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Internet columns and chain e-mails question the candidate’s Christian bona fides. Old sermons are dredged up and dissected.
Supporters, meanwhile, post documents online to combat perceived smears.
In short: a campaign for high office delivers some low blows.
The candidate in question? No, it’s not Barack Obama, but rather Bishop-elect Kevin Thew Forrester of Marquette, Mich., who was elected last February as the new leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan.
At another time, a new bishop for a sparsely populated string of 27 Great Lakes parishes might have been the end of the story. But in the Age of the Internet, when all politics are global, it’s just the beginning.
Soon after Thew Forrester’s election, conservative bloggers from across the country discovered that he practices Zen meditation and received “lay ordination” from a Buddhist community.
Deeper digging found that he has eschewed the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, the anchor of Anglican doctrine, and written his own rites for baptisms. And scrutiny of his sermons posted online led some bishops to decide that Thew Forrester is not sufficiently orthodox to join their ranks.
To date, at least a dozen bishops have spoken out against Thew Forrester, according to a running tally kept by the Rev. Kendall Harmon, a respected conservative theologian and blogger in South Carolina.
Episcopal Church headquarters, which keeps the official count, declined to release it.
A majority of bishops and elected standing committees in the denomination’s 110 dioceses must approve, or give “consent,” to Thew Forrester’s election or it is tossed out.
But the controversy has done more than jeopardize Thew Forrester’s promotion and stoke already-high tensions in the 2.2 million-member Episcopal Church. It also heralds a new era in church politics that mirrors mainstream culture, when online research and partisan tactics can combine to make or break a career, observers say.
“Thirty years ago, if a person was elected as bishop, it would be almost impossible for the church, broadly speaking, to see his sermons,”
said Bishop Edward Little of Northern Indiana. “I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but that’s the way it is.”
Little himself examined Thew Forrester’s sermons after finding them online and decided — regrettably, he said — to vote against him.
“They indicate that there may have been some transformation of his Christianity as a result of his embrace of Buddhism,” Little said. The Indiana bishop said members of his diocese have repeatedly asked him about Thew Forrester, even though the Michigan priest works in a small, out-of-the-way diocese. “Lots of people in the diocese troll the Internet and know the issues.”
Thew Forrester maintains he is not a Buddhist, but has used the techniques of Zen meditation, which he has practiced for nearly a decade, to revive Christianity’s own centuries-old contemplative customs.
“It seems to me we’ve lost the memory of the fullness of our tradition,” he said in an interview. At the same time, “we must reform our faith, our liturgy and our polity so that we are ever more congruent with the divine will and the Gospel, and that is what we have done here,” he said.
To be sure, the Episcopal Church is no stranger to controversy. The
2003 election of openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson in New Hampshire has caused four dioceses and dozens of parishes to secede. In 2007, a number of Episcopalians opposed the election of a conservative bishop until he pledged not to lead a South Carolina diocese away from the denomination.
But last summer, a once-a-decade summit of Anglican bishops from across the Anglican Communion brought home a new lesson, several bishops
say: that what happens in Northern Michigan resonates in Uganda.
A number of African bishops told their American counterparts at last summer’s Lambeth Conference that they had been ridiculed at home for belonging to “the gay church,” after Robinson’s election.
Now, even in a denomination that tolerates a wide degree of theological latitude, some Episcopalians say they worry about the potential headlines if they seem to condone Thew Forrester’s singular spirituality and agree to his election.
“I think what’s happening in the Communion is making us a little more aware of the fact that when we ordain a bishop, we don’t ordain a bishop in a vacuum,” Little said. “He’s not only the bishop of a diocese, he’s a bishop of the whole church.”
Bishop Paul Marshall of Bethlehem, Pa., wrote that he couldn’t vote for Thew Forrester because “as a Church we are increasingly a laughing-stock … because we do not proclaim a solid core, words as simple as `all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”‘
Several bishops say they cannot vote for Thew Forrester because they believe he minimizes the role of Jesus in salvation, an essential Christian tenet.
“I cannot emphasize enough that clarity about our relationship to Jesus through our baptism is especially important as we move on from the Lambeth Conference, where the bishops of the Episcopal Church pointed repeatedly to our baptismal rite as evidence of our commitment to Jesus as Lord,” said Bishop Thomas Breidenthal of Southern Ohio, who voted against Thew Forrester.
Officials in Northern Michigan stress that the consent process has just begun and they remain “guardedly optimistic” that the election will be ratified, said the Rev. Charlie Piper, a member of the committee that nominated Thew Forrester as bishop. Meanwhile, they have posted statements from Episcopalians who support Thew Forrester on their Web site, as well as explanations of why and how he was elected.
“As much as we have tried to provide clear information, we know that there is a lot of misinformation out there,” Piper said. “Much of what we’ve had to do is reactionary.”
Bishop Marc Andrus of San Francisco said he voted in favor of Thew Forrester. He’s concerned about the Michigan priest rewriting the church’s baptismal rites, but less so about his Buddhist practice.
“I accept what he says: that he’s a Christian and uses (Buddhism) to strengthen his own Christian understanding. I don’t have any reason to doubt that,” Andrus said.
By Daniel Burke
Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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