Jesus saves, the Episcopal Church teaches, but a growing number of its clergy and leaders believe other faiths may lead to salvation as well. Long divided and distracted by questions of sexual ethics, the Episcopal Church (along with most mainline Protestant communities) are facing a cultural and theological shift towards religious pluralism—the belief that there are diverse paths to God.

The debate is not just academic. In two current cases, Episcopal clergy are under scrutiny for practicing and promoting other religions. On February 12 a devotee of Zen Buddhism was elected bishop of the Episcopal Church's Northern Michigan diocese. Meanwhile, a Seattle-area priest has been given until March 30 to decide whether she is a Muslim or a Christian as her bishop will not permit her to profess both faiths.

The Episcopal Church's problems with syncretism—the blending of belief systems—comes as no surprise to Wade Clark Roof, professor of Religious Studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara and a leading sociologist of religion. "Clearly there are people, including religious leaders, [who find] spiritual wisdom in faiths other than their own," he told Christianity Today.

This openness to other faiths is "in some respects good in an age of global religious diversity when tolerance and respect are essential to our peace if not our survival," he said. There is also something healthy about seeing "Christ in the face of the other," he said, quoting Thomas Merton. "It implies not just acceptance of the religious other, but something of the intrinsic similarities among people despite their differences."

But the spread of syncretism within mainstream Christianity is an even greater threat to the church than the 2003 election of a gay bishop, Episcopal theologian Kendall Harmon of South Carolina told Christianity Today. It imperils interfaith dialogue by detaching Christianity from its doctrinal and historical core, he argued. "To be a Christian is to worship Jesus," Harmon said. "To lose that is to lose the center of Christian truth and identity."

The shift towards pluralism has been long in coming. In his 1993 book, A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation, Roof reported that surveys of American baby boomers—Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish, liberal or conservative—all showed a trend towards religious consumerism. The values of the new generation were focused on choice, tolerance of different lifestyles, blending faith and psychology—a cafeteria-style religion where you believe in whatever works best for you.

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Roof called this individualistic religious consumerism "transformed narcissism," and predicted it would come to dominate American religious life. The results of an August 2008 study conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life appear to bear him out: a majority of American Christians (52%) believe that some non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life.

Even a significant minority (47%) of evangelical Christians in the U.S. believe that many religions can lead to eternal life, the Pew Forum found. Of these evangelicals who say there are multiple paths to salvation, 35 percent believe that Islam and 33 percent believe that Hinduism can lead to eternal life, while 26 percent believe that atheists can achieve eternal life.

While the question of salvation outside the Christian faith is not new, the recent cultural movement toward religious pluralism has found champions among theologians. "Pluralists" such as the Presbyterian theologian John Hick and Roman Catholics Paul Knitter and Raimon Panikkar have argued that Christianity does not have the right to make an exclusive claim to the truth.

For the pluralists, the Shema of the Jews, the Christian Creeds, the Muslim Shahada (There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet,) and the Buddhist belief that at the heart of reality there is the emptiness of Nirvana, all have their own saving power.

In an October 18, 2006, interview broadcast on NPR's "Here and Now," Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori stated, "Christians understand that Jesus is the route to God. That is not to say that Muslims, or Sikhs, or Jains, come to God in a radically different way. They come to God through human experience—through human experience of the divine."

Jesus Christ is the way and the truth and life for us, Canadian Anglican Bishop Michael Ingham argued in his 1997 book Mansions of the Spirit, but there are other "diverse paths to God." The Bible stands as an account of "emerging God-consciousness," he argued, but our knowledge of God is not solely confined to Scripture, as there is "a yet wider view of God's self-disclosure" through human mystical experiences.

"We who practice the Christian tradition understand him as our vehicle to the divine," Jefferts Schori told Time magazine in its July 10, 2006, issue. "But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box."

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Protestant and Catholic Church leaders have largely rejected these views, from the Council of Florence's 1438 declaration that there was "no salvation outside the church" to the 1974 Lausanne Declaration by evangelicals that there was "no salvation outside a personal and explicit confession of faith in Jesus Christ."

Anglican theologian J. I. Packer defended the exclusive role of Jesus in his 1994 book, Jesus Christ the Only Savior, while Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the current Pope Benedict XVI, in 1996 called this interreligious relativism "the fundamental problem of faith in our time."

