Spring 2009, Vol. 12, No. 1

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Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Our Excellent ARIS Adventure

The Madoff Disgrace

Keeping the Faith-Based

Dolan Does Gotham

No Friends on the Right

A Buddhist Bishop in the UP

Breaking Up Is Hard to Adjudicate

Praise God and Pass the Diapers

Haggard Agonistes


New books



A Buddhist Bishop in the UP?
by Alexander D. Salvato






Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is well off the beaten track, and no one much noticed when Episcopal Bishop James Kelsey mentioned in passing at his 2004 diocesan convention than one of his priests, the Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester, had “received Buddhist ‘lay ordination’” and was “walking the path of Christianity and Zen Buddhism together.”

But on January 27, when Thew Forrester was nominated to succeed Kelsey as bishop of the tiny Episcopal diocese in the North Woods, a howl of outrage rose from conservative Episcopalians who could not abide the prospect of a bishop ordained simultaneously in two world religions. Noisy protests arose, mainly in the realm of Anglican websites, watchdog organizations such as the Institute for Religion and Democracy, and Episcopal blogs. 

Leading the charge were bloggers like Greg Griffith, of, who complained about contemporary syncretism in the Episcopal Church on January 27. “This is, of course, the natural progression of ‘progressivism’ and something we continually warn against here: It starts with labyrinths, continues with Buddhist monks constructing mandalas in a cathedral, and over the background noise of pagan priests and books about love spells, proceeds to Muslim priestesses and now a Buddhist bishop.”

Despite the swelling protest, Thew Forrester, a well-known quantity in the tiny Diocese of Northern Michigan (which has only 1,800 members and is the third smallest Episcopal Diocese behind the Navajo Missions and Micronesia) was elected in a landslide in a special diocesan convention on February 21. Now, Northern Michigan’s choice is undergoing a lengthy 120 reviews period, after which a majority of the nation’s Episcopal bishops and diocesan standing committees must vote to ratify the election. In the meantime, the yelling persists.

The controversy over an allegedly Buddhist bishop was triggered by a report in the Episcopal Church’s in-house news service. On January 23, Steve Waring of The Living Church News Service reported that “A search committee charged with developing a slate of candidates for the election of a bishop in the Diocese of Northern Michigan has nominated a single candidate, the Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester, as part of a 10-12 member Episcopal Ministry Support Team that reflects the diocese’s commitment to mutual ministry.” 

But, then, on January 26, the church wire service carried a report from the Rev. George Conger, who had dug up Bishop Kelsey’s 2004 comment about “walking the path of Christianity and Buddhism together.” Conger noted that “Fr. Forrester did not respond to requests for clarification or comments on how as presumptive bishop he would model the two faiths in his episcopacy. The director of the Office of Pastoral Development, the Rt. Rev. F. Clayton Matthews told The Living Church that background checks for the nominee were ‘still in progress,’ and ‘at this point’ the question of Buddhist lay ordination had not been addressed. However, a background check does not cover that sort of thing.’”

The reprinting of the Bishop Kelsey quote sparked the traditionalist Anglicanism websites. StandFirmInFaith became particularly vocal on Forrester’s candidacy and generated almost snide comments on the Thew Forrester election. “When stories like this come along Stand Firm editorialized on January 27, “it’s tempting to remind everyone of similar people and events that have turned the Episcopal Church into a laughingstock for reasons completely unrelated to homosexuality.”

“Now the Diocese of Northern Michigan has announced that its only nominee for bishop—the Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester is also a Zen Buddhist. Not the kind who lived down the hall in your college dorm—no, (Thew) Forrester has actually received Buddhist lay ordination.”

All of this scathing commentary was produced by a single piece of alleged evidence, Conger’s resurrection of Bishop Kelsey’s 2004 comments. During late January and February Thew Forrester and the diocese had nothing public to stay to clarify matters. On February 21 the diocese issued a statement declaring:

“The Diocese…created an Episcopal Ministry Support Team and elected Kevin Thew Forrester as bishop at a Special Diocesan Convention on Saturday, February 21, 2009 at St. Stephen’s Church, Escanaba. Thew Forrester was elected on the first ballot 88% of the delegate votes and 91% of the congregational vote.” 

