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Bishop-elect worries some Episcopalians

As priest, he altered prayer book, says evil exists but Satan doesn't

This article was originally published April 17, 2009 at 4:49 a.m. Updated April 17, 2009 at 12:07 p.m.

— The Rev. Kevin G. Thew Forrester denies that Satan exists. He doesn't believe God sent his only-begotten son to die for the sins of the world. He says that the Koran is sacred, he has taken a Buddhist middle name and he teaches that many paths lead to the divine.

As an Episcopal priest, Thew Forrester altered the denomination's prayer book, including its baptismal vows and the words of the Apostles' Creed. Now he's been elected to become a bishop - a successor to the Apostles - by the Diocese of Northern Michigan.

If a majority of the Episcopal Church's bishops and dioceses give their consent, Thew Forrester would inherit a seat in the House of Bishops, a ceremonial shepherd's staff and an awesome task - to "guard the faith, unity and discipline of the Church."

Some, including the bishop of Arkansas, the Rev. Larry Benfield, hope that never happens. The Little Rock cleric says he voted against Thew Forrester primarily because of his deviations from sacramental rites printed in the Book of Common Prayer.

"The Book of Common Prayer, for us, is deeply steeped in the tradition of the church and in holy Scripture," Benfield said. "Changes in the prayer book are very serious matters for us in the Episcopal Church."

That prayer book, last revised in 1979, is the denomination's main theological document. It unites Episcopalians in common liturgy and common worship.

Thew Forrester's sweeping revisions do more than replace Shakespearean English with modern-day phraseology. For example, Thew Forrester, who says he believes in evil but not a literal devil, eliminates the reference to "Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God" in the baptismal rite. Instead, baptismal participants promise to"let go of" self-deceit, fear and anger.

Instead of accepting Jesus "as your savior," they confirm that they "accept him as the way of life and hope."

In the Apostles' Creed, an ancient and ecumenical statement of faith, Jesus Christ is no longer referred to as God's "only son." (Thew Forrester has stated, elsewhere, that "each and every one of us is an only-begotten child of God.")

Instead of thanking the Father "for the water of Baptism," baptismal participants thank the Mother.

While the Christian religion is "rooted in the Scriptures," it is also "continually being reformed," Thew Forrester said, explaining his theology.

"The faith is not a static reality. It's continually evolving and dynamic," he said. "I think 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."

Asked if he believes all of the words of the Apostles' Creed, Thew Forrester said "yes, but it's highly symbolic language, isn't it?"

"Do I believe there is evil? Yes. Do I believe in a literal Satan? No," he said.

A REMOTE DIOCESE

If consecrated, Thew Forrester, 51, will serve as bishop and chief pastor for the Episcopalians who live in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a sliver of land tucked in between the Great Lakes, Wisconsin and the Canadian border.

It's one of the nation's most remote Episcopal dioceses - and one of the smallest. Only 1,899 Episcopalians live in the Upper Peninsula, scattered across 27 parishes and missions. Average Sunday attendance is 690.

Northern Michigan Episcopalians overwhelmingly backed Thew Forrester at a special convention Feb. 21. That election is now drawing scrutiny from Anglicans around the world.

As of now, few are willing to predict how the vote will go.

"It's pretty close. It's pretty close," said the Rev. Bruce Caldwell, the bishop of Wyoming.

Bishops and diocesan governing committees have until mid-July to cast their ballots.

Episcopal Church spokesman Neva Rae Fox said the denomination is not making the tally public at this time and that Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori does not comment on an ongoing election.

The controversy, thus far, hasn't made headlines, but it's already boiling on the Internet, particularly on Anglican Web sites.

The election has divided colleagues in the House of Bishops. Several, including the bishops of Vermont and Wyoming, are eager to welcome the bishop-elect. Others, including the diocesan bishops of Louisiana; Kentucky; Olympia, Wash.; northern Indiana; and southern Ohio, have withheld consent.

Among the objections:

Thew Forrester was heavily involved early on in the bishopselection process. Instead of having a contested election, Thew Forrester was the sole candidate.

Thew Forrester, as a priest, blended elements of Christianity and Buddhism. In the February 2004 diocesan newsletter, Thew Forrester announced that he had "received Buddhist 'lay ordination'" and had adopted a new Buddhist middle name: Genpo. Thew Forrester said, "I now walk the path of Christianity and Zen Buddhism."

His theology is drawing the most scrutiny, and not just from the church's conservative wing.

The Rev. James Turrell, an Episcopal priest and associate professor of liturgy at The School of Theology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., says that some liberal and moderate bishops oppose Thew Forrester, too.

The bishop-elect made changes in the covenant that "go to the heart of the doctrine of the church," Turrell said. "I can see now, having looked at this, why the bishop of Arkansas would be concerned."

"Technically, you're not supposed to tinker with the language like this," he said.

ALTERNATIVE THINKING

Thew Forrester says he made the changes with the approval of the late-Bishop of Northern Michigan, James Kelsey, who died in a June 2007 automobile accident.

And they were posted online, at stpmqt.org.

"The church I'm at, St. Paul's [in Marquette, Mich.], we are directly across the street from the diocesan office where I worked before I came here. This is a very small diocese, so everything that we've done here has not only been supported and known by the bishop, but it's been supported by the rest of the diocese," he said.

Thew Forrester said he does not accept atonement theology that portrays Christ as a sacrificial lamb whose death paid the debt for humanity's sins.

