Monday, March 2, 2009

St Mary's 1

For the last few months people in Brisbane have been bemused, outraged, amused by the fracas at St Marys, the Catholic Parish of South Brisbane. St Mary's is an inner city parish, which over the last 20 years has etablished a reputation for being experimental, of pushing the envelope, of working out new ways of being Catholic and of being inclusive and welcoming for people who were alienated from the officla Roman church. St Mary's also provides the base where a range of social justice projects known as Project Micah operate from. Consequently St Mary's has become known as a social justice church, a place where spirituality and worship are informed by a commitment to social justice and social justice is grounded in the spiritual life of the community. St Mary's maverick reputation has meant it has been subject of regular complaints by conservatives, known as the Temple police, who for many years now have made of point of spying on Catholic parishes and reporting any breaches of conservative orthodoxy to Rome. Their biggest sucess was in getting the use of the 3rd rite of reconciliation effectively outlawed from use in Catholic churches in this country during the 90s. Before then it was commonly used at both Christmas and Easter. Last August, the Catholic Archbishop of Brisbane, John Bathersby, wrote this letter to Peter Kennedy, the parish priest/administrator at St Mary's. Bathersby raisd concerns on several issues to do with faith, liturgy, governance and authority. A to-ing and fro-ing of communication culminated in the sacking of Peter Kennedy last month. The Catholic Dean of Brisbane, Ken Howell, was appointed to minister to St Mary's. However Peter Kennedy and the community would not accept the decision and the Archbishop has still not been able to enforce his decision. Peter Kennedy and his colleague, Terry Fitzpatrick, a priest not appointed or employed by the Archdiocese and whose status at St Mary's was one of the key issues raised in Bathersby's letter last August, remain at St Mary's pending the outcome of mediation.

The St Mary's story is quite a saga and one that raises several issues. These include authority and autonomy in the Roman church, inclusion/exclusion, questions of the boundaries by which community, identity and continuity are determined, the relationship of reconstruction/adaptation and tradition, as well as the questions of journalistic coverage, the understanding or, more pertinently, the failure of comprehension of he issues on the part of journalists in reporting on this saga. It's further complicated for me in that I used to attend St Mary's fairly regularly but by 2002 had effectively walked away from it as I believed that it had stopped performing any kind of eucharist that I could recognise as such. I found myself walking out of the 2003 Good Friday liturgy (which is not a eucharist) together with a friend of mine because of the appropriation of supposed rituals from a non-Australian indigenous culture, which we understood as yet another trendy new age indulgence in noble savage neo-colonialism. I have been to St Mary's twice since for a Sunday service and nothing I witnessed changed my position that at St Mary's the eucharist has been pretty much abandoned. Instead, there is a communion service which is barely recognisable as a Christian service let alone matching any Catholic (Roman, Greek, Assyrian, Ethiopian, Coptic, Independent, Liberal or Old Catholic/Orthodox) criteria of what the eucharist is. To further complicate matters, before the current dramas erupted last year I became privy to information about the two priests at St Mary's that left me wondering if St Mary's had not in fact become a Peter and Terry cult.

I won't go into that here. In this post I want to elaborate a little on my concerns about St Mary's and the eucharist and on the related question of how to be a radical catholic church working out of the heart of catholic tradition. Related to that is my experiences with Independent Catholicism. I might also touch on the role of the media in this saga. If time does not permit for this post then I will return to the question of media coverage in a later post. Warning, people who aren't Catholic might find some of the discussion rather arcane or obscure but hopefully you'll stick with it.

I'll start with the eucharist. In the Roman rite churches it's also known as the Mass, a term used by a number of Anglicans, Lutherans and by some Orthodox as well. It's fair to say that one of the defining hallmarks of Catholic Christianities is that these are sacramental and liturgical Christianities. Ritual is part and parcel of the spiritual life of these communities. Indeed ritual and sacrament could be said to be the mecahnisms of creating and maintianing the communities in space and time. When Roman Catholics and Orthodox and Anglicans talk about Tradition one of the key facets of what tradition is, the point of connection with the very earliest days of Christianity is the sacramental liturgy. And the key sacrament of that liturgy is the eucharist. The whole life of the church, indeed its very existence is grounded in the eucharist. Without the eucharist there is no church period. That's why Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics regard most Protestant churches as deficient because there is no eucharist in a form that is consonant with Catholic liturgical tradition. The centrality of eucharist for church is demonstrated in Greek theology which regards baptism as a rite of ordination rather than a sort of magic wash away original sin thing that is so prominent in western christianities. In that sense everyone who particpates in the eucharist does so as a celebrant with a specific role by virtue of their ordination in baptism. And what are the features that define a eucharist in Catholic theologies? Most crucially, the notion of the sacrificial Real Presence of Christ is fundamental. The eucharist is a rite of sacrifice celebrating the Real Presence of Christ in the community, sacramentally in bread and wine. As part of this celebration the eucharist is both an instantiation of the events of the Good Friday and Easter/Pascha, including the Last Supper and is the new age of the heavenly eschatological banquet made present in real time and space. Westerners have a very linear concept of time and find the time trancending nature of the eucharist hard to grasp. But the eucharist exists in an eternal now which collapses past present and future. Thus for Catholics the Second Coming of Christ happens again and again in each and every eucharist. The Rapture and associated end time speculations are irrelevant to Catholics (or should be) because of Christ's presence in the eucharist. The eucharist is a ritual of healing and reconciliation, personal, communal and cosmic. I'm more and more convinced that the origins of the eucharist lie in the ancient Day of Atonement rituals of the Jewish Temple. Atonement was the annual healing of the cosmos with the life energy of the Lord as symbolised by the blood of the sacrificed goat (Leviticus 16:15-19). Likewise the eucharist is a ritual of atonement deploying the sacramental body and blood of the Lord. Atonement restores community between heaven and earth. In the medieval church, the annual Easter communion marked the solemn restoration of community bonds.