The Escanaba election kicked the matter up the Episcopal chain of command, Joe Bjordal reported on March 10. “Under the canons of the Episcopal Church…a majority of the bishops…must consent to Thew Forrester’s ordination as bishop within 120 days.” The bishops and national church’s standing committees” could choose to either consent to the election or not. If a party doesn’t respond, it is a vote of “No Consent.” The last time an Episcopal candidate was rejected in this process was more than 70 years ago.

But soon after Forrester’s election, the Washington, D.C.-based Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), the self-appointed scourge of liberal Protestants, took notice. (The watchdog organization is an “ecumenical alliance of U.S. Christians working to reform our churches’ social witness, in accord with biblical and historic teachings, thereby contributing to the renewal of democratic society at home and abroad.”) The election of a bishop with a supposed Buddhist background was red meat for the IRD and its president, James Tonkowich, weighed in on February 23. 

Forrester “is not the first Episcopal clergyman to practice dual faiths. In 2004, Pennsylvania priest Bill Melnyk was revealed to be a druid; while in 2007 Seattle priest Ann Holmes Redding declared that she was simultaneously an Episcopalian and a Muslim. Both Melnyk and Redding were eventually inhibited from priestly duties,” Tonkowich reported.

“The issue is not whether meditation is good, it is what is being meditated on,” he said. “Attempts by Christians to be syncretistic devalue other religions, as well as their own…while church leaders may respect other faiths, their vow of Christian ordination has always meant an exclusive commitment to Jesus Christ and the Christian faith.”

Adding proverbial fuel to the fire, George Conger reported February 24 on the site Religious Intelligence that “Known also by his Buddhist name, ‘Genpo’ which means ‘Way of Universal Wisdom,’ Fr. Forrester holds progressive views on a number of Christian doctrines. Writing in the diocese’s newsletter he stated; ‘Sin has little, if anything, to do with being bad. It has everything to do, as far as I can tell, with being blind to our own goodness.’” 

Finally, on February 25, Forrester issued an official statement entitled “My Christian Faith & the Practice of Zen Buddhist Meditation.” However, despite the title, Forrester elaborated very little on the Buddhist component of his faith. Comparing himself with Thomas Merton, he said, “I…have been trained in the art and practice of Zen meditation. 

“I am not an ordained Buddhist Priest…I am thankful for the pioneering work of Thomas Merton in the Buddhist-Christian dialogue…About five years ago a Buddhist community welcomed me as an Episcopal priest in my commitment to a meditation practice—a process known by some Buddhists as ‘lay ordination,’” Thew Forrester said. “‘Lay ordination’ has a different meaning in Buddhist practice than in Christian faith. The essence of this welcoming ceremony, which included no oaths, was my resolve to use the practice of meditation as a path to awakening to the truth of the reality of human suffering. Mediation deepens my dwelling in Christ.”

Similarly, in a February 28 interview in The Mining Journal of Marquette, Michigan, Forrester told interviewer Christopher Diem, “It’s not a matter of holding two faiths. There is one faith and it’s Christianity.”

On March 20, the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan released a statement defending its choice of Fr. Forrester. It stated that “Many of you have been hearing about our recent election and about Kevin Thew Forrester, our bishop-elect…We are confident that Kevin will guard and defend the faith of the Church while inviting us to ever fresh experiences of that faith.” In addition, two retired bishops, former Northern Michigan Bishop Tom Rey and former Alaska Assisting Bishop Rustin Kimsey issued a statement in defense of Forrester, published in a March 23 article by Joe Bjordal of Episcopallife Online (

In this statement, Bishop Rey claimed, “Kevin is authentically in love with Jesus and such a faith can not be fabricated or pretended…A fake is quickly discerned.” Similarly, Assisting Bishop Kimsey stated, “In the matter of his practice of Zen Buddhist meditation, when did the way in which we are deepened into the presence of God become a litmus test for being a follower of Jesus Christ?”

But, despite the support, many remain unconvinced of the sincerity of Forrester’s faith, or that he is the correct choice for the position. Several sources still take issue with the nature of Forrester’s ‘lay ordination’. Mark Harris captured this sentiment, in a February 25 entry to his blog Prelundium at, writing, “what is all this business about ‘lay ordination?’ As I understand it, so called ‘lay ordination’ [is] roughly like the covenant part of the baptismal vows…it is a commitment to a way of approaching the world.” 

