Saturday, April 4, 2009

“Buddhist” Bishop-Elect Adds Reading from the Qur’an to Sunday Eucharist

Just when you thought things can’t get any more bizarre in the case of the so-called “Buddhist” Bishop-elect of Northern Michigan, they have. Greg Griffith at Stand Firm reports that on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany in 2008 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Marquette, MI, the Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester dropped the New Testament Epistle reading assigned in the lectionary for that Sunday and replaced it with a reading from the Qur’an. Apparently, the problems associated with his announcing that he “now walk[s] the path of Christianity and Zen Buddhism” are the tip of the iceberg.

Here’s what the congregation should have heard from the lectern that Sunday morning:

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (
1 Corinthians 1:1-9).

Instead, they heard this:

In the name of God most merciful most compassionate. Is he, then, who knows that what has been revealed to those from thy Lord is the truth, like one who is blind? But only those gifted with understanding will reflect. Those who fulfill God’s pact and break not the covenant. And those who join what God has commanded to be joined, and fear their Lord, and dread the evil reckoning. And those who persevere in seeking the favor of their Lord and observe prayer and spend out of that with which We have provided them secretly and openly, and repel evil with good. It is these who shall have the best reward of the final Abode. Amen. (Qur’an sura 13:20-23)

Check out the bulletin insert.

At the conclusion of the reading, the lector says: “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.” And the congregation responds: “Thanks be to God.” I note that this is the same conclusion and congregational response used for the Old Testament reading from Isaiah in this service.

So Forrester has not only substituted a reading from the Qur’an for the New Testament Epistle reading; he’s also liturgically framed that reading in such a way as to put the Qur’an passage on an equal footing with the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. For all practical purposes, this effectively includes the Qur’an within the canon of Holy Scripture for Christians.

To call this an egregious violation of one’s ordination vows is an understatement. Note, for example, the wording of the “Oath of Conformity” which every priest in the Episcopal Church has publicly made and signed (twice: first for ordination as a transitional deacon, then for ordination to the priesthood):

The Bishop says to the ordinand
Will you be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them? And will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?

I am willing and ready to do so; and I solemnly declare that I 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; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.

The Ordinand then signs the above Declaration in the sight of all present.

The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 526-527

Including a reading from the Qur’an (or any other non-Christian sacred text) in the context of a Sunday Eucharist is a serious departure from the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church. There are no provisions in the Prayer Book’s rubrics for this action. The expectation is that the “One or two Lessons, as appointed” will come from the Bible (BCP, p. 357). I note that the rubrics for the Daily Office say this: “On occasion, at the discretion of the Minister, a reading from non-biblical Christian literature may follow the biblical Readings” (BCP, p. 142). But even here, the rubric is clear that the non-biblical reading must be a Christian reading. There is no similar provision made for non-biblical Christian literature (much less non-biblical, non-Christian literature) in the rite for Holy Eucharist.

In violating the “Oath of Conformity,” Forrester’s action also expands the meaning of it. Whereas the wording of the oath is clear that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God that contain all things necessary to salvation, including a formal reading from the Qur’an in the context of Holy Eucharist also suggests that the Qur’an is the Word of God that contains all things necessary to salvation on an equal footing with the Old and New Testaments. This would be consistent with my reading of Forrester as a proponent of the common essence approach to religion.

In a previous posting on the case of the now-defrocked Rev. Dr. Ann Holmes Redding (who claimed to be both a Christian and a Muslim), I noted that while there are similarities and points of overlap between Christianity and Islam, “each of these faith traditions make rival and incompatible truth claims about God and Jesus.” For the sake of clarity about what is at stake in Forrester’s act of including a reading from the Qur’an in the context of the Holy Eucharist, I think it’s worth remembering what makes Islam deeply and utterly incompatible with the Christian faith. Here’s what I wrote in an earlier posting about this:

… while it is true that the Qur'an portrays Jesus in a very positive light as one of the special prophets, even going so far as to affirm the virgin birth, his teachings and miracles, and his return to act as judge at the end of time, it is also true that the Qur'an categorically rejects the divinity of Jesus. Instead, Jesus is "only an apostle [or messenger] of God" (4, 171).

Furthermore, here is what the Qur'an says about Jesus' death:

"So [the 'people of the Book'] were punished for ... saying, 'We killed the Christ, Jesus, son of Mary, who was an apostle of God;' but they neither killed nor crucified him, though it so appeared to them. Those who disagree in the matter are only lost in doubt. They have no knowledge about it other than conjecture, for surely they did not kill him" (4, 155 & 157).

