NORTHERN MICHIGAN: Diocesan leaders, retired bishops defend bishop-elect, election process

March 23, 2009

Leaders of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan released a statement on March 20 in defense of its bishop-elect, the Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester, who was the only candidate when he was chosen during a special convention on February 21.

The diocese released letters of support from retired Northern Michigan Bishop Tom Ray and Diocese of Alaska Assisting Bishop Rustin Kimsey.

The diocesan statement by the Standing Committee, the Commission on Ministry, the Diocesan Council and the Episcopal Ministry Discernment Team came in response to criticism about Northern Michigan's episcopal search process and concerns that Thew Forrester's practice of Zen Buddhist meditation might have diluted his Christian faith, making him unsuitable to serve as a bishop. The Episcopal Ministry Discernment Team was a group of persons who worked for over a year to both identify candidates for bishop and for an Episcopal Ministry Support Team that will share oversight for the diocese's 27 congregations.

Under the canons of the Episcopal Church (III.16.4 (a)),  a majority of bishops exercising jurisdiction and diocesan standing committees must consent to Thew Forrester's ordination as bishop within 120 days of receiving notice of his election.

"We have known, lived, and worked with Kevin in this diocese for eight years and know him to be a person of deep faith and witness to the love of God and Jesus," said the leaders in the statement.  "His deep spiritual grounding, his extensive learning, his pastoral sensitivity, and his passion for living truthfully and authentically have enriched our diocese and provided focused guidance during the years he has been among us."

"We are confident that Kevin will guard and defend the faith of the Church while inviting us to ever fresh expressions of that faith," they said.

Responding to the concerns about the search process, the leaders said the election "is about more than Kevin."

"It is about the diocese that we love and the decisions we have made to be increasingly faithful in our mission and ministry as the people of God, as the hands of Jesus in this place, as a people deeply rooted in baptismal ministry."

The discernment process used by Northern Michigan was based on the Mutual Ministry model, which has been in use in its congregations for more than 20 years.  Mutual Ministry, sometimes called Total Ministry, is based on the belief that baptism unites all people equally in ministry and that each person is given specific gifts for ministry. Mutual Ministry attempts to move congregations away from a primary focus on ordained ministry and towards a model in which a congregation is led jointly by a team of people, in which a priest might have only a sacramental role.

The leaders noted that the commitment of congregations in Northern Michigan to "living with vitality and vibrancy in this environment" has attracted visitors from around the Anglican Communion who have come to study and witness the Mutual Ministry model.

Expressing confidence in the discernment team, the leaders also said they believe the discernment process was "open, thorough, faithful and canonical with a greater degree of outside scrutiny and support than most traditional search processes." Wyoming's Bishop Bruce Caldwell, Vermont's Bishop Tom Ely and retired Episcopal Divinity School professor Fredrica Harris Thompsett monitored the discernment process.

"We are a practical, resourceful and hopeful people who look to the future with excitement and confidence as we seek to be a faithful and dynamic community of Christians, committed to bringing the light and life of Christ to the world in which we live," the leaders concluded their statement.

Defense from two retired bishops

Retired Northern Michigan Bishop Ray wrote is his letter, addressed to the House of Bishops, that it has been remarkable for him to witness the "tenaciousness and faithfulness" of the discernment process. He said it had become clear to him that the Episcopal Ministry Discernment Team was "drawn to a convincing consensus in nominating Kevin" and noted that the electing convention "exhibited the same overwhelming consensus where a super majority is canonically necessary."

Speaking to the concern that Thew Forrester is not "fully Christian," as he put it, Ray wrote that he has known Thew Forrester for over 15 years and said the bishop-elect "honors his baptism like few I know."

"Kevin is authentically in love with Jesus and such a faith can not be fabricated or pretended," said Ray. "A fake is quickly discerned. I am absolutely clear that Kevin is for real and shares personally and deeply my Christian friendship."

Kimsey, retired bishop of the Diocese of Eastern Oregon and retired assisting bishop for the Navajoland Area Mission, wrote in his letter that he was "confounded by the controversy" over Thew Forrester's election as bishop. Thew Forrester and his wife, the Rev. Rise Thew Forrester, served in Eastern Oregon during the time that Kimsey was bishop there before moving to Northern Michigan.

"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?," asked Kimsey in his letter addresses to bishops, diocesan standing committees and what he called "their constituency of the Episcopal Church."

"Kevin could not be clearer: he is a Christian who on occasion practices Zen Buddhist meditation," wrote Kimsey. "I would think he would be commended for such exploration into a milieu that is known for peace and healing and harmony."

Speaking to the controversy over the election process, Kimsey asks if the "present norm" of selecting bishops is "the wisest way of the Spirit."

"I think not. Is an electing convention with multiple nominees the most sensitive method? At times it has been when political infighting was nil and honesty on the part of the nominees was at a premium. But Northern Michigan's diverse and representative discernment committee also should receive our affirmation as a way in and through an episcopal election if the diocesan convention creates and affirms such a model," said Kimsey.

Kimsey continued:  "Northern Michigan would be the first to say that to simply adopt their model without the hard preparation they embraced would be a mistake, but what they have done does invite every diocese to think outside the box a bit, pay primary attention to the context of ministry needs in our dioceses and discern early on in our processes where the office of bishop fits in our ministry and mission needs."