A priest once elected, and subsequently denied office, as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan is moving on from at least one church he leads, leaving behind a precipitously declining congregation with only a handful of attendees.
The Rev. Kevin G. Thew Forrester’s 2009 election triggered opposition from across the church after it was revealed that he had received a Zen Buddhist ordination. Forrester had unilaterally edited the baptismal rite in church services he presided over in an effort to bypass doctrines he disagreed with, including original sin and the existence of Satan. The clergyman from Marquette, the largest city in Michigan’s geographically vast Upper Peninsula, also inserted a verse from the Koran into a church service as the Word of God.
However, Forrester was never consecrated. That’s because his election to oversee the Northern Michigan diocese did not receive consent from a sufficient number of diocesan bishops and standing committees, as required by Episcopal Church canon law. It was the first time a bishop-elect had been denied consent since the 1930s, and the first time since the 1870s that one had been rejected for theological reasons.
He remained in his position as “ministry developer,” overseeing three congregations: St. Paul’s, Marquette; St. John’s, Negaunee; and Trinity, Houghton.
At the same time, publicly available numbers reveal a significantly diminished congregation.
In 2007, when Forrester began his work as ministry developer, Trinity had an average Sunday attendance of 45. In 2017, the most recently reported year, attendance had dropped to 12, while membership dropped 75 percent from 120 members to 30.
Forrester’s other two parishes also declined over the same period. St. Paul’s dropped from a 2007 attendance of 75 to fewer than 50. At St. John’s attendance is down to 15 from 27.
Forrester’s website describes him as a “teacher of the soul’s journey,” an interfaith spiritual writer and an Episcopal priest. He is also a contributing essayist for the Progressing Spirit blog of self-described “non-theist” John Shelby Spong, an infamous former Episcopal bishop from New Jersey.
In one talk featured on his blog, Forrester uncritically states that “most scholars are pretty much in agreement; he [St. Mark] pretty much created that story [about demons and healing].”
Despite few members in its congregation, the job at Trinity Houghton lists a generous compensation of up to $60,000 and four weeks’ vacation time.
“With that kind of pay it’s the best job in the diocese,” assessed Dennis Lennox, a Michigan Episcopalian and religious affairs commentator familiar with the diocese. “It might even be the best job in the Episcopal Church, given the congregation is only around 12 souls.”
As for the diocese, statistics from the Episcopal Church’s Office of the General Convention show that it has continued to wither away, shuttering six congregations between 2007 and 2017 (from 27 to 21) and dropping 40 percent in average Sunday attendance from 690 to 411. In the most recent reporting year there were only four baptisms and zero confirmations in the entire diocese.