Faith and the Zen bishop-elect (updated)

stolesIf you search the World Wide Web for the name of Father Kevin G. Thew Forrester and the word "bishop," you will find that an ocean of digital ink has been spilled in coverage of the bishop-elect of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan. However, once again, you will find that this is apparently a "conservative" news story, with most of the "news" reports running in alternative, conservative publications and stirring up responses in advocacy media on the left. Alas, if you look for the story in the mainstream press, you will find next to nothing. This is strange, because there are several interesting and newsworthy angles to this election in a tiny liberal diocese, which has a total membership about the size, or smaller, of a single evangelical megachurch.

The headline grabber is that Thew Forrester is both an Episcopal priest and an ordained -- whatever that means -- teacher of Zen Buddhism. However, it is also interesting that, when he was elected, Thew Forrester was the only nominee. In an attempt to derail the election, conservatives are asking, "Who anointed him in this manner and why?"

The bishop-elect has avoided mainstream coverage, in part, by declining interviews from publications such as the respected Anglican periodical The Living Church. The lack of info has allowed his supporters to simply say he is being attacked by people who have no interest in understand the complex nature of his approach to these faiths.

However, Frank "Bible Belt Blogger" Lockwood of The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has marched into the gap, landing an interview that may be just as hot as his famous -- on the record, nicely recorded -- interview with former President Carter in which he called the George W. Bush administration the "worst in history."

You'll need to check it out. But here is the top of the story, which is a rare mainstream news report that asks basic doctrinal questions and then prints the answers. Note that Lockwood assumes that this controversy actually centers on religious doctrines and liturgical issues, not simply politics. What a concept.

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.

Holy smoke. Editing the creeds is indeed an innovation. Folks on the doctrinal left are supposed to read them as written, or in gender-neutral language, and then simply redefine the words silently in their minds (as an atheist parish council president in Washington, D.C., once told me). Set aside the whole "we believe" vs. "I believe" controversy.

The strength of Lockwood's piece rests in its direct, on-the-record quotes. You can expect to see them flying around on the Internet. But will these topics go mainstream? Here are a few key details:

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.")

jesus_buddhaAnd then there's this:

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."

Is what Thew Forrester is saying unique in Episcopal circles? No. Is it unique among bishops? Perhaps, when it comes to openly stated views to a mainstream reporter.

The key question: Will other mainstream reporters ask the doctrinal questions that are at the heart of this local, regional, national and global story? Lockwood has asked some of the basic questions and others can now ask the follow-up questions. Why? Because these questions are at the heart of the the news story itself.

You already know the two other questions that I would ask, since Lockwood has already asked one key question from the dreaded tmatt trio.

UPDATE: Care of reader Martha, this collect seems to be a good summary of the bishop-elect's theological world. The bulletin states that he wrote it, replacing the BCP's collect for the day. The service also included a scripture reading from the Koran.

God of Light and Wisdom: May we hold in trust The questioning mind, The searching heart, The thirsting soul; May we guard as sacred The many different paths into you, The Font of all Life; May we be as ready to hear the good news From your people of other denominations and faiths, As we are to proclaim the gospel; Through the healing Spirit of Christ. Amen

Top photo: Dancing Silk vestments.

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