Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Radio National's Encounter Programme on St Mary's

Last Sunday's Encounter programme was a special feature on the St Mary's dramas. In a sense it promised more than it delivered but then I'm not certain if Encounter is the right sort of programme to cover the current imbroglio. It's mostly a series of interviews with Archbishop Bathersby, Peter Kennedy and some of the congregants interwoven with some sound grabs from a recent Sunday service at St Mary's. So it gives more of an impressionistic account rather than an investigative one and, given that most of the interviewees are from St Mary's, with Bathersby the only speaker with an opposite stance, one could say that the programme is heavily weighted towards the current 'orthodoxy' at St Mary's.

Two things strike me about the programme. Firstly, the lack of any theological depth or even understanding by any of the speakers, and I include here the Archbishop. I personally think Bathersby is someone with a better heart than mind, his sermons really are endurance tests, at least the ones I've had to sit through. In his interview, Bathersby mostly goes over the history of the dispute: he does touch on some theological issues such as the Trinity, Eucharist and Mary but not in any specific way. The most specific he gets is about the power dynamics of the Roman Church:

I mean, it’s a structure that comes from the Pope through the bishops, through the priests and then to the members of the church, and the priest is the leader of the community, he’s the pastor, he’s the teacher of that community.

Particularly since the second Vatican council we are encouraged to bring laypeople
into the life of the church. Certainly laypeople didn’t have a great say within the life
of the church and many would say they still don’t have enough say within the life of
the church. But nevertheless the second Vatican council was on about reaching out to
the world, and because of that therefore laypeople came into it. But it was still a
structure in which the priest would consult the laypeople, would seek advice from the
laypeople, if possible would seek a consensus about decisions and then to follow
through on that decision.
What Bathersby is presenting is a sacralised version of the corporate hierarchy at a time when the corporate world is so much in disrepute. Besides this is his weakest point theologically. This historic model that he describes only came into in existence in the late medieval period and was heavily contested especially at the Reformation but did not come into full flower until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And this top-down model of authority in the Roman church is really a stultifying blight. It represents the imperial ambitions of the Papacy whereby the office is configured as a type of secular ruler or more recently as the ruthless CEO a la the former Telstra boss, Sol Trujillo, or even as a sacral form of the Leninist democratic centralism which dictators like Stalin and Mao used to ruthless advantage. Was the old Communist Party of the Soviet Union modelled on Vatican ambitions for the Church? Did Stalin maintain a tacit admiration for the Pope's apparat?

So speaking in this way Bathersby has essentially alienated people who don't know or understand the real issues at St Mary's and maybe Bathersby doesn't understand them himself. He won't go there to check it out lest his presence be seen as an endorsement but surely he could get copies of the weekly service sheet or even send a delegation to observe the Sunday service? Bathersby would have been on much stronger ground affirming eucharistic theology but then the danger is that there are radical implications of such theology that not only challenge what has been done at St Mary's but also challenge the Archbishop's on top down model of church. However I think he was spot on when he says:

Now you’ll even get people over there who very strongly don’t agree with what
Father Peter is doing. It’s been said to me he’s going to drag this whole show down
and it will go through the plughole. And they’re not happy about that, and they would
say, with all due respect to Father Peter, that the authority lies with him and you better believe it, they say to me. I think there is a very strong authoritarian aspect in Father Peter himself, but you talk to him and he says no, the authority is out there with the people.

I've received similar complaints and have been told stories about Kennedy coming down in quite a strong authoritarian way to ensure his position is unchallenged by anyone at St Mary's.

Turning to Peter Kennedy's interview, I can only say how sad it was to listen to it. I remember him giving really interesting sermons once many years ago but it seems that he has completely lost his way theologically. Not only that but doesn't even understand the old heresies. Peter seems nowadays to hold a mixture of Protestant Unitarian perspective whereby Jesus was simply a very inspired man, a kind of wandering guru or first century Palestinian hippie, or in a more sophisticated version a kind of Jewish Socrates, but also blended with a little New Age theosophical notions of Jesus as an avatar of the divine. So Peter makes an appeal to Arius:
If I’m going to be true to myself here, I would say that I would rather believe that Jesus was a human person rather than what the church teaches that Jesus is a divine person with a human and divine nature. I would tend rather to agree with Arius that Jesus was a human person.
But that's not what Arius taught at all. It would appear that Arius taught that Jesus was either a kind of subordinate divine figure but not part of the Godhead or possibly that he was some sort supreme angelic figure. But Arius never taught that Jesus was just a human person. Islam teaches that, as do Unitarians, Jehovah's Witnesses and Christadelphians and it's a strain in forms of liberal Protestantism. Many Protestant fundamentalists when getting over their fundamentalism adopt this sort of Jesusology, one example is the late Robert Funk who kicked off the Jesus Seminar. Funk wouldn't have bought the Jesus the avatar business but he certainly had a similar religious imperialism agenda, whereby the rationalist/hippie Jesus could be the focus for a new religiosity that would absorb all the world's religions - a kind of liberal counterpart to that good old-time evangelical missionary fervor.

