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Monday, April 20, 2009

A Side Note: Yet more on the Consent Process of Father Thew Forrester

Dear Ones,

I write to you regarding my decision not to consent to the election of the Rev. Kevin Thew Forester as Bishop-elect of Northern Michigan. Some of you have been eagerly awaiting this, and I am sorry for the delay. I wanted to allow time to discuss this with our Standing Committee, not to persuade but simply to make sure they heard the following directly from me, which they have. I also wanted to converse directly with Kevin Thew Forrester, which I have done, and I am most grateful to him for that offering.

The Examination within "The Ordination of a Bishop" in our Book of Common Prayer reads as follows:

"My brother, the people have chosen you and have affirmed
their trust in you by acclaiming your election. A bishop in
God's holy Church is called to be one with the apostles in
proclaiming Christ's resurrection and interpreting the Gospel,
and to testify to Christ's sovereignty as Lord of lords and
King of kings.

You are called to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the
Church; to celebrate and to provide for the administration of
the sacraments of the New Covenant; to ordain priests and
deacons and to join in ordaining bishops; and to be in all
things a faithful pastor and wholesome example for the
entire flock of Christ.

With your fellow bishops you will share in the leadership of
the Church throughout the world. Your heritage is the faith
of patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, and those of
every generation who have looked to God in hope. Your joy
will be to follow him who came, not to be served, but to
serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

Are you persuaded that God has called you to the office of
Answer: I am so persuaded.

Bishop: Will you accept this call and fulfill this trust in
obedience to Christ?
Answer: I will obey Christ, and will serve in his name.

Bishop: Will you be faithful in prayer, and in the study of
Holy Scripture, that you may have the mind of
Answer: I will, for he is my help.

Bishop: Will you boldly proclaim and interpret the Gospel of
Christ, enlightening the minds and stirring up the
conscience of your people?
Answer: I will, in the power of the Spirit.

Bishop: As a chief priest and pastor, will you encourage and
support all baptized people in their gifts and
ministries, nourish them from the riches of God's
grace, pray for them without ceasing, and celebrate
with them the sacraments of our redemption?
Answer: I will, in the name of Christ, the Shepherd and
Bishop of our souls.

Bishop: Will you guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the
Church of God?
Answer: I will, for the love of God.

Bishop: Will you share with your fellow bishops in the
government of the whole Church; will you sustain
your fellow presbyters and take counsel with them;
will you guide and strengthen the deacons and all
others who minister in the Church?
Answer: I will, by the grace given me.

Bishop: Will you be merciful to all, show compassion to the
poor and strangers, and defend those who have no
Answer: I will, for the sake of Christ Jesus."

Often when called upon in this vocation to make difficult decisions, I reread these words. On the day of my own examination, these words fell heavy upon me, and with very good reason.

One of the duties of bishops in the Episcopal Church is to consent to diocesan elections taking place within the greater church, and to the results of those elections. This consent process is part of the checks and balances within the church, and, perhaps more importantly, a very real part of the discernment of the Body of Christ-the whole Church.

It has been said that the role of the bishop is to be a bridge, interpreting the universal to the local and the local to the universal. This particular role is often very difficult; however, our history and polity are clear: we do not operate in a vacuum, alone, in our local situations and contexts. We work within a larger context-the Anglican Communion and the rest of the global community-with many more to consider than just those who we see within our midst.

The process in Northern Michigan has many complexities and issues; which issue is most important and serious varies from person to person. Below are the major issues I have considered. After I present each as I understand them, I will address each one from my perspective. The issues are:

1. The election in Northern Michigan included only one candidate: the Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester. Standing committees and bishops were asked to consent to an "election." Although the gathered convention of Northern Michigan did in fact vote on this one candidate, some have questioned whether an election took place in this case, since an election typically includes at least one other candidate and some process of voting.

2. Thew Forrester's practice of Buddhism and especially his "lay ordination" in that belief system (My Christian Faith & the Practice of Zen Buddhist Meditation, Kevin Thew Forrester, 26 February 2009and Letter to the House of Bishops, Kevin Thew Forrester, March 11, 2009).

