Northern Michigan bishop-elect controversy

The announcement of the election of the Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester as bishop of the Diocese of Northern Michigan, pending consents from a majority of Standing Committees and Bishops of the Episcopal Church, has created a stir in the blogosphere. The two questions about the election are about the process and about his participation in Zen meditation practices.

From a press release from the Diocese of Northern Michigan:

The Diocese of Northern Michigan created an Episcopal Ministry Support Team and elected Kevin Thew Forrester as bishop at a Special Diocesan Convention on Saturday, February 21, 2009 at St. Stephen’s Church, Escanaba. Thew Forrester was elected on the first ballot and satisfying the Diocesan Constitution and canons, received 88% of the delegate votes and 91% of the congregational votes. (this is a method of balloting that is not the usual vote by orders. ed. note)

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The Discernment Team, composed of twenty-one members (representing 70% of the congregations of the diocese) worked closely with Jo Gantzer (Diocese of Michigan) as its Companion and three Reflectors from the wider church: Bishops Bruce Caldwell (Wyoming) and Tom Ely (Vermont) and Fredrica Harris Thompsett, recently retired professor at the Episcopal Divinity School. They worked for nearly a year before presenting a single name for bishop as well as identifying EMST members who where affirmed during the Special Convention.

Prior to the naming of the EMST and bishop-nominee, the Discernment Team presented its work-to-date and its proposed process to the Annual Diocesan Convention last October. It received an overwhelming vote of confidence, with 94% of the delegates voting to affirm.
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Additional information about the Diocese and process may be found on the Diocesan

The Diocese has also provided a FAQ to answer questions about the Discernment Process and why only one candidate was presented for election or rejection.

For those unfamiliar with the discernment process in Mutual Ministry dioceses, this may seem strange and perhaps an innovation. The selection of leaders, both ordained and lay, is done through a process of congregational study over a period of several years. After this phase, names are suggested, in writing, by members. If a person is supported by most of the congregation, he or she is then asked to continue, if that is his/her desire, for consideration and further discernment.

The process in Northern Michigan opens up the possibility that the leadership of Bishop and Ministry Team can be discerned in a similar way.

As always the discussion revolves around how much to support the local decision of a diocese and how much the rest of the church should act as a check. It seems that the majority of members of the diocese support this election and that Thew Forrester is committed to the vows of a bishop in this Church. What are your thoughts?

Herb Gunn, editor for the Diocese of Michigan news, The Record, writes more on the process and the Diocese of Northern Michigan here.

Mark Harris comments at his Preludium blog.

Mad Priest's blog Of Course I Could Be Wrong offers a letter from those who question the election and continues the debate in the comments, including those in Northern Michigan who both support and oppose the process. Earlier discussion on the process here.

Read more below for Thew Forrester's statement on his meditation practice.


My Christian Faith & the Practice of Zen Buddhist Meditation
Kevin Thew Forrester 25 February 2009

As a Christian, I am deeply aware that I live and move and have my being in Christ – as does all creation. I am honored to be the bishop-elect of the Diocese of Northern Michigan with the opportunity to serve and work with the Episcopal Ministry Support Team as well as the people of the diocese for the next 10 to 15 years, committed as we are to the ministry of all the baptized.

Each of us is formed in the image and likeness of God. As a Christian, I owe my life to our Trinitarian faith. Over the years my faith and spiritual practice have been largely shaped and profoundly imprinted by the mystics and the contemplative spiritual tradition.

I have grown in my awareness that the grace of God, which is God’s very Presence, cannot be circumscribed. Because of my faith in the gracious goodness of the Godhead, I am open to receive the wisdom from, and be in dialogue with, other faith traditions; not to mention the sciences and the arts.

I am quite honored, as an Episcopal priest, to have been trained in the art and practice of Zen meditation. I am not an ordained Buddhist priest. I am an Episcopal priest eternally grateful for the truth, beauty and goodness, experienced in meditation.

I am thankful for the pioneering work of Thomas Merton in the Buddhist-Christian dialogue. I am also thankful for the current elders in our Christian tradition, such as Thomas Keating and David Steindl-Rast, whose practice of meditation (like that of Merton) deepened their own contemplative life and led them to explore the sacramental common ground we share through the grace of God. As a Christian I can be receptive to divine truth, beauty and goodness, because I know that “All things come of Thee, O Lord; and of thine own have we given thee.”