What makes a eucharist a eucharist, then, is the celebration of the sacrificial Real Presence of Christ through the eschatological recollection/invocation of Last Supper, Cross and Resurrection and Kingdom of God. Robes are not necessary, bells and smells are not necessary, the very words of institution (this is my body/this is my blood) are not necessary - one of the oldest extant eucharistic liturgies, the Liturgy of Sts Addai and Mari of the Church of the East, does not contain the words of institution in its anaphora or eucharistic prayer. And finally men are not necessary - I support the full ordination of women to every priestly office of the Church.

I began attending St Mary's when taken there by a friend in the AIDS Council back in the late 80s. I used to enjoy it, especially the willingness to experiment. A child of Vatican 2, I've participated in all sorts of eucharistic celebrations, in churches, in homes, in the open air. They've been celebrated with current priests and ex priests. Once or twice they've been celebrated without priests at all. There have been times when I've celebrated the eucharist on my own with bread or crackers and a glass of wine. So I'm not one who is going to insist on inconsequential things like what robes the priest does or does not wear or anything like that. In the old days of the early 90s my main complaint at St Mary's was with a different priest who had the appalling habt of workshopping the Mass. He couldn't resist his running commentary on everything, putting himself front and centre. My friend and I would often leave and go for a coffee if we found he was the celebrant.

He himself left the priesthood in the mid-90s and moved on. Terry Fitzpatrick appeared in his place. I always assumed Terry was a priest of the archdiocese so it was a real surprise to learn last year befroe all this drama broke out that he, in fact, wasn't but came from Toowoomba instead. But it also seemed that Terry was more and more Peter's successor. Terry led the eucharists and Peter stayed in the ranks. I also noticed that the eucharistic prayers began to change. More and more it seemed that St Mary's had developed its own anaphora or eucharistic prayer. More and more these prayers began to abandon the standard characteristics of what made a eucharist a eucharist. In the end the only thing eucharistic about it the was the words of institution. But the prayer as a whole lacked any explicit reference to Christ let alone to anything of the sacrificial real presence. Without the words of institution it could have been used in any sort of religious setting Christian or non-Christian with no problem whatsoever. In other words it had been evacuated of any meaningful content whatsoever. Hence I walked. It's a bit like turning up for a vegan feast and constantly being presented with spare ribs. What was happening at St Mary's was a communion service of some sort but not a eucharist.

But they, or Terry, kept the words of institution like some magic incantation, abracadabra. It indicated to me that St Mary's did not understand their own tradition, a view also expressed to me not long ago by a non-Catholic person who attended St Mary's recently. The worst offenders are the priests themselves. But then ironically, everything at St Mary's keeps re-inscribing the role of the priest. I've never seen them give the cup at St Mary's. I was surprised to go to another Catholic church and find the cup given at Communion along with the host - it's pretty much the norm. But at St Mary's it seemed to have been reserved for the priest. When they celebrate the communion at St Mary's too, the priest dons a sort of stole so even though the whole congregation recites the prayers they make sure they have a priest there just to be sure. They'd be better off getting rid of the priests and of course there's no reason why not except then they'd definitely be crossing the line and stepping out of the Roman communion. And besides, the priests themselves wouldn't want that either. In this article by Andrew Fraser in the Australian, probably one of the few good pieces of reporting I've seen, Kennedy is quoted thus

Kennedy insists that while St Mary’s is about the community rather than him, his presence there is vital. “This community will die when I leave,” he says. “After that, they will either appoint a priest who’ll toe the line and deliver exactly the Mass they want, which will mean a lot of people will leave, or it will be absorbed into another parish.”
It's 20 years since I first started attending St Mary's and I confess to being shocked by this statement. Kennedy is in his 70s. I believe he must retire at 75. In fact I think Bathersby had been hoping that the situation would be resolved by retirement of both himself and Kennedy in the next 2-3 years.

Kennedy himself has done a disservice to the community there. In all my time at St Mary's I don't recall Terry's status being clarified. I wonder how many people assumed that Terry was part of the archdiocese and might even succeed Peter Kennedy. And if Peter Kennedy really thinks that the community depends on him that much ,what does that make of the pretence that the priests are just the same as everyone else. Clearly in his case they aren't. And so everything about dissolving the priest's liturgical function was just play-acting.

I also think Bathersby has handled the situation badly. In part it's the old Roman problem with authority. It's expected that when the word has been laid down everyone will submit. Appointing Dean Howell to St Mary's was a mistake although I appreciate the archdiocese is strapped for priests. But, while he might have a good singing voice, as Dean of the Cathedral Howell has an enforcer role to him whether or not that's the actual case.

In a later post I'll talk about some of the issues of how to do a radical Catholicism from the heart of tradition but I just wanted to make a brief observation re the silly kerfuffle over whether there was a statue of the Buddha in St Mary's church and its appropriateness. Not many people know that the Buddha is a Christian saint. He got sainted in the Orthodox Church as St Josaphat. You can read all about it here. One good reason why tradition can be so important - it's amazing what you can find there.

Update: Mark Bahnisch has some comments on this post and St Mary's situation over at LP

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