

  2. Phil Snyder says:

    A bishop is to “guard the faith, unity, and discipline” of the Church.

    Forrester shows little understanding of the Faith of the Church if he believes what he preached in his Trinity Sunday sermon.

    Forrester also disregards the discipline of the Church. He regularly uses translations of Holy Scripture that are not authorized by GC. He rewrites whole liturgies – not just changing the language to gender neutral, but chaning the meaning of the texts.

    I strongly doubt his fitness to be in holy orders at all, let alone be a bishop in the Church.

    Phil Snyder

  3. Karen J. says:

    Thank you, Scott. You express very well the deep misgivings I have about this election.

    As a priest who would doubtless be identified as a “liberal” I have been increasingly dismayed with how the consent process for Fr. Thew Forrester has been portrayed in conservative/liberal political terms when in fact the problem is theological. I am also a former Zen meditation practitioner, and although I have strong reservations about how Kevin has managed to reconcile two very divergent faith traditions, this is not the issue that troubles me the most. As you have rightly pointed out, there are far deeper problems, and they can be most clearly seen in Kevin’s Trinity Sunday sermon, his Eucharistic prayers, and his denial of any theology of atonement. For what then did Jesus sacrifice his life, and why? His disregard of the Book of Common Prayer points out a whole different set of concerns, but others have already discussed this at length so I won’t belabor it.

    As I look over the vows that a bishop must take during the service of consecration I cannot imagine how Kevin could possibly make these promises. His disregard for the most basic doctrines of Christianity and church discipline, his abandonment of the Book of Common Prayer, and his seeming lack of theological coherence make this election very troubling. I wrote to my own bishop to express my concerns, but I know that I’m a lonely voice.

    What is almost more troubling, however, is how my fellow TEC progressives have made this election a litmus test of whether or not one is truly “progressive.” As a Christian priest who happens to be female and lesbian I obviously have little common ground with the Stand Firm and T19 folks, but no one is wrong 100% of the time, and this time I don’t think they are.

  4. Phil Snyder says:

    Hi Karen,
    As a theologically conservative, one of the things I decry most about the controversies in the Church is the way they promote “Party Spirit.” We have to support X because X supports our position on Y. X is one of us and needs to be protected at all costs.

    This is rampant on all sides of the theological spectrum.

    What we all need to do is to remember that people who deny the foundations of the faith (or, to put it more correctly – redefine the foundations to be meaningless) do more to harm our causes than they to do help them.

    So, a priest who decideds that it is good to offer communion to all who have not been baptized in the name of “inclusiveness” actually hurts the cause of inclusinveness because he is violating the canons and discipline of the Church.

    A bishop who denies the trinity or the resurrection, but supports the blessing of same sex unions actually hurts the cause of blessing same sex unions because its opponents will tie that bishop around the necks of the proponents of blessing same sex unions.

    A priest who supports traditional sexual morality, but denies the humanity of Jesus actually hurts the cause of traditional sexual morality.

    We, as clergy, need to have the courage to say to those who deny the faith, but support our causes that they are wrong in their denials. We need to stop the fruit “party spirit” and return to making creedal orthodoxy the foundation of our faith. The rest we can argue in good faith so long as we can hold to creedal orthodoxy and the Vincentian Canon.

    Phil Snyder

  5. MadPriest says:

    Very good, old chap. But I do have one little gripe over a technical issue in your article. Because, through no fault of your own, you people are foreign it is in fact your liturgy that is non-approved not that of the C. of E. It is technically impossible for something English to be wrong in any way. The idea, when you think about it, is ridiculous. But, don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t mean you are necessarily bad people or anything. You are just not quite as good as us. Well, if I was to be honest about it, not anywhere near as good. But the good news is that you still have something to strive for and you have, in the English, an example of righteousness that you can aspire to emulate. You know, sometimes perfection is a two edged sword, it carries with it great responsibility. You are free to skip through the meadows of underachievement whilst we cannot afford such luxury. The people of the world look to us now, as they have always done, to guide them and, above all, to point out when they get things wrong. Which I am doing here out of friendship and in the spirit of concord between the nations.

    Otherwise, an excellent piece of commentary.

  6. Peter Carey says:

    Madpriest, you always crack me up, but in this case, I am surprised that you are so serious…
    Peter Carey