Citing Arius, Peter Kennedy then calls on some vision of the 'pre-Constantinian Church.' It's an old Reformation trope - to get back to some pure original Christian experience. It's pretty common on many evangelical Christian sites, especially the Rapture-ready, to decry Constantine as the evil genius who set up the Catholic Church and destroyed Christianity by paganising it. While Constantine was responsible for the Roman Empire appropriating the Church, the Church was quite happy to be appropriated and was also busy, itself, appropriating the Roman Empire. Appropriation is a two way street as evidenced today by the push for same-sex marriage by LGBT people. And I should add that the Arians were just as keen on the Constantinian church too. Several 4th century Emperoros were Arians themselves and tried to exert imperial power to make Arianise the Church. The Arians themselves were great missionaries and Christianised many of the barbarians. Indeed the barbarians that detroyed the western Roman Empire , the Vandals, Goths etc, were themselves Arian Christians and these Arian churches were just as much Constantinian churches as the Roman Empire one. And if Peter Kennedy really wants to go back to the pre-Constantinian Church, he'd better be sure he keeps clear of Ignatius of Antioch, to cite just one example.

But even worse than the poor theology was the faux humility, masking an incredible arrogance and elitism. He says of his congregation

And we’ve always done that with our people at St Mary’s, they’re adults, for God’s sake, they’re professional people, they’re far more educated than most priests.

That's certainly true. St Mary's is very much a white upper middle class congregation, despite all the claims about its outreach to the homeless. In all my years there, I rarely saw anyone wander in from the St Vincents hostel next door (or indigenous people either for that matter). And while Kennedy's congregants might be more educated than most priests, those interviewed for the programme showed no more theological sophistication than Peter Kennedy himself. And I come back to Bathersby's point

It’s been said to me he’s going to drag this whole show down and it will go through the plughole. And they’re not happy about that, and they would say, with all due respect to Father Peter, that the authority lies with him and you better believe it, they say to me. I think there is a very strong authoritarian aspect in Father Peter himself, but you talk to him and he says no, the authority is out there with the people.

I have heard similar complaints. And while most might not complain, although they are more educated than most priests, they are still prepared to follow what Father says, in this case what Peter says. There is much more I could say about the content of the programme and the interview transcripts but time and space don't allow.

What I do want to conclude on is the incredible wasted opportunities by the makers of the Encounter special feature. Granted Encounter is not an investigative programme but it would have been a lot more interesting exercise if someone had tried to seek out those critical voices from St Mary's, the Archbishop refers too. Given Encounter is a religious programme they might also have tried to explore in greater depth the theological issues at play at St Mary's, especially those to do with the Eucharist. There is another glaring omission amongst the voices of St Mary's, namely the other priest, Terry Fitzpatrick. Given that Terry's status was one of the main issues raised in Bathersby's letter to St Mary's back in August, I'm amazed that no one thought to interview him. In the sound bites of St Mary's sunday service you can even hear him leading the congregation in prayer. So why was he not interviewed? Why the focus on Peter Kennedy? That's been the real problem with media coverage of the whole drama - it's been superficial and hasn't bothered to get into substantive issues at all. Instead it runs a simplistic people versus the hierarchy trope which draws on long traditions of sectarianism in this country whereby you have a moribund reactionary hierarchy versus plucky democratic congregation like the rest of us and who just want to be like the rest of us. And unfortunately the Roman hierarchy seem all too willing to live up to such expectations. And yet the same media organisations are very much moribund reactionary hierarchies themselves, including the ABC, as evidenced by its handling of the Religion Report last year.

I still plan a further post on the overall media coverage of St Mary's which will go into greater detail about some of the issues arising from Encounter's treatment of the story and how the rest of the media have similarly covered it; but not tonight.

1 comment:

  1. Michael,

    I have greatly appreciated your posts on St Mary's. They are very stimulating. While I would not agree with all your positions, your post on 'eucharist as sacrifice' was exceptional.

    I have just finished reading Peter Kennedy's interview (I couldn't bring myself to listen to Encounter). It's very depressing - he not only gets his heresies mixed up and seems never to heard of Ignatius of Antioch (or the Pastoral Epistles), he also misunderstands the nature of Jacques Dupuis' troubles with the Vatican, shows deplorable knowledge of the Gospels (his statement on lack of Son of God theology in Matthew Mark and Luke is astounding), he declares the whole church bar St Mary's to be in schism from the early church, and he claims to no longer be a catholic priest due to his 'sacking' and no longer part of the Church. I'm left wondering if he holds that Jesus existed - he seems to have some doubts about that. How exactly can a purely human Jesus (let alone a non-existent one) be found in the poor and homeless?

    I'm looking forward to your final post on the media... I've been waiting for it. My sense is that the media have almost constantly misunderstood the grounds for the problems ("he gives communion to gay people and divorcees")... I also found it interesting that most of the media onslaught occurred in January when everyone in the diocese knows that the Archbishop is on annual leave in New Zealand.

    Haven't yet read the Arch's interview - your preview/excerpt sounds depressing