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The Zen Episcopalian

A Buddhist bishop for the Episcopal Church?

By 4.24.09

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The modern Episcopal Church always strives to stay ahead of the latest fads. In recent years it has dealt with its first openly homosexual bishop, its first Islamic priest, and its first Druid priest. Now it might be on the verge of electing its first Buddhist bishop.





Kevin Thew Forrester, who is ordained both as an Episcopal priest and as a lay Zen Buddhist, was elected bishop by the Diocese of Northern Michigan (the Upper Peninsula) in February. He is also known as "Genpo," or "Way of Universal Wisdom." A majority of Episcopal bishops and diocesan standing committees now must consent to his election by July. The 2003 election of actively homosexual Gene Robinson as New Hampshire's bishop has already fueled schism within the Episcopal Church and the global Anglican Communion. Would a Buddhist bishop add to the division, or merely be an anticlimax?





"I have been blessed to practice Zen meditation for almost a decade," Forrester has explained. "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.'" He further opined: "Literally thousands of Christians have been drawn to Zen Buddhism in particular because, distinct from western religions, it embodies a pragmatic philosophy and a focus on human suffering rather than a unique theology of God."



Forrester, who is 51 and has been an Episcopal priest since 1994, insists Zen Buddhism is compatible with his faith. "It's not a matter of holding two faiths. There's one faith and it's Christianity," he told a local Michigan newspaper. "The gift is that that faith is deepened by my meditative practice and I'm eternally grateful to Zen Buddhism for teaching me that practice and receiving me as an Episcopal priest." Forrester insists that his faith allows him to be "open to receive the truth and the beauty and goodness, and the wisdom from the other religious traditions of the world, and to be in dialogue with them."

The diocese to which Forrester has been elected bishop has only 27 churches, has lost 30 percent of its membership, and now has fewer than 2000 souls, fewer than 700 of whom actively attend church. But consent to his election by the Episcopal Church will elevate him in the global Anglican communion, whose more than 800 bishops preside over nearly 80 million communicants. An Anglican bishop in Nigeria or Sudan may preside over many tens of thousands of members and arduously commute, sometimes by bicycle, across many hundreds of miles of dirt roads. Small, liberal, and affluent dioceses in the U.S. can afford to be more esoteric in their selection of bishops, who have fewer responsibilities.

According to a Diocese of Northern Michigan statement, Forrester was "drawn into the Christian-Zen Buddhist dialogue through centering prayer and his desire to assist persons in their own transformation in Christ." He has practiced Zen meditation for nearly 10 years and, "with marvelous hospitality, the Buddhist community welcomed him in his commitment to meditation practice as an Episcopal priest."



An Episcopal theologian who assisted the Northern Michigan Diocese in its election similarly explained that "Buddhism is a set of practices similar to Christian practices about meditation and awareness and compassionate living." She insisted Zen Buddhism could be "practiced without detriment to doctrine" and there are "a number of bishops" in the Episcopal Church who "engage in and have experience of Buddhist practices of mediation." So if his election is confirmed, Forrester apparently will not be alone among the bishops.

Forrester's confirmation by most Episcopal bishops may be less than automatic. Even several non-conservative bishops have publicly opposed him. Bishop of Southern Ohio Thomas Breidenthal says he's concerned not so much about the Zen Buddhism as about Forrester's seeming denial of the Christian understanding of salvation.

"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," Breidenthal noted. "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."

The Southern Ohio bishop worried that Forrester's teaching "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." Breidenthal observed that Forrester's sermons, once publicly available on his home congregation's website, have recently been removed.



Of course, most of Forrester's sermons had already been downloaded by countless curious Anglicans. The Arkansas Democrat Gazette wrote extensively about Forrester's theology, reporting that the proposed bishop "denies that Satan exists," "doesn't believe God sent his only-begotten son to die for the sins of the world," "says that the Koran is sacred," and altered the Apostles' Creed, all while aspiring to become a "successor to the Apostles." 



The Gazette quoted Forrester's Buddhist abbot fondly remembering when the Episcopal priest "donned ceremonial garb, kneeled with his hands in a praying position, took Buddhist vows and received his new dharma name" of Genpo. 



Early this month, the Seattle Episcopal priest who professed also to be a Muslim was defrocked by her bishop. In 2005, a Pennsylvania Episcopal priest who had been outed as a Druid (he belonged to the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids) was forced to resign by his bishop. Having rejected Muslim and Druid priests, will the Episcopal Church now affirm a Buddhist bishop? We'll know this summer.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.