A bishop’s case against Bishop-elect Thew Forrester

Bishop Tom Breidenthal of Southern Ohio, who cannot be dismissed as one of the usual suspects, has announced his decision to vote against the confirmation of the Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester as Bishop of the Diocese of Northern Michigan. He joins Bishop Greg Rickel of Olympia in the ranks of bishops who are not part of the conservative movement within the Church, but have voted against Thew Forrester’s confirmation.

In a letter to his diocese, Breidenthal said he had “no problem” with Thew Forrester’s involvement in Zen Buddhism, but expressed concerns over the nature of the search process in Northern Michigan, and the bishop-elect’s Christology.

To read Bishop Breidenthals’ letter, click Read more.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ

I am writing to inform you of my decision not to consent to the consecration of Kevin Thew Forrester as Bishop of Northern Michigan. I did not want to make a public statement before I shared my concerns with the Standing Committee. I was able to do this at their meeting last Friday, March 27.

Two subjects have arisen as matters of concern in the wider discussion of consent for this Bishop-elect. I want to be clear that these matters have not contributed to my refusal of consent.

First, the internal process which led to Bishop-elect Thew Forrester’s election. In my view, it violated no canons, and, although I have questions about it, these have not entered into my decision to withhold consent. Second, some have voiced concern that Bishop-elect Thew Forrester has been recognized by the Zen Buddhist community as one who practices Zen Buddhist meditation in an exemplary fashion and accepts the basic ethical principles of Buddhism. I have no problem with this. Many Christians have deepened their own faith through Buddhist prayer practices, and in my view the moral framework of Buddhism is largely consonant with that of Judaism and Christianity.

But obviously I do have concerns. These concerns lie closer to home. My own reading of Bishop-elect Thew Forrester’s sermons over the last year (these sermons were available on the website of his parish church, St. Paul’s, Marquette, Michigan, as of March 16, but are no longer posted) reveals an understanding of the Christian narrative that is troubling to me. I have spoken about this with the Bishop-elect on the phone, and he has followed up with e-mails, but I remain troubled.

According to Thew Forrester, Jesus revealed in his own person the way that any of us can be at one with God, if only we can overcome the blindness that prevents us from recognizing our essential unity with God. The problem here is that the death of Jesus as an atonement for our sins is completely absent, and purposely so. As I read Thew Forrester, nothing stands between us and God but our own ignorance of our closeness to God. When our eyes are opened, atonement (not for our sins, but understood as a realization of our essential unity with God) is achieved. Thew Forrester’s rejection of salvation understood as an atonement for sins we cannot procure for ourselves is not an idea he is merely exploring. In a very consistent manner, he is developing this idea. In materials he submitted to the House of Bishops earlier this month, he has shared with us his own revision of the Prayer Book rite for Holy Baptism, in which references to salvation are replaced with references to union with God.

Why is Thew Forrester’s teaching troubling to me? Because it 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. Our tradition certainly declares God’s closeness to us and God’s love for us, but insists that this is solely due to God’s gracious initiative, made known to us in Jesus. In other words, Jesus in his singular closeness to God is as much a reminder of our alienation from God and from God’s ways as he is God’s word to us that we are loved despite our collective wrongdoings.

I would not worry about this so much if Thew Forrester were merely speculating about alternative ways of understanding the Christian faith. I would not even worry so much if it were simply a matter of the content of a number of sermons (although I think we should expect to be accountable for what we preach). But, as his revision of the Baptismal rite makes clear, he appears to be settled in his conviction that our relation to Christ is not about salvation from a condition of objective alienation from God, but about a more realized union with God.

Some may say, “So what?” Should the Episcopal Church not allow as much latitude as possible when it comes to theological reflection on the meaning of Jesus in our lives? Yes, of course. We are a church that values a broad range of opinion on practically every subject. Yet our (unrevised) Baptismal liturgy (Book of Common Prayer, beginning at p. 299) is extremely clear about what it means to be a follower of Jesus: we are to turn to him – the same Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified and rose again and continues to invite us into a personal relationship with him – and accept him as Savior. Whatever else we have to say about Jesus follows from that (even though different people may end up saying quite different things).

I cannot emphasize enough that clarity about our relationship to Jesus through our baptism is especially important as we move on from the Lambeth Conference, where the bishops of the Episcopal Church pointed repeatedly to our Baptismal rite as evidence of our commitment to Jesus as Lord.

I write this with a heavy heart. Kevin Thew Forrester served as an assistant in the parish where some years earlier I was ordained a priest and served as an assistant. He has been raised up by a sister diocese in our own Province V, and I know how highly he is regarded there and what a blow it would be to the people of Northern Michigan if he were not to receive the requisite consents to be consecrated. But I also know that the Episcopal Church needs at this crucial juncture in the life of the Anglican Communion to be clear that all our hope is founded in the cross.


+Tom Breidenthal

Bishop Thomas E. Breidenthal

Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio

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