I have been blessed to practice Zen meditation for almost a decade. About five years ago a Buddhist community welcomed me as an Episcopal priest in my commitment to a meditation practice—a process known by some Buddhists as "lay ordination."

Literally thousands of Christians have been drawn to Zen Buddhism in particular because, distinct from western religions, it embodies a pragmatic philosophy and a focus on human suffering rather than a unique theology of God. “Lay ordination” has a different meaning in Buddhist practice than in the Christian tradition.

The essence of this welcoming ceremony, which included no oaths, was my resolve to use the practice of meditation as a path to awakening to the truth of the reality of human suffering. Meditation deepens my dwelling in Christ.

My experience continues to be that through the grace of meditation I am drawn ever deeper into the Trinitarian contemplative Christian tradition. I have been able to bring the practice of meditation/contemplation to the wider diocese through the gifts discovery process and through the founding of the Healing Arts Center at St. Paul’s in Marquette.

The Center is devoted to assisting people in their own spiritual journey, which includes the practice of meditation within the sanctuary and the exploration of Christian contemplatives and mystics.

-- Kevin G. Thew Forrester
Ministry Developer
Diocese of Northern Michigan

Barbara O'Brien, Guide to Buddhism for About.com, comments on being a Christian and participating in Buddhist practice here.

I've been reading online discussions and for a time participated in one. These discussions make it clear there is still much ignorance about Buddhism among western non-Buddhists. A discussion at an Anglican web forum, for example, cites Pope John Paul II's much-debunked misunderstanding of anatta as nihilism. The subsequent comments about Buddhism run the gamut from weirdly off base to entirely wrong.

However, the basic question -- can a person be a Christian and a Buddhist at the same time -- is a serious one, and it requires serious consideration

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Read her comments here and here.

Comments (3)

I don't understand exactly what is going on, and although I find fine to use Buddhist practices and claim to be a Christian (after all, Buddhism can be stripped of religious components added to me), what worries me are the comments from some of the people up there in Northern Michigan about the process and Fr. Forrester's unwillingness to follow the Prayer Book. I specifically refer to the comments of "renzmqt" on Mark Harris' blog. Somehwere else, I read he was part of the committee that chose him as the only name. I didn't get it well, but if that's true, it would be a bit contradictory.

But anyway, I have to say that all seems to blurry to me, and apparently, the majority of people approved the way the process was conducted. I just am very picky with Prayer Book changes without approval from the National Synod, or Convention. Just because it allows anyone to include anything in their liturgies. I wouldn't be happy to arrive at a church and find the Nicene Creed substituted by GAFCON's statement of belief, for example.

"religious components added to me" should be, of course, "religious components added to it"

I used to practice Zen and Christianity, and though the actual experience of the sacred turns out to be remarkably similar, the rub is in the way you bring it down from the mountain. Buddhism and Christianity have entirely different ideas about what constitutes Good News, and therein lies the problem. I realize that Rev. Forrester probably goes to sit Zazen with the best of intentions, but I wonder why he doesn't explore more deeply the rich and far more congenial meditational traditions within the Abrahamic faiths. If there's no one else with which to practice silent meditation, I totally understand why he's practicing with the Zen sangha. However, since he's in the position to become a bishop, and there are far more Christians, etc. than Buddhists around, he's certainly in a great position to research and learn ways to practice meditation that are more Christian-friendly, and has the connections to gather a community for that purpose. This would be of great service to the Episcopalians and other Christians under his charge. Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault and others in the Church would love to be of assistance I'm sure, as well as folks like Kabir Helminksi or David Stendl-Rast.
Some kind of institutional support beyond just an interest in "centering prayer" is sorely lacking in Christianity. Groups like contemplative prayer societies seem esoteric and not an integral part of the life of the Church. Yet very many Christians are coming to appreciate the value of meditation and contemplative traditions. It is surely time to fix the former so that the latter can grow, or a great opportunity for the Church will be sorely missed.

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