Orthodox Islam not only rejects the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, but also his death by crucifixion.

If the Qur'an is the norm, then the Christology of the Gospel of John (and the New Testament in general), the Ecumenical Councils, the early Church Fathers, and the Eucharistic Prayers in The Book of Common Prayer constitute "the one unforgivable sin in Islam," that of associating (shirk) something with the one true God [Frederick Mathewson Denny, An Introduction to Islam (Macmillan, 1985), p. 93].

In addition, if the Qur'an is correct, then the symbol of the cross we so prominently display in our churches and wear around our necks is an empty signifier. For the belief that Jesus was crucified (a rather prominent theme in the New Testament) is false. At best, Jesus only appeared to die on a cross. It follows that when Christians recite the Nicene Creed's words that Jesus "was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried," they are propagating a lie about one of God's special messengers.

I also note how offensive Forrester’s action would be to an orthodox Muslim. To take the holy scripture of Islam and read it in the context of a service that celebrates the death by crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus (both being claims which contradict the teachings of the holy scripture of Islam), with wine (the use of alcohol is strictly forbidden in Islam), and with language that has cannibalistic overtones (eating Jesus’ body, drinking his blood) – this constitutes a desecration of the holy scripture of Islam. There are places in this world where Forrester would have to watch his back, and perhaps fear for his life, as a consequence.

Forrester’s failure to conform to the ordination vows he's already taken on two occasions (first as deacon, then as priest) - and perhaps also with opportunities for renewing those vows - suggests that he either doesn't understand what it means to voluntarily give up the “right” to ecclesial disobedience and/or innovation, or that he does understand but doesn’t care. Either way, it should be troubling to imagine someone who can so publicly dismiss solemn promises serving in a bishop’s role as a guardian of “the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church” (BCP, p. 517).

In addition to choosing to walk “the path of Christianity and Zen Buddhism,” Forrester has chosen to walk the path of innovation rather than the one he has twice promised to walk in his ordination vows: the path of conformity. And in doing so, he has not only parted company with the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church. He has also shown disrespect for Islam.


eric said...

Wow. That is astonishing.

I must thank you again for writing a well-reasoned defense of the faith against syncretism. Our faith and the faith of Muslims.

Is this man really going to become the next Bishop of Northern Michigan? Lord have mercy!

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for commenting here and over at the "Zen Christian" posting, Eric.

It's absolutely mind-boggling that Forrester could become a bishop in the Episcopal Church. The fact that this is even possible raises deeply troubling questions about the state of the Episcopal Church.

This case is a test of whether or not the Episcopal Church is going to affirm the limits and boundaries of its core identity and core doctrine, or not. The far left of the "progressive" wing of TEC would have us abandon our core identity and core doctrine. My hope is that there are enough on the left and in the "diverse center" who will unite with conservatives to say "no" to this case and to send the message that we will not be willing to tolerate this sort of stuff in the future.

When it comes to core doctrine, we need to resoundingly reaffirm something once said by Lancelot Andrewes: "One canon, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries and the series of the Fathers in that period determine the boundaries of our faith."

I'm not sure how many have weighed in yet, but I see that many Standing Committees are voting "no" on consenting to Forrester's election. I hope and pray that an overwhelming majority will say "no."

Anonymous said...

This is a great defense of the faith and an argument against syncretism. and very much appreciated. Perhaps someone should seek a presentment against Rev. Forrester.

Thank you for your wonderful blog!

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the kind words, Ian. Discipline would be appropriate.

eric said...

The fortunate thing about Anglicanism is that we are not bound by our clergy - the Presiding Bishop could say that Jesus was a purple spaghetti monster, but unless it made it into the BCP, it's not really Anglican doctrine.

Of course, let's hope it never gets that far!

Bryan Owen said...

You're example is correct, Eric. It wouldn't become doctrine just because the PB (or other clergy person) said so.

But the issues still remains that clergy who say crazy stuff like this are (a) violating their solemn vow to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of TEC, and (b) misusing the authority they do have to serve as the public face/voice of the Church. I think it damages our witness when clergy do and say the kinds of things that Forrester is saying and doing. It's misleading on several fronts, not the least of which is giving the appearance that it's okay for Episcopalians to believe anything they darn well please and that, no matter how far out in left field they go, TEC will embrace and celebrate their journey.