In 2000, the Roman Catholic Church clarified its position in Dominus Iesus, which stated "the thesis that the revelation of Jesus Christ is of a limited, incomplete, and imperfect character, and must be completed by the revelation present in other religions, is contrary to the faith of the Church. … This position radically contradicts the affirmations of faith according to which the full and complete revelation of the salvific mystery of God is given in Jesus Christ."

"If Billy Graham or Pope Benedict" were asked the questions Episcopal leader Jefferts Schori were asked, they would respond that "Jesus is the Way, the Truth and Life," Harmon said. In a time of doctrinal confusion, "good leadership claims its particular identity from the stability of its historical faith," he argued.

"It's the leadership of this church giving up the unique claims of Christianity," Harmon said. "They act like it's Baskin-Robbins. You just choose a different flavor and everyone gets in the store."

Druid priests

The question of multiple paths leading to the divine has also been a professional question for some Episcopal clergy.

At the Episcopal Church's 2000 General Convention—the triennial meeting of its governing body—a booklet entitled Resources for Jubilee was distributed to deputies; it carried an endorsement from the convention's secretary that it could serve as a "possible source of ideas to carry with you." Enclosed in the booklet was the Summer 2000 issue of Spirituality and Health with articles promoting "witchcamps," the Wiccan "Pentacle of Iron," and a "shamanic journey into the underworld and back again" taken by an Episcopal priest with the guidance of a "raccoon spirit."

After protests by some of the church's bishops, the booklet was recalled.

In 2004, two suburban Philadelphia Episcopal priests, the Rev. William Melnyk and his wife, the Rev. Glyn Ruppe-Melnyk, were investigated by their bishop for being "practicing druids."

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The two were found to have been authors of a "Eucharist to our Mother Goddess" published on a Wicca website (and, for a while, on the Episcopal Church's Office of Women's Ministries site). Writing under the Druid and Wiccan names Oakwyse, Raven, Druis, and Glipsa, the liturgy evoked the Babylonian deity "Bel" and offered prayers to the "Queen of Heaven": a reference not to the Virgin Mary but to Ishtar, the consort of Baal.

In an internet chatroom writing under the pseudonym "Druis," Melnyk stated he had been a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids since 1998. "My spouse and I are both Druid graduates of the training course. We are also both priests in the Episcopal Church. Between us, we lead two groves, some call them 'congregations,' of Christians learning about Druidry numbering about 1200."

The Melnyks "recanted and repudiated" their connection with Druidism, but explained to their bishop that they had become involved in the occult "to help others who had lost connection to the Church to find a way to reconnect."

'Jesus led me into Islam'

The question of multiple paths leading to the divine has become a professional one for Episcopal priest Ann Holmes Redding. She must decide by March 30 whether she is a Christian or a Muslim. If she does not recant her profession of Islam, she will be expelled from the church's ordained ministry.

In a June 2007 interview with the Episcopal Voice, the Seattle-based Diocese of Olympia's newspaper, Redding announced she was both a Christian and a Muslim. "The way I understand Jesus is compatible with Islam," she said. "I was following Jesus and he led me into Islam."

The former director of Christian Formation at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle, Redding began to study Islam in the wake of 9/11, after hearing Muslim imams speak at interfaith events at the cathedral. A personal crisis spurred her onto a spiritual quest that ended with her publicly reciting the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith.

A public symbol of conversion to Islam, the Shahada does not contradict anything in Christianity, Redding argued, nor did the professions made at a Christian baptism contradict anything in Islam, for the language of either creed was not to be taken in a literal sense.

"We Christians, in struggling to express the beauty and dignity of Jesus and the pattern of life he offers, describe him as the 'only begotten son of God.' That's how wonderful he is to us. But that is not literal," she said.

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Redding's faith mixes elements of Christianity and Islam to a degree that traditionalists of both faiths would reject, holding in tension the gospel accounts of Jesus' death on the cross, resurrection, ascension, and divinity with the Koran and traditional Muslim teaching that Jesus was not the son of God, only appeared to have died on the cross, and was raised to heaven while still alive by God.

The Seattle priest's superior, Bishop Geralyn Wolf of Rhode Island, suspended Redding following the publication of her views, and gave her a year to reconsider. If she does not recant her profession of Islam by the end of March, she will be expelled from the Episcopal priesthood.

Last year Redding told the Seattle Times she had no intention of recanting, as she did not believe her views on the person of Christ were out of the mainstream of the Episcopal Church.

"I'm saddened and disappointed that this could not be an opportunity" for the church to broaden its views, she said. "The automatic assumption is that if I'm one of 'them,' I can't be one of 'us' anymore." But "I'm still following Jesus in being a Muslim. I have not abandoned that."