"God did not send Jesus here to be killed or be crucified by the Romans, which is a brutal murder. But Jesus has become incarnate to reveal to us who God is. He's a God of love and forgiveness and mercy. ... Jesus' death itself was not the will of God. God did not desire Jesus to be killed."

Bloggers have also criticized Thew Forrester for classifying a reading from the Koran as "the word of God" during a Sunday morning service. The bishopelect said the text was includedbecause a devout Muslim was speaking to the congregation that Sunday.

Asked if the Koran is the word of God, Thew Forrester said: "If God is the creator, which I believe and know, then there's only one source of truth, beautyand goodness and that is God. And that truth and beauty and goodness can be found in all the religions and their texts and if those texts somehow refract or embody God's truth and beauty and goodness, then they are sacred, and they are holy and they deserve to be listened to and engaged with."

Thew Forrester said he isn't spending much time monitoring his online critics.

"We're working as if we will receive the consent, and if we don't, we'll cross that bridge and do what is appropriate to be done. I don't know what that would be," he said.

Theoretically, if consent is withheld, three renegade bishops could consecrate Thew Forrester anyway, potentially triggering a denominational crisis.

"Those types of things, we haven't even talked about. We're looking forward to this current consent process," Thew Forrester said.

As Thew Forrester waits, members of the House of Bishops are reviewing his past liturgies, sermons and statements.

Caldwell, the Wyoming bishop, says he isn't troubled by the bishop-elect's theology. Thew Forrester's interpretation of the creeds "stretches us, but not to the breaking point," Caldwell said.

Retired Bishop of Eastern Oregon Rustin Kimsey, who oversaw Thew Forrester's work in Oregon from 1997 to 2000, says Thew Forrester was "cutting edge" and creative, but always respectful of the church's teachings and traditions.

"I'd say Kevin, over the years, has been very obedient to the Book of Common Prayer and to the rubrics, but he's also been given permission by his bishopto do some innovative thinking," Kimsey said. "If you're going to do ministry today, you need to look at trying to refresh whatever it is we're doing."

But some say Thew Forrester has strayed too far from the apostolic faith and the historic creeds.

"I would think that would be apostasy, blasphemy. ... It's heresy at the very least," said the Rev. Walter Van Zandt Windsor, rector (pastor) of Trinity Episcopal Church in Pine Bluff.

"If I heard my bishop say something like that, oh my, I'd be furious."

Olympia Bishop Greg Rickel, a former rector of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Conway, said the election process and the Buddhist ordination were major, but not insurmountable issues.

Ultimately, it was Thew Forrester's revision of liturgical texts, particularly the baptismal rite, that "troubles me the most," Rickel wrote in a letter to his diocese.

A SEARCH FOR UNITY

The Episcopal Church, with 2.1 million members in the United States, is a descendant of the Church of England. It sparked a global firestorm in 2003 by electing the Rev. Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in the world-wide Anglican Communion.

After vigorous protests, and fearing a potential schism, the Episcopal Church's General Convention in 2006 urged itsbishops and dioceses to oppose "any candidate to the episcopate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion."

The General Convention vote made it easier for the American church to remain in the Anglican family and to fully participate in the 2008 Lambeth Conference, a once-every-decade gathering of Anglican bishops.

At that meeting, U.S. bishops assured their fellow bishops that they would uphold core Christian teachings, said Benfield, theArkansas bishop.

"We took with us copies of the baptismal covenant to show everybody that we are truly grounded in solid Christian theology," he said. "I would hope that anytime we starttalking about the baptismal covenant that needs to be changed, that's a decision that's made by the entire church."

The Rev. Kendall Harmon, canon theologian for the Diocese of South Carolina, says the election of Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire has changed things.

Most of the world's roughly 75 million Anglicans live in Africa and Asia. Though they have historic ties to the Church of England, they tend to be more theologically conservative than their American and British counterparts.

After the Robinson vote, Third World archbishops demanded that unilateral theological innovations cease. "The communion started paying more attention to us and we, for the first timeever, started paying attention to the communion," Harmon said. "We've really begun to come to grips with globalization, [and we've realized] we are way out of the mainstream of Christian thought."

But this increased scrutiny worries the retired eastern Oregon bishop.

"I do not believe the consent process was meant to be a star chamber for judging a person's theology unless it's so far off the wall that it's quite obvious that something needs to happen," Kimsey said. "Here, I don't think that's the case with Kevin."

Vermont Bishop Tom Ely hopes to see Thew Forrester in the House of Bishops, saying the Northern Michigan diocese will be disappointed if he isn't seated.

"They know Kevin, they know his theology, they know his style. And with their knowledge of him, they've called him to this ministry," he said. "I think he's solidly a Christian believer, a disciple of Jesus Christ and will be a faithful bishop."

Another person untroubled by the bishop-elect's theology is the Rev. Shoken Winecoff, a Buddhist abbot who taught Thew Forrester.

Winecoff says he remembers the day that Thew Forrester donned ceremonial garb, kneeled with his hands in a praying position, took Buddhist vows and received his new dharma name.

"His is Genpo. It means 'Way of Universal Wisdom,'" Winecoff explained.

During their time together, Winecoff said, the Episcopal priest's openness and sincerity was inspiring. As a bishop "I think he'd be great," Winecoff said. "I feel like he's tuned in to people's needs."

Front Section, Pages 1, 12 on 04/17/2009

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