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.