The Seattle priest's spiritual odyssey "fits the growing conversation now occurring in the 'Abrahamic faiths' movement of searching for commonalities among those who worship the same God even as they use differing names for God," Roof told Christianity Today.

This is a conversation likely to become even more important in the years ahead. "A hundred years ago a Lutheran learning to appreciate a Roman Catholic as a Christian" was a challenge, he said. "Perhaps today the challenge is for a Christian to come to know a Muslim as a member of a larger religious family."

The Buddhist bishop-elect

A further test of the doctrinal boundaries of the Episcopal Church came last month when the Diocese of Northern Michigan elected Kevin Thew Forrester bishop of the upper peninsula-area diocese. The sole candidate for election put forward by a committee that included Forrester, his election sparked procedural as well as theological concerns after it was reported that the bishop-elect had undergone "lay ordination" as a Zen Buddhist.

In a 2004 speech, the late Bishop James Kelsey of Northern Michigan publicized his assistant's spiritual quest, telling his diocese that Forrester now was "walking the path of Christianity and Zen Buddhism."

Known also by his Buddhist name, "Genpo" (which means "Way of Universal Wisdom"), Forrester often substitutes his own liturgies for use in his Marquette, Michigan, church for those approved by the Episcopal Church and holds unorthodox views on the Trinity, inclusive language, sin, and redemption. "Sin has little, if anything, to do with being bad," he wrote in the diocese's newsletter. "It has everything to do, as far as I can tell, with being blind to our own goodness."

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Forrester declined to respond to requests for an interview, but a statement issued on his behalf by the diocese said the bishop-elect had been "drawn into the Christian-Zen Buddhist dialogue through centering prayer and his desire to assist persons in their own transformation in Christ."

The new bishop had "practiced Zen meditation for almost a decade" and "the Buddhist community welcomed him in his commitment to a meditation practice as an Episcopal priest (in a process known by some Buddhists as 'lay ordination')."

In a prepared statement, Forrester clarified his relationship with Zen Buddhism, writing, "lay ordination has a different meaning in Buddhist practice than in the Christian tradition. The essence of my welcoming ceremony, which included no oaths, was a resolve to use the practice of meditation as a path to the truth of the reality of human suffering. Meditation deepens my dwelling in Christ-the-healer."

He also denied that he followed two faiths, telling the Marquette Mining Journal, "there's one faith and it's Christianity."

"Like a fair number of Americans, [Forrester] appreciates the wisdom of Zen Buddhism," Roof said. As Buddhism "in principle is not theistic, the wisdom learned in the tradition can be assimilated by a Christian without having to resolve conflicting conceptions of Deity," he said.

Forrester supporters within the Episcopal Church have also rejected charges that his use of Zen Buddhism was inappropriate. "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?" one retired bishop asked in a letter to his colleagues. Other defenders have cited examples of Roman Catholic clerics and religious who practice Zen.

However, in his 1994 book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II warned against appropriating Buddhist practice. Buddhism "is, like Christianity, a religion of salvation," but the doctrines of salvation contained in it are "contrary" to Christian doctrine. Buddhism's salvation is "negative," based upon the conviction that "the world is evil, and is the source of evil and suffering for man," and that "to free oneself from this evil one must free oneself from the world."

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For the Buddhist, freeing oneself from the world does not mean drawing nearer to God as the Christian does in prayer. "Complete detachment is not union with God, but the so-called Nirvana, or rather a state of perfect indifference toward the world," he said.

In the end, "Buddhism is to a great extent an atheistic system," the pope wrote, and "it is not out of place to warn those Christians who open themselves enthusiastically to certain proposals coming from the religious traditions of the Far East."

A majority of bishops and dioceses within the Episcopal Church must affirm Forrester's election within 120 days of having received notice. It is not clear whether he will receive the necessary consents, as questions have also been raised about integrity of the process that led to his election.

Whatever the outcome of the Forrester affair, the challenge for the Episcopal Church and all churches is to respond to the question, "What's so special about Jesus?" The decline of mainline Christianity and the practices of some of its clergy may suggest that its answers, so far, have not been persuasive. Then again, the nascent backlash against syncretistic clergy may mean that dual religious allegiance is one line the Episcopal Church is unprepared to cross.

Related Elsewhere:

See our special section on The Widening Division in the Anglican Church, as well as our sections on theology and other religions.