Clergyman defends his Zen Buddhist practices

by Ruth Gledhill, The Times, March 8, 2009

Conservatives in the Episcopal Church of the US rally against bishop after he admits to using Buddhist techniques

London, UK -- An Anglican clergyman elected as a bishop has defended his right to use the practices of Zen Buddhism to deepen his Christian faith.

Conservatives in The Episcopal Church of the US are demanding that Rev Kevin Thew Forrester, a priest in the diocese of Northern Michigan, be barred from the episcopate because he received a "lay ordination" from a Buddhist group.

For his election to be ratified, Dr Forrester will need the consent of a majority of bishops in The Episcopal Church as well as of diocesan standing committees.

Conservatives in the US, who have so far failed to unseat the openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, have already begun an internet lobbying campaign in an attempt to undermine support for Dr Forrester by claiming he is a fully-fledged Buddhist.

They are also citing two other recent cases. In 2004, the Rev Bill Melnyk was inhibited by the Bishop of Pennsylvania for proclaiming that he was a practicing Druid as well as an Episcopal priest. In 2007, the Rev Ann Holmes-Redding was inhibited by the Bishop of Rhode Island being a practising Muslim as well a priest.

But in an interview with The Times, Dr Forrester said he was neither a Buddhist nor a Bhuddist priest and that he used Zen meditation simply to deepen his relationship with Christ. It was also a means to deepen understanding of the mystery of suffering, he explained.

In a further twist it emerged that Dr Forrester, a former Roman Catholic, studied for his doctorate in moral theology under the controversial US Catholic theologian Charles Curran. Dr Forrester played a prominent role in organising student protests in support of Professor Curran, his tutor, before the theologian was barred by the Vatican as a Catholic teacher in the late 1980s because of his liberal views on doctrines covering birth control and Papal infallibility.

Dr Forrester said he became an Anglican soon after this episode, when he returned to Michigan to write his dissertation on moral theology and began attending an Episcopal church where the sanctuary is shared with the local Jewish temple.

Northern Michigan, a numerically-small diocese covering the huge and sparsely-populated Upper Peninsula area of the Great Lakes, has been without a bishop for two years after Bishop Jim Kelsey, known as the "earth" bishop because of his interfaith and environmental passions, was killed in a car accident.

Dr Forrester, married with two young children and who is also an accomplished musician, said there was a long Christian tradition of using meditation techniques. His own spirituality is drawn largely from the contemplative tradition of the Cappadocian Fathers as in the writings of Ekhart and Julian of Norwich.

"They all have this deep ability to sit silent in the presence of God who sustains our existence with the breadth of His love. The contemplative tradition is rich in Christianity."

He continued: "I was drawn to meditation because these elders in our own tradition suggested it as a resource. It can deepen our own closeness to Christ. I find it a very helpful tool. I am not a Buddhist, or a Buddhist priest. I am someone who as a Christian is very grateful for having been taught by the Zen community how to sit."

He said: "The lay ordination was a welcoming rite for me to commit myself to the path to discover why I suffer or why other people suffer, and to use the practice of meditation to help that suffering."

At his own church of St Paul's in Marquette there is a healing arts centre, where worshippers "sit" twice a week. When he works with groups, Forrester often begins with a meditation. "The work we are about is Christ moving through us," he said. "There is a Trinitarian aspect to it, in the sense of individuals working as one to support the baptismal ministry. Meditation simply helps us to slow down and receive this as a gift from God."