There is real ambiguity about what “lay ordination” might mean to Buddhists—few of whom have had anything public to say about the northern Michigan dust-up and whether it might be legitimate to be ordained as both a Christian and a Buddhist. All three sub-traditions of Buddhism recognize lay ordination as a public commitment to practice key precepts of the faith. However, the vows have to do with ethical practice and not explicit faith statements. The usual lay ordination vows include commitments to abstain from taking life, from taking what is not given, from misconduct done in lust, from false speech, and from intoxicants that produce heedlessness.

To practitioners of many world religions, these are familiar precepts. Also a part of the lay ordination ritual is the giving of a “Buddhist name,” an event that signifies significant formal commitment to Buddhist practice and identity. So Conger’s assertion that Thew Forrester was given a Buddhist name (Genpo) casts some doubt on Thew Forrester’s claims to use Buddhist methods for purely Christian ends. At the least, Thew Forrester needs to make an explicit statement.

To IRD President Tonkowich and many others agitated by this nomination, Buddhism and Christianity are wholly incompatible, and that professing to be of dual faith demeans both. Some, like the blogger Jonathan B (who has not revealed his last name, spare the initial) feel that “…if [Forrester)] promotes syncretism, then it would be a big problem, since Buddhism has many elements that are totally incompatible with traditional Christianity, e.g. the afterlife,” he posted on March 25 the Per Christium Catholic Blog.

The American Buddhist community has taken little notice of the whole affair. While the ‘hard-line’ Episcopal watchdogs exploded at the prospect of syncretism, Buddhists, by and large, don’t take issue with it. Syncretism has been a major component of Buddhism’s history and development. Zen Buddhism, for example, is usually held to be a syncretism of Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, the major religions practiced in China before Buddhism arrived.

The whole controversy attracted almost no attention from the mainstream press, except for brief reporting in The Mining Journal of Marquette, Michigan and the Associated Press,” a fact noted by press critic Terry Mattingly at on February 27. Part of the problem, Mattingly suggested was that liberal theology from Episcopalians—and even Buddhist practice by bishops, wasn’t really news. He noted, however, that there were real and interesting doctrinal issues as stake.

And when Frank Lockwood of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette picked up the challenge, his work illustrated how different professional reporting can be from the opinionating of bloggers. Lockwood interviewed what seemed like dozens of knowledgeable sources, including Thew Forrester and the Buddhist abbot who ordained him. While Lockwood is clearly no friend of liberal theology, his lengthy report was fact driven and he gave Thew Forrester ample opportunity to explain his views based on an “on the record interview.”

Further, Lockwood discovered that Thew Forrester’s candidacy was in real trouble with his would-be peers, whose approval was necessary. The problem was not so much theological liberalism, or even Buddhism, but rather Threw Forrester’s record of altering Episcopal liturgical texts.

As a priest, Lockwood reported, Thew Forrester had published revisions of standard Episcopal texts. His “sweeping revisions do more than replace Shakespearean English with modern-day phraseology. For example, Thew Forrester, who said he believes in evil, but not in a literal devil, eliminated the reference to `Satan and all the forces of spiritual wickedness that rebel against God.’ Instead, baptismal participants promise to `let go of’ self-deceit, fear and anger.”

“The Book of Common Prayer, for us, is deeply steeped in the tradition of the church and in holy Scripture,” Lockwood quoted the Episcopal Bishop of Arkansas, Larry Benfield, who has voted against Thew Forrester. “Changes in the prayer book are a very serious matter for us in the Episcopal Church.”

Lockwood then quoted a professor of liturgical studies at an Episcopal seminary as saying these sorts of changes bothered moderate and liberal bishops, as well as conservatives. “You’re not supposed to tinker with the language like this,” said the Rev. James Turell of the School of Theology at the University of the South.

Lockwood closed the article by suggesting that it would be difficult for Thew Forrester to get the 52 positive votes from Episcopal bishops and 56 votes from diocesan standing committees. He revisited the issue on his Democrat Gazette blog on May 19, reporting that 40 of 110 standing diocesan committee had already voted against Thew Forrester.

As this article goes to press, the nation’s Episcopal bishops haven’t made manifest their decision. But his 120 day consideration period will expire on July 25. As more time passes, Forrester’s chances look dimmer and dimmer.


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