LITTLE ROCK At least 26 bishops, including Arkansas Bishop Larry Benfield, have announced that they will vote to overturn the election of the Rev. Kevin G. Thew Forrester by the Diocese of Northern Michigan. Only 10,
Thus far, say they plan to uphold Thew Forrester's election. The rest are undecided or declined to comment.
Roughly 100 bishops are entitled to vote. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette contacted all 100 of the church's U.S. dioceses for its survey.
If a majority withhold their consent, Thew Forrester will be the first bishop-elect since the 1930s to be vetoed by the bishops of the church.
Bishops on the left and right say they'll vote "no."
"Statistically or politically, however you may like to describe it, there is only a slim chance of [Thew] Forrester pulling this one out," predicts the Rev. George Conger, an Episcopal priest and chief correspondent for the Church of England Newspaper.
No bishop is publicly offering a detailed defense of Thew Forrester's theology, but several opponents in the House of Bishops have issued lengthy statements, some of them sharply worded, explaining the reasons for their vote.
The right Rev. Paul V. Marshall, for example, expressed doubts that Thew Forrester would "proclaim unambiguously the gospel of Christ in all its fullness."
"As a Church we are increasingly a laughingstock. Not because we welcome lesbian and gay people, and carry on social ministries that enact the sacrifice of Christ on a corporate basis, and certainly not because of our latitude and the conversation it engenders. We are a laughingstock because we do not consistently proclaim a solid core, words as simple as 'all have sinned and come short of the glory of God [Romans 3:23],' yet 'God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself [2 Corinthians 5:19],'"wrote Marshall, the bishop of Bethlehem, Pa.
"Increasingly it seems that the Cross has become foolishness in the Church. ... If our embarrassment is going to end, the voices of bishops as clear, traditional and powerful evangelists need to be raised in the churches and in the marketplace." Bishops like Marshall began wrestling with Thew Forrester's fate in March. They have until July to cast their votes.
To get consent, Thew Forrester will also need to receive consent from a majority of the church's diocesan governing boards, called standing committees.
Arkansas' standing committee has voted "no." So have standing committees from New York City to northern California.
Neither the Diocese of Northern Michigan nor the national church will release nationwide vote totals. Surveys by the Church of England Newspaper and independent Episcopal Web sites also indicate that Thew Forrester is trailing badly.
The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, is declining to discuss the controversy and is "absolutely not" lobbying bishops to vote either way, according to spokesman Neva Rae Fox.
As they decide Thew Forrester's fate, some bishops are rereading their own oath of office.
During the consecration ceremony, each new bishop must "solemnly declare that [they] do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation."
Each new bishop receives a copy of the Scriptures and is commanded to "feed the flock of Christ ... guard and defend them in his truth, and be a faithful steward of his holy Word and Sacraments."
Thew Forrester, who has called the Bible and the Koran "the Word of God," says the Christian faith is "rooted in the Scriptures" but is "continually evolving and continually being reformed."
As a priest at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Marquette, Mich., Thew Forrester extensively rewrote his denomination's baptismal covenant and revised the Apostles' Creed. He also abandoned the Book of Common Prayer's Easter Vigil liturgy, replacing it with a new liturgy called Kindling the Ancient Fire: Sharing Stories of Life-Death-Rebirth Receiving the Sacred Fruits of the Earth.
Thew Forrester's new liturgy removes references to Christ's "sacrifice" at Calvary. It omits claims that Christ is "the true Paschal Lamb ... who paid for us the debt of Adam's sin, and by his blood delivered [God's] faithful people." In the new liturgy, Christ doesn't break the bonds of hell, God doesn't give his only Son to "redeem" humanity, wickedness isn't "put to flight" and churchgoers don't renounce "Satan and all his works."
Unlike most Protestant churches, the Episcopal Church celebrates the Lord's Supper weekly, remembering Christ's broken body and shed blood every Sunday. But Thew Forrester says Jesus' blood doesn't erase sin or reconcile man with God. In a recent interview, Thew Forrester said he doesn't believe it was God's will or plan for Jesus to die on the cross.
The bishop of West Texas, the right Rev. Gary Lillibridge, says Thew Forrester's liturgies "omit or obscure what are, for us, nonnegotiable Christian beliefs."
