Friday, April 3, 2009

More Views on the “Buddhist” Bishop-Elect

While I've already weighed in about this case, I read with great interest the letter written by Bishop Tom Breidenthal of Southern Ohio to his diocese explaining why he will not vote to confirm the election of the Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester as bishop of Northern Michigan. You can read it for yourself over at Episcopal Café’s “The Lead.” Here’s an excerpt:

According to Thew Forrester, Jesus revealed in his own person the way that any of us can be at one with God, if only we can overcome the blindness that prevents us from recognizing our essential unity with God. The problem here is that the death of Jesus as an atonement for our sins is completely absent, and purposely so. As I read Thew Forrester, nothing stands between us and God but our own ignorance of our closeness to God. When our eyes are opened, atonement (not for our sins, but understood as a realization of our essential unity with God) is achieved. Thew Forrester's rejection of salvation understood as an atonement for sins we cannot procure for ourselves is not an idea he is merely exploring. In a very consistent manner, he is developing this idea. In materials he submitted to the House of Bishops earlier this month, he has shared with us his own revision of the Prayer Book rite for Holy Baptism, in which references to salvation are replaced with references to union with God.

Why is Thew Forrester's teaching troubling to me? Because it flies in the face of what I take to be the conviction at the heart of our faith tradition, namely, that we are in bondage to sin and cannot get free without the rescue God has offered us in Jesus, who shouldered our sins on the cross. Our tradition certainly declares God's closeness to us and God's love for us, but insists that this is solely due to God's gracious initiative, made known to us in Jesus. In other words, Jesus in his singular closeness to God is as much a reminder of our alienation from God and from God's ways as he is God's word to us that we are loved despite our collective wrongdoings.

I would not worry about this so much if Thew Forrester were merely speculating about alternative ways of understanding the Christian faith. I would not even worry so much if it were simply a matter of the content of a number of sermons (although I think we should expect to be accountable for what we preach). But, as his revision of the Baptismal rite makes clear, he appears to be settled in his conviction that our relation to Christ is not about salvation from a condition of objective alienation from God, but about a more realized union with God.

Bishop Breidenthal then makes a point that goes to the issue of just how “inclusive” and “tolerant” the Episcopal Church can be while still remaining within the boundaries of the Christian faith:

Some may say, "So what?" Should the Episcopal Church not allow as much latitude as possible when it comes to theological reflection on the meaning of Jesus in our lives? Yes, of course. We are a church that values a broad range of opinion on practically every subject. Yet our (unrevised) Baptismal liturgy (Book of Common Prayer, beginning at p. 299) is extremely clear about what it means to be a follower of Jesus: we are to turn to him - the same Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified and rose again and continues to invite us into a personal relationship with him - and accept him as Savior. Whatever else we have to say about Jesus follows from that (even though different people may end up saying quite different things).

The responses to Bishop Breidenthal’s concerns about Forrester’s Christology – and the responses to others posting comments – over at Episcopal Café are rather interesting. Matt Gunter, for example, makes an important point about liturgy as the primary theology of the Church and our accountability to that primary theology:

… at some point, we either believe what we pray (lex orandi, lex credendi, after all) or we don't. If we do, our theology needs to at least be congruent with that contained in the Prayer Book. If not, then we are each free to write our own liturgies to suit our own eccentric understanding. Having read several of the Rev. Forrester's sermons, articles, and an Easter Vigil service (including a Eucharistic prayer) that he wrote, I conclude that the Rev. Forrester errs too far toward the latter.

Marshall Scott also comments on the core Christological issues in the Forrester case:

I live quite near the epicenter of the Unity School of Christianity, [Forrester’s] understanding of Jesus seems quite familiar to me. It is a modern quasi-Gnosticism, in which the believer's right perception is important, and not any existential act of God in Christ. The most esoteric of the Christian mystics never denied that our unity with God is in and through Christ. Most of those who speak as Bishop Breidenthal describes never quite get to a docetic Christology; but theirs is certainly one of Jesus as Great Moral Teacher, and perhaps as Prophet, but not as Messiah.

I can't speak to the accuracy of the Bishop's interpretation, because I haven't seen the documents myself. However, if this is how Bishop Breidenthal understands Bishop-elect Thew Forrestor's Christology, I can't blame Bishop Breidenthal for choosing not to support the election.

And Fr. Tony Clavier has succinctly pinpointed the critical issues in this case:

There seem to me to be two important issues here. First of all does the "functional" approach to ministry, which teaches that in baptism we all individually receive the charism of leadership, and that ordination or setting apart or recognition in what ever form by the local church, conform to the doctrine and discipline of our church as expressed in the Ordinal and the Catechism?

Secondly while the church has never defined a specific doctrine of the Atonement, the words of our liturgy, particularly in Holy Week and Easter, would seem to commit us to a belief in the Atonement, that Jesus in his death and passion has atoned for the sins of the world and that the atonement is at the heart of our dying with Christ in Baptism and rising with him in the Resurrection. May a bishop of this church, in the light of the solemn commitment made in the ordination vows, teach a theory of Christian life which discounts the Atoning death of Christ as the means by which our sins, and the sins of the whole word, and their reward, are set aside?

In what manner are we permitted to construct liturgies of our own construction for public and parochial use, given our promise only to use those usual rites and ceremonies set for by the authority of the church?

A bishop promises to be the center of unity, right belief and Christian practice. He represents the whole Church, as well as the Province and the diocese. May the "local" church, TEC for us, recognize and raise up a person to fulfill these roles who cannot in good faith affirm and protect the faith received by the whole Church?

