Saturday, 6 June 2009

Atonement: common ground

If I were an Episcopalian, I would be a member of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio, and H.E. Thomas Breidenthal would be my bishop. So it goes I am not and he is not, but I admire Bishop Breidenthal very much. I thought that I would share with you his explanation for his choice to deny consent to the election of Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester to the epicopacy for the Diocese of Northern Michigan.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

I am writing to inform you of
my decision not to consent to the consecration of Kevin Thew Forrester as Bishop
of Northern Michigan. I did not want to make a public statement before I shared
my concerns with the Standing Committee. I was able to do this at their meeting
last Friday, March 27.

Two subjects have arisen as matters of concern in
the wider discussion of consent for this Bishop-elect. I want to be clear that
these matters have not contributed to my refusal of consent.

First, the internal process which led to Bishop-elect Thew Forrester's
election. In my view, it violated no canons, and, although I have questions
about it, these have not entered into my decision to withhold consent. Second,
some have voiced concern that Bishop-elect Thew Forrester has been recognized by
the Zen Buddhist community as one who practices Zen Buddhist meditation in an
exemplary fashion and accepts the basic ethical principles of Buddhism. I have
no problem with this. Many Christians have deepened their own faith through
Buddhist prayer practices, and in my view the moral framework of Buddhism is
largely consonant with that of Judaism and Christianity.

But obviously I
do have concerns. These concerns lie closer to home. My own reading of
Bishop-elect Thew Forrester's sermons over the last year (these sermons were
available on the website of his parish church, St. Paul's, Marquette, Michigan,
as of March 16, but are no longer posted) reveals an understanding of the
Christian narrative that is troubling to me. I have spoken about this with the
Bishop-elect on the phone, and he has followed up with e-mails, but I remain

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. 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. Thew Forrester's rejection of salvation
understood as an atonement for sins we cannot procure for ourselves is not an
idea he is merely exploring. In a very consistent manner, he is developing this
idea. In materials he submitted to the House of Bishops earlier this month, he
has shared with us his own revision of the Prayer Book rite for Holy Baptism, in
which references to salvation are replaced with references to union with God.

I would not worry about this so much if Thew Forrester were merely
speculating about alternative ways of understanding the Christian faith. I would
not even worry so much if it were simply a matter of the content of a number of
sermons (although I think we should expect to be accountable for what we
preach). But, as his revision of the Baptismal rite makes clear, he appears to
be settled in his conviction that our relation to Christ is not about salvation
from a condition of objective alienation from God, but about a more realized
union with God.

Why is Thew Forrester's teaching troubling to me?
Because it 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. Our tradition certainly declares God's closeness to us and God's love for
us, but insists that this is solely due to God's gracious initiative, made known
to us in Jesus. In other words, Jesus in his singular closeness to God is as
much a reminder of our alienation from God and from God's ways as he is God's
word to us that we are loved despite our collective wrongdoings.

Some may say, "So what?" Should the Episcopal Church not allow as much
latitude as possible when it comes to theological reflection on the meaning of
Jesus in our lives? Yes, of course. We are a church that values a broad range of
opinion on practically every subject. Yet our (unrevised) Baptismal liturgy
(Book of Common Prayer, beginning at p. 299) is extremely clear about what it
means to be a follower of Jesus: we are to turn to him - the same Jesus of
Nazareth who was crucified and rose again and continues to invite us into a
personal relationship with him - and accept him as Savior. Whatever else we have
to say about Jesus follows from that (even though different people may end up
saying quite different things).

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.

I write this with a heavy heart. Kevin Thew Forrester
served as an assistant in the parish where some years earlier I was ordained a
priest and served as an assistant. He has been raised up by a sister diocese in
our own Province V, and I know how highly he is regarded there and what a blow
it would be to the people of Northern Michigan if he were not to receive the
requisite consents to be consecrated. But I also know that the Episcopal Church
needs at this crucial juncture in the life of the Anglican Communion to be clear
that all our hope is founded in the cross.

+Tom Breidenthal

Bishop Thomas E. Breidenthal
Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio

I appreciate Bishop Breidenthal's candor. I also appreciate his ability to disagree, even strongly, with another cleric and theologian without resorting to polemics, namecalling, and rabble-rousing. (See, American RC Bishops? It can be done!)

In a communion fraught with so much discord, it is good to see some common ground being established. And what better common ground can there be than a shared faith in the atoning death and resurrection of our Lord?

Pax et bonum.