3. Thew Forrester's rewriting of the approved liturgies from the Book of Common Prayer, including the Baptismal Liturgy. (Baptismal Liturgy, Season after Pentecost, St. Paul's Church, Marquette, Mich. and Letter on Liturgy of Baptism, Kevin Thew Forrester, March 27, 2009)

I want to be clear that my decision is in no way a criticism of Total Common Ministry (TCM) or the work the Diocese of Northern Michigan has done in this area. Just over a year ago, I had the great fortune to sit with a group of people from the Diocese of Northern Michigan at the Living Stones Conference in Des Moines, Iowa. I have always been deeply intrigued and inspired by the work of this diocese since the time of Bishop Tom Ray and continued under the inspiring leadership of the late Bishop Jim Kelsey. Their exploration and advocacy of ministry, rooted in our baptismal vows, has been a tremendous gift to the Body of Christ. Kevin Thew Forrester has been an integral part of that work, which I recognize.

During that meeting in Des Moines, this very process of Northern Michigan's selection of a bishop was the topic of our case study. While inspired by their approach and discernment, I and some of the other bishops present, cautioned that the newness and innovation in their approach would most likely require much more education and explanation to the whole church if it were to go forward. The process itself is not nearly the concern for me that it is for many, and in and of itself would not necessarily be a reason to withhold consent. Some have read my decision as proof that I do not support TCM. I emphatically disagree. I believe and have often stated that TCM is part of the emerging church, and one I want to engage, support, grow and learn from. In fact, I continue to urge the planning group of the House of Bishops to bring into our midst representatives of the emerging church and Living Stones. I strongly believe in TCM and at the same time, no emerging system exists outside the collective discernment and the shared authority and oversight which our tradition has always upheld. It is built into our system that the local does not decide such matters alone.

2. Thew Forrester's adherence or learning of meditation practices through the Buddhist belief system does not, in and of itself, trouble me. In my first parish, I invited and participated in a Buddhist-Christian dialogue, which was deeply enriching to me. However, what we discovered in our time together was the fact that though many of our meditation practices were quite similar, what we were attempting and to whom we were connecting in the meditation was quite different. In one document (My Christian Faith and the Practice of Zen Buddhist Meditation, February 26, 2009), Thew Forrester states that his lay ordination in the Zen Buddhist tradition included a welcoming ceremony that included "a resolve to use the practice of meditation as a path to awakening to the truth of the reality of human suffering." In the same document he states, "It embodies a pragmatic philosophy and a focus on human suffering rather than a unique theology of God." This to me is quite different from our resolve in Christianity: that at the heart of our faith and our baptismal covenant are the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In this same document, he states that his ceremony "included no oaths" although in a letter dated March 11, 2009 and distributed to the House of Bishops he provides more details including the "one vow I took and the precepts I affirmed." While he quite succinctly interprets what he intended to do with these vows and affirmations in relation to his Christian faith, to take the step of any type of ordination and "naming" within another belief system seems to me to be a deeper step and one I would take very seriously in relation to the vows taken in our Christian ordination. To this end, the lay ordination does cause me pause.

3. Finally, what troubles me the most about this situation is Thew Forrester's revision of liturgical texts, most especially the Baptismal Liturgy, the very core vow and liturgy of our faith. In a document circulated for the House of Bishops from Thew Forrester, he states that he and his congregation have "explored" the Baptismal liturgy, removing the reference to "Satan" and "accepting [Christ] as the way of Life and Hope." This action was to "complement the BCP"( Liturgy and Community, The Diocese of Northern Michigan, Kevin Thew Forrester, Lent 2009). In the same document, he states that he uses the Book of Common Prayer as a "primary resource." This brought me full circle. The very basis of Total Common Ministry and our very call to life as a Christian-the baptismal vow and liturgy-was being revised, and this is a concern.

I am faced with a situation where any one of these alone might be something that could be worked through; however, the panoply of these made me very uncomfortable and unready to move forward with consent.

This is one of the most, if not the most, difficult decisions I have had to make in my time as bishop. I want very much to honor those in Northern Michigan who have discerned this person and this outcome, but at this time, with the information I have, I cannot. I know and I have heard from many who do not agree with me and are greatly disappointed in my decision. I hold your opinions and feelings with great care and know them to be equally heartfelt. I hold in my prayers Kevin Thew Forrester, the Diocese of Northern Michigan, our diocese and this Church. I pray for the Holy Spirit to continue to enlighten us and I trust what should happen will, regardless of my role. This is my burden to carry. I do it on your behalf and I do not do it lightly, even when we disagree.


The Rt. Rev. Gregory Rickel
Bishop of Olympia

(Italics added by your humble host as a matter of emphasis)

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