Church leaders appear to have vetoed a bishop-elect for the first time since the 1930s. But few opponents are celebrating.
Frank E. Lockwood in Little Rock, Arkansas posted 6/08/2009
Barring a last minute change of heart by opponents, it appears certain that Episcopal Church leaders have rejected the consecration of a bishop-elect who denies traditional Christian teachings about sin, salvation, and Christ's atoning death at Calvary.
Evangelicals inside and outside the Episcopal Church say they would have been concerned if Kevin Thew Forrester had been given a ceremonial shepherd's staff and a sacred charge to "feed and tend the flock of Christ" in the Diocese of Northern Michigan, where he was elected on February 21. But few are seeing the rejection as a cause to celebrate.
According to church rules, elections of bishops must be confirmed by a majority of the church's House of Bishops (though not all members are allowed to vote) and a majority of its 111 diocesan governing boards, known as standing committees. While the results will not be official until mid-July, a majority of standing committees have voted to withhold consent, according to a survey by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Unofficial surveys show the bishop-elect trailing badly among bishops as well.
Thew Forrester, who has rewritten the church's baptismal covenant, the Apostles' Creed, and the Book of Common Prayer's Easter Vigil liturgy to remove historic Christian doctrines, would be the first bishop-elect to be vetoed by denominational leaders since at least the 1930s, according to the church's Office of Communication.
The 2.3-million-member Episcopal Church has had bishops who have denied core Christian doctrines like the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, and the Resurrection of Jesus. But the most prominent bishops to make such claims (such as John Shelby Spong and James Pike) reportedly did not do so until after they had been made bishop.
Critics on the theological left and the right said Thew Forrester's abandonment of church doctrine and liturgy, as contained in the Book of Common Prayer, placed him too far outside the mainstream to serve as a bishop and a successor to the Apostles.
Thew Forrester's rejection of atonement theology and his claims that the crucifixion was not the will of God were particularly troubling to some Episcopalians. According to Thew Forrester, Christ's blood doesn't wash away sin and Christ's death doesn't redeem and restore humanity. Jesus doesn't make us one with God, but simply reveals to us that we're already and always one with God, the bishop-elect maintains.
Such doctrinal innovations were too much for some bishops.
"There are a few things that are absolutely non-negotiable in the Christian faith because without them it ceases to be the Christian faith," said Bishop of West Texas Gary R. Lillibridge.
But a Thew Forrester supporter, Wyoming Bishop Bruce Caldwell, said Thew Forrester's theology "stretches us, but not to the point of breaking."
The bishop-elect defended his liturgical and theological changes, saying they reflected the "continually evolving" Christian faith.
"What we've done is quite responsible and appropriate, and indeed the church needs to do it in order to stay relevant in the 21st century," he said.
In addition to rejecting orthodox Christian teachings about the Cross, Thew Forrester denies that Satan exists, calls the Qur'an the Word of God, describes sin as being blind to our own goodness, and questions whether Jesus is truly the only begotten Son of God. A student of Zen Buddhism, Thew Forrester took Buddhist lay ordination vows and adopted a new Buddhist name—Genpo—meaning "way of universal wisdom."
Critics charged that Thew Forrester had also altered Christian liturgies to add Buddhist, Unitarian-Universalist, and New Age principles.
In a message posted on his blog, Bishop of Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) Paul V. Marshall warned that the denomination's failure to uphold historic Christian teachings had made it an embarrassment.
"As a Church we are increasingly a laughing-stock … because we do not consistently proclaim a solid core, words as simple as 'all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,' yet 'God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself,'" Marshall wrote.
Thew Forrester's theological and liturgical innovations are too extreme for a majority of the Episcopal Church, said Greg Griffith, founder of the conservative Anglican website StandFirmInFaith.com. But that doesn't mean that the Episcopal Church is ready to embrace the faith once delivered to the saints, he added. "All the Episcopal Church has done is to say that someone who is clearly not a Christian may not be one of its bishops," Griffith said. "It may be history in the making, but it's hardly a grand or noble achievement, and certainly not a signal that the Episcopal Church is returning to orthodoxy."
Bill Carroll, rector at Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio, says the vote may be a turning point for his denomination. "I think history will remember this as the point when the Episcopal Church began to show some backbone about basic Christian doctrine," he wrote in a comments thread at EpiscopalCafe.com. "For too long, we have allowed our respect for difference to mean anything goes. There are boundaries." [Emphasis mine.]