Tuesday, March 03, 2009

An Aftershock in the Making

I have long taken to heart C.S. Lewis' observation in his classic Mere Christianity that affirming the Christian faith does not mean automatically dis-affirming everything that all other religions teach. Other religions, in fact, may contain significant elements of truth, and may even have insights into truth that Christians would do well to pay attention to. I have also long admired the witness of Thomas Merton, who died visiting Asia in order to further explore connections between the spiritual practices of Buddhist monasticism and those of his own Cistercian Benedictine tradition. Indeed, I have visited Trappist monks who rise in the middle of the night to sing the office of Vigils and then spend an hour in Zen meditation, seeing this as neither threat to nor compromise with their robust practice of Christianity.

So, as the news has emerged over the past few weeks that the (Episcopal) Diocese of Northern Michigan has discerned Kevin Thew Forrester as its next bishop, I have attempted to avoid rushing to judgment. You see, Father Thew Forrester, in addition to being an Episcopal priest and rector of St Paul's Church in Marquette, Michigan, is also a practicing Buddhist, and has received "lay ordination" in Buddhism, which includes taking a Buddhist name. There are those who contend, after all, that Buddhism is more a philosophy and a set of spiritual practices than it is a religion in the sense that Christianity is a religion. Hence, there is no inherent contradiction between the two; one can practice Christianity in a Buddhist "style."

Although I have seen some credible refutations of this position, I would, all things being equal, be willing to give Fr Thew Forrester the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he is up to nothing more sinister than were those Zen-meditating Trappist monks I visited in Oregon back in the 1980s. Unfortunately, all things are not equal. A credible source reports, confirming what was already anecdotally known, that, as rector of his current parish, he has engaged in numerous violations of TEC's constitution and canons in the exercise of liturgical leadership, casting aside not only the letter of the law--the texts and rubrics of the Prayer Book--but its spirit as well--the underlying theology of the gospel itself. He is clearly preaching "another gospel," one that bears little resemblance to classical Christianity in any form, let alone an Anglican one.

If this were happening a few weeks later, the confirmation of Fr Thew Forrester's election would come before General Convention, as did Gene Robinson's in 2003. As it is, it will be the Bishops unconvened and the Standing Committees who will bear that responsibility. Even so, however, I believe this situation has the potential to amount to a serious aftershock to the 2003 Robinson earthquake. If the election is confirmed and the consecration proceeds, it will be another signal to the rest of the Anglican Communion that, as far as the Episcopal Church is concerned, the privileges of autonomy trump the responsibilities of communion every time. It will be yet more grist for the mills of those who squander no opportunity to portray TEC as deranged substantially and not merely accidentally. It will make it that much more difficult for General Convention to respond in any affirming way to whatever version of the Anglican Covenant is revealed in Jamaica in May.

On the other hand, if Bishops and Standing Committees summon the fortitude to nip this one in the bud, the effect could be salutary indeed. Dare one hope?


Anonymous said...

I read the TLC article you linked. The liturgical texts quoted are rather overcooked theologically, and I'm never thrilled to see the Creed pointedly overlooked-- but for all that, I'm not sure the Creed is violated here either. (The canons are another matter, and above my pay grade.)

Is your objection primarily to the content of the texts, or the liberties taken in their use?

TLF+ said...

marketsquare: How are the Canons "above your pay grade"? They are manifestly clear about what versions of the Bible are approved for use in TEC services. They are clear about approved liturgies, and the limits of discretion.

TEC keeps arguing for its "unique polity" and then declares its polity incomprehensible any time there is a question.

And what to make of your question, separating the content of the texts and the canons that authorize use? That makes no sense at all. The canons authorize certain texts precisely to ensure the use of certain language.

Is it any wonder that folks look at TEC, in Fr. Dan's words, as "deranged"?

Daniel Martins said...

TLF+ provides a good answer to the questions posed by marketsquare, IMO. My objection is both to the content and the liberties taken in their use. As Canon McMichael said in the TLC article, liturgy is not a vehicle for self-expression, it is something to which we give ourselves. A bishop is, among other things, a steward of the Church's liturgy. I have a sense that Kevin Thew Forrester would take it down to the pawn shop ASAP after consecration. Some stewardship that would be.

Matt Gunter said...

An important, if imprecise, distinction would be drawing on other traditions to inform a basically Christian view of things vs the reverse or some sort of idiosyncratic syncretistic mash. From my admittedly limited following of this story, my concern is that the bishop elect (bishop appointed) tends toward the last of these.

Adapting the Common Prayers to suit the idiosyncratic follows.

Anonymous said...

Fr Martins,

Thank you-- I consider my question answered.


Peace to you and yours.

Malcolm+ said...

The charge about the bishop-elect being a Buddhist and not a Christian is just the same old hatemongering dishonesty that too often "informs" these debates.

The process by which the bishop-elect was chosen is a legitimate matter for discussion and concern. His liturgical antinomianism is certainly an issue - though how serious an issue theologically it is difficult to tell with any certainty.

So, there are reasons to question the propriety of confirming this episcopal election.

The Buddhist bumph from George Conger is simply what I've come to expect from George Conger - 2/3 poor journalism and 1/3 axe to grind.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Dan,
"That canon allows for 'other versions of the Bible, including those in languages other than English, which shall be authorized by diocesan bishops for specific use in congregations or ministries within their dioceses.' "
So, his mistake was that he innovated prematurely. Had he but waited, he could have pulled this off as a Bishop without notice.
I know how much the Prayerbook means to you Father Dan. Breaking the rubrics is the unpardonable sin. If I understand you correctly, being an ordained Buddhist is less a problem for you. " I would, all things being equal, be willing to give Fr Thew Forrester the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he is up to nothing more sinister than were those Zen-meditating Trappist monks I visited in Oregon back in the 1980s." TEC Bishops are not monks, they are charged to guard the church against false doctrine. You are saying that his Liturgical innovations are against TEC Canon. It goes way beyond that. Dcn Dale