A letter, written by Lillibridge and his diocesan standing committee, expresses sympathy for the plight of the Northern Michigan diocese. "But we have a larger responsibility to the whole Church, and we are convinced that his consecration would further weaken the Episcopal Church's unity and mission."
Regent College theology professor J.I. Packer, an Anglican based in Vancouver, British Columbia, said Thew Forrester's teachings put him "right outside the circle of Christianity."
But Frank Guthrie, president of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Indianapolis, said he's hesitant, as a lay person, to challenge Thew Forrester's theology or to second-guess the people of Northern Michigan.
"If they want the person, they're entitled to have him," Guthrie said. "I'd want our diocese to be allowed the opportunity to pick whomever we wanted."
Members of the vestry, or governing board, at Thew Forrester's church are watching the controversy unfold with sadness.
"We cannot emphasize enough how this exceptional man has quietly and consistently expanded ourspiritual lives as a Christian community," vestry members wrote in a letter posted on the church's Web site. "So it is especially painful for us to watch while others malign him during this consent process. He is one of us, and every unfair personal attack on our beloved bishop-elect inflicts a deep wound on each of us, who we are, what we have worked to achieve, and how we wish to fulfill God's promise and love in our diocese."
Thew Forrester's election will directly affect the Episcopal Church, with 2.1 million U.S. members. It is also being watched by leaders of the roughly 75 million-member Anglican Communion - made up of religious bodies that trace their roots to the Church of England.
But Packer says the election should be worrisome to the broader church, too.
"Non-Anglicans should be concerned about the spread of error to the point of nonsense in Anglican circles, just as I would care if heresy established itself among the Presbyterians or the Baptists," Packer said. "The Epsicopal Church is in such confusion that, from one standpoint, nothing that they do can amaze a conservative Christian anymore."
But retired Bishop of Eastern Oregon Rustin Kimsey says the church is diminished if it rejects nonconformist thinkers, including Thew Forrester, the late-Bishop of California James A. Pike and retired Bishop of Newark John Shelby Spong.
Spong is known for denying the divinity, virgin birth, bodily resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.
"I mean there are a lot of things that Jack Spong has said that I don't agree with. That doesn't mean he shouldn't be a bishop, for heaven's sake," Kimsey said.
"I'm very dismayed by this [opposition] because I think it undercuts the basic genius of the Episcopal Church: to be bigger than we're behaving right now, to be more buoyant and more understanding of other viewpoints and welcome them," Kimsey said.
"Within the ballpark?"
What other religious leaders are saying about the teachings of the Rev. Kevin G. Thew Forrester, the bishop-elect of Northern Michigan: "I don't really see what there is left to say - the unique incarnation, saving death, bodily resurrection and universal lordship of Jesus are basic to Christian faith and to question that means you are disqualified from being an upholder of that faith in any official capacity in the church. That such a man should be considered even a possibility for a bishop is quite simply extraordinary." - The right Rev. N.T. Wright, lord bishop of Durham, England "I think [Thew Forrester is] solidly a Christian believer, a disciple of Jesus Christ and will be a faithful bishop. ... I don't think he's outside the tent of acceptable theological thinking and understanding." - The right Rev. Tom Ely, bishop of Vermont "This gentleman, apparently, doesn't believe the creeds. ... The doctrine of redemption through the incarnation and atoning work and resurrection and heavenly reign at present and future return of the second person of the Godhead: That is Christianity. Take that away and you have destroyed the Christian religion. Period. That's what Christianity is about." - Regent College Professor of Theology J.I. Packer "The creed is a statement of faith and of love of God. ... The question is 'Is Kevin's interpretation of it within the ballpark?' For me it is. I think it stretches us but not to the point of breaking." - The right Rev. Bruce Caldwell, bishop of Wyoming "The facts of the Christian faith are that Jesus is God's Son, born of the virgin Mary, lived a sinless life, died for our sins, rose again from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is coming again. A Christian will agree with these facts. If a denomination or church is Christian, it will agree with these facts. If a so-called bishop does not agree with the central elements of the Christian faith, then he should not call himself a Christian, let alone a bishop - nor should a church ordain him. He is an apostate from the Faith; and a church that ordains such a one is also apostate." - The Rev. George O. Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God Abishop-elect who rejects traditional biblical teachings about sin, salvation and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ faces fierce opposition from the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops.
Religion, Pages 14, 15 on 05/02/2009