I’m also struck by those who weigh in to support Forrester’s theological innovations. Take, for example, these comments by Gary Paul Gilbert in which he calls into question the “pious nonsense” purportedly affirmed by Bishop Breidenthal, and then calls into question the normative status of the Church’s “core doctrine” for the sake of affirming “freedom of thought”:

Breidenthal assumes he is speaking about something factual, as if the word "salvation" referred to an object and theology were some kind of hypothesis which could be tested. This is the kind of pious nonsense which makes many people today prefer spirituality to religion. …

… it is okay to rethink doctrine but not core doctrine. Define "core doctrine." So it is okay to think but not too much? So much for the view that the Episcopal Church is the thinking person's church.

In the beginning of the movement there were many Christianities, as Elaine Pagels has shown in her work, but "orthodoxy" claimed it had God in its pocket. Some people go over to Buddhism and other Eastern traditions because they have not been taught our own tradition has or has had many other approaches.

Besides the problem of uncritically accepting the questionable “scholarship” of Elaine Pagels, it seems to me that this comment confuses boundaries of self-definition (“core doctrine”) with barriers (inflexible, rigid walls to keep others out). They are not the same thing.

Derk Olsen’s response to Gary’s comments is a wonderfully on target affirmation of the appropriate boundaries of self-definition within the Episcopal Church:

The Episcopal Church states that it upholds the ecumenical creeds, the canons and the apostolic succession/historic episcopate. This connects us organically to one particular set of communities out of the mix of so-called early Christianities.

It pains me to see many progressive Christians making a bee-line for ancient heresies, often without ever looking at the wide breadth of Christianities that fall entirely within credal orthodoxy.

Tobias Haller makes an important point about bishops as guardians of the Church’s faith:

To expect bishops to be articulate exponents of the church's teaching is, I think, not too much to hope for.

To which Matthew Murdoch responds by calling into question the trustworthiness of the faith of the Church while reducing theology to a branch of literary criticism:

But what if the church's teaching is wrong? Or not even wrong, but just theoretical speculations that have nothing to do with present-day life? I can't comment on Dr. Forrester's episcopal qualifications. I'm objecting to the easy referencing of "sin" as though we know what we're talking about. Human beings are not creatures who need Divine Grace to reclaim a previous condition of perfection. We are organisms, part of the web of life on earth, who have developed consciousness and are struggling to understand ourselves and the universe in which we find ourselves. The Church's teaching is from another age. It is shattering now because women and gays can see that they've simply been left out of the story. The attempt to insert us is showing that the whole story needs rethinking. As I said, I don't know whether Dr. Forrester would make an effective bishop. I do see theology as a branch of literary criticism, explicating and analyzing ancient narratives (and extrapolating from them). Medieval theology perpetuates a medieval church (great music and liturgy, tho); it doesn't move us on to better understanding of people's needs today.

I’m again struck at how quickly and easily we are willing to completely dismiss the faith, practice, and witness of the Church as a dead relic from the past for the sake of “mov[ing] us on to better understanding of people’s needs today.”

Coupled with what I’ve read from Forrester, this all sounds a lot to me like H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic criticism of Protestant liberalism’s devotion to:

… a God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross [H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (orig. 1937) (The Wesleyan University Press, 1988), p. 193].

If the Forrester case helps us appropriately face and address the limits of inclusion and tolerance in the Episcopal Church, then it may be a Godsend. If, instead, it gets used as a rationale for jettisoning such limits, collapsing the distinction between boundaries and barriers, then it will confirm the concern that we are being asked by our leadership to embrace a free-for-all of subjective preferences that departs from any substantive notion of “common prayer” or "core doctrine" by accommodating our identity to the ever-changing winds of consumer fashion. As the striking differences between the comments I've shared suggest, the verdict is out on which direction the Episcopal Church may be heading.

There’s much more to read and ponder in these comments, so I encourage you to read it all.


Tim Cravens said...

I used to be an Episcopalian. Now I'm an Independent Catholic. I fully support the ordination of women, the ordination of gay and lesbian persons, and the marriage of same-sex couples. It is the tolerance of misogyny and homophobia that originally drove me out of the Episcopal denomination.

But, I am a Christian. I believe the Nicene Creed. I adhere to traditional forms of the liturgy. Having shared the podium this past May with "Bishop" Spong (who is not a bishop, as he is not a Christian), whose address (I will not dignify his blasphemy with the term "sermon") was a repudiation of Christianity, I am disgusted with the tolerance of rank heresy that the Episcopal sect gives to its members. Anyone who has been "ordained" as a lay or whatever practitioner of Buddhist meditation should immediately be defrocked -- the fact that the "diocese" of Northern Michigan sees fit to put forward this blasphemous heretic as a candidate for bishop is horrifying.

And I thought that because I officiated at same-sex marriages in New Paltz in 2004, I would be considered a "liberal" -- by the standards of the Episcopalian sect, I am actually a rigid hide-bound conservative!

I love your blog -- I wish the rest of the Episcopalian Sect still held to the Christianity you preach.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for commenting, Tim. Part of what gives me hope is to see persons across the theological spectrum in the Episcopal Church united in sharing concerns and objections to the Forrester case. That doesn't mean, of course, that he won't squeeze through. But it does suggest to me that there is a "diverse center" to TEC that is willing to adhere to the historic faith of the Church. The question is whether or not we are able to act together to keep the Church from going off the deep end in cases like this one. We shall see ...