We may not be bound by our clergy, but clergy are bound by their vows, and laypersons are also bound by their vows. I note, for example, the Baptismal Covenant vow to "continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship" (BCP, p. 304). That covers every single Episcopalian. Do we know what it means? Do we realize that part of what it means is adhering to the doctrine laid out in the Apostles' Creed (the first full half of the Baptismal Covenant that often gets ignored). According to the Baptismal Covenant, no Episcopalian is a free agent when it comes to the boundaries of Christian belief.

Forrester has not only violated his ordination vows by what he's done. He's also failed to continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship. He's failed to live up to his baptism. Likewise for laypersons and other clergy who follow his example.

Tregonsee said...

As the old TEC joke goes, "One more thing, just one more thing, and I am out of here!"

(Who has been "out of here!" for several years.)

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thanks, Byran, for bringing this up. I would have no objection to citing such a passage in a sermon -- were it relevant to the day or the proper; but to make it one of the readings, ... well, you don't need to convince me that goes too far.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for adding your 2 cents, Tobias. Based upon what I've read on your blog, I'm not all surprised by your response. Keep the faith, brother!

Joe Rawls said...

It seems that if you scratch Forrester deeply enough, you get a sort of "one-size religion fits all" deist, but one with a side order of bookstore mysticism. What's ironic is that the Quran reading comes off as sounding harsher than the Pauline excerpt.

Bryan Owen said...

"A side-order of bookstore mysticism" - now that's a quotable phrase! I've often thought that part of the problem in TEC is that too many folks get their profound theological ideas from the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble (where, of course, you can find all of the latest "cutting edge scholarship," like Pagels and Ehrman and Spong, etc.).

That's a good observation about the ironic juxtaposition of the Paul reading and the Qur'an passage. I guess it's more palatable to get harshed on from another religious tradition (since it's cool and trendy) than from Paul.

plsdeacon said...

It is actually worse than just the reading from the Koran. The preacher was "Mohey Mowafy" - from all accounts, a Muslim scholar.

Like Fr. Haller, I would not have a problem with quoting the Koran in a sermon (although I would wonder why not quote the Bible instead).

I would have less of a problem if the Koran was read as as part of some "interfaith" service. Of course, the "interfaith" service would not be Holy Communion.

I wouldn't mind listening to a Muslim scholar during a Sunday School class or some other form of Christian Ed.

But to use the Koran in the service and to have a Muslim scholar as the preacher is beyond the pale. Forrester+ should be severly disciplined if not deposed - not elevated to the Episcopate.

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

I'm in agreement with you, Phil.

It's one thing to quote from another religious tradition's sacred writing(s) in the context of one's sermon. But to replace an assigned reading from the Bible with that writing in the context of the rite for Holy Eucharist (or even the Daily Office) is beyond the pale.

It's one thing to read from the sacred writings of other religions in the context of an interfaith service, but to do so in the context of the rite for Holy Eucharist is beyond the pale.

It's one thing to have someone from a non-Christian religious tradition speak at a Sunday School class, etc., but to have the person preach the sermon in the context of the rite for Holy Eucharist is beyond the pale.

Should there be discipline for these actions? Yes. Will there be? Probably not. It's likely that the best we can hope for is that he will not receive the consents necessary for moving forward to consecration as bishop.

In the meantime, I've no doubt that the anomic Anglicanism will continue unchecked.

FrSean said...

In his book, Scripture and Discernment, Luke Timothy Johnson argues that we give the Christian Scriptures authority on the basis of them being read in church each week. I have to agree with Fr. Tobias here; making reference to such a passage in a sermon is much different than reading it in place of the Epistle in church.

Eric, as to your question about whether or not he will be consecrated, I have a hard time believing that Thew Forrester will receive enough votes to confirm him based on what I understand about what happened at the House of Bishops meeting. Apparently, +Neil Alexander of Atlanta (former liturgics and homiletics prof at General and Sewanee) and +Thom Breidenthal of Southern Ohio (former Moral Theology prof at General) both argued strongly against his confirmation at the meeting on the basis of Thew's wide deviation from the Christian tradition. Both of these men are widely respected by the House. I would guess his confirmation is dead in the water as a result.

Bryan Owen said...

Good point from a good book, FrSean.

I'm pleased to say that I've just received word that the Standing Committee of the Diocese of MS has voted against consenting to Forrester's election.

Thanks be to God!

David Murdoch said...

That is quite scandalous. The Quran has some wise and true things in it, but it is certainly not the word of God, nor is it holy. It criticizes christianity and declares that God had no Son.

Thank you for writing this up.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for commenting, David.

And Happy Easter.

Christos anesti!