Lines in the sand

791px-star-duneLast month I attended a meeting of Episcopal clergy. Most of us were middle-aged and elderly, longtime denizens of parish ministry. We spent some time talking about the Scriptures for that Sunday. Then I asked them what they thought of the Rev. Kevin G. Thew Forrester (got to be Episcopalian, with that name), a controversial bishop candidate in the Diocese of Northern Michigan. Only one or two of them had ever heard of Forrester. When I told them that the main issue with him, and the one outraging many in the Episcopal blogosphere, was his interest in taking a red pen to many of the fundamentals of creedal Christianity, they seemed incredulous, as though a Martian space ship had landed in the parish hall.

Among the mainstream media, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's Frank Lockwood is perhaps the journalist who has spent the most time investigating the Forrester nomination (see Mollie's and Terry's previous posts). Lockwood has written extensively about the Forrester affair, going so far as to poll Episcopal Standing Committees (the boards that oversee each dioceses) to see how they would vote.

What Lockwood has done so well is to illuminate something that gets lost in the uproar over defections from the Episcopal Church over ordination of gays and same-sex blessings, and its oft-stormy relationship with the rest of the Anglican Communion. Doctrinally speaking, the denomination is by no means monolithic.

It includes at least this many subsets. Doctrinal conservatives (though a shrinking number) who disapprove of gay ordination and often women's ordination. Doctrinal conservatives who are OK with ordaining women but find ordaining gay's a bridge too far. Some who consider themselves orthodox according to the creeds (and this one is probably hardest for conservatives to fathom) who approve of ordaining gays and allowing the blessing of same sex relationships. Liberals (which certainly includes some bishops) who think a little ferment is good for the church and don't mind losing a few phrases of the Nicene Creed. Liberals who would like to rewrite the Creeds (which apparently includes Forrester). Then there is a group who are hard to pin down on creedal orthodoxy but can't stand bad ecclesiastical process (Forrester was the only candidate on the ballot). And I know I've left some people out.

As Terry noted a few months ago, this is a doctrinal story that's getting big play among conservatives (and from Lockwood's editors, apparently), and relatively little attention from the rest of the mainstream press. Lockwood has a straightforward, just-the-facts story about the candidate's rejection by the majority of diocesan Standing Committees (diocesan oversight boards). He sums up the charges many critics make against Forrester:

Critics said Thew Forrester altered the denomination's baptismal covenant to make it more closely reflect his own personal theological views. He likewise rewrote the church's Easter Vigil and reworked the Apostles' Creed. Critics said the changes removed or obscured key Christian teachings about the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross, the problem of sin, the will of God and the identity of Jesus as the eternally divine and only-begotten Son of God.

Thew Forrester said the changes were needed to keep the church relevant in the 21st century and that they reflected popular Christian beliefs that predated the Middle Ages.

Then he adds that Forrester's supporters assert that his beliefs were "sufficiently mainstream" (sufficient for who?). Lockwood continues by making a critical point, one that I wish he'd explored at greater length here. "Opposition to Thew Forrester cut across left-right theological and political divides, uniting people with different views on gay ordination and other hot button issues." These include standing committees in the Bible Belt and Los Angeles, New York and Hawaii, said Lockwood. For a more lengthy exploration of Forrester's theology and a critique by Anglican theologian J.I. Packer, turn to a recent Forrester story by the same writer posted on Arkansas Online. A few paragraphs from that story illuminate how great the gulf within the denomination can be.

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.

Another Lockwood article on the same topic, this one written for Christianity Today, will be of particular interest to conservative audiences. It includes more quotes from conservatives both within and outside the denomination. These voices include South Carolina Episcopal theologian Kendall Harmon, the general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, George O. Wood and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary head Albert Mohler. I find Harmon's argument that most of the internal opposition is driven mostly by process interesting, although I'm not sure that I agree.

The headline (which, I have to admit, made me cringe) and the lede set the tone:

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.

Minor caveat -- I see two different numbers for membership, one in the CT story and another in the Arkansas Online story.

In the CT story, Lockwood also details the fact that Forrester took lay ordination vows as a Buddhist and analyses why some members of the Episcopal Church might find his theological stance on such doctrines as the atonement distressing -- and some don't. A denomination focused around a Prayer Book and not a particular creed, heavy on history and liturgy, and a little light on authority, has room for a multiplicity of theological perspectives.

Which is exactly what it's got -- making it terribly hard to cover. Given the challenge, Lockwood has done a very good job of mapping the Forrester nomination as it continues to evolve.

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