Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Australian Story and St Mary's

Maybe it's the Mercury Retrograde this month but I just don't think I've been blogging the way I'd hoped to lately. There are varous topics I'd hoped to cover but am still to address and I seriously intend to get into them. One that has been constantly pushed to the back is my observations of the 'new regime' over at St Mary's. And in the last week, I've not only been to Mass at St Mary's again but also attend the monthly parish meeting.

However, last night Australian Story went to air with a programme not so much on St Mary's itself but on the two priests in the eye of the whole drama, Peter Kennedy and Terry Fitzpatrick. I didn't think I would see it as I was to be at my mother's last night. But she also wanted to watch it and so with my sister who was also there last night (and was a regular attender at St Mary's) we three sat down to watch it. And so today I am first going to make some obervations on the latest state of play of the 'exilists' in light of the Australian Story programme and then review a little of my own return from exile to St Mary's the parish at Sth Brisbane.

Last night's programme really was a form of hagiography an all too common feature nowadays of what was once a worthy show ; I agree with my flatmate's observation:

Unfortunately, Australian Story generally appears to be an outlet for PR spin, under the guise of human interest, and almost every episode, really, is quite an indictment of what the ABC should be about…

The hagiography was focused on the two priests and we were given an intimate glimpse of their private lives. Most intersting was the focus on Terry, who to date has been kept pretty much out of the spotlight. What we were presented was Father Terry, family man, because the hagiography revolved around Terry and his son, a family relationship which now also includes Peter Kennedy himself. The show provided glimpses of a domestic life of the two priests and the son almost like any other happy family, dare I say nuclear family. And coming after my last post on homosexual tradition and while I'm reading Irigaray's classic text, I couldn't but help feeling a certain irony about what I was viewing, an irony heightened by scenes of them together watching one of my favorite shows, Father Ted.

It's not my intention to comment on the details of their domestic lives. Indeed, I am pleased that Terry has taken his responsibilities as a parent seriously and openly. I wish more priests would do the same (priestly parenthood is much more common than people realise but it's more common for such f/Fathers to brush it aside and avoid their responsibilities). I'm also happy that Peter has been privileged to become a part of such a familial relationship in his old age after many years of celibacy and, presumably, loneliness. Celibacy can really only be lived in community - it's a monastic practice. When a person enters a convent/monastery they are joining a household and entering into a web of relationships focused around spiritual practice and other shared purposes. Celibacy really means unmarried and marriage itself has traditionally represented the entering into/establishing of a (patriarchal) familial household. Monks and nuns are not meant to be embedded in the ways of patriarchy and its family structures, hence they are celibate. But it is a great cruelty for the Roman church to expect its ordinary, non-monastic (and I use the term here broadly to signify life in religious communities, be they monastic, mendicant or 'service' oriented), parish clergy to live a life of celibacy, which of course also entails sexual abstinence, with all the associated sexphobia and homosexual panic, in a setting of an authoritarian hierarchy .

But to return to St Mary's, I really am puzzled by the major stress on the domestic and family life of the two priests in last night's show, except if to say in a hagiographical manner, these are just ordinary regular guys us like the rest of us. It was designed to make us like them but also to deflect from discussing any of the substantive issues involved. In that sense, then, the programme was dishonest.

I'm told that the priests were concerned that the programme might have revealed more than they intended. I don't know what they feared was revealed but they were correct, there were several moments of, I suspect, unintended revelation cutting through the fog of hagiography. I want now to highlight these moments because they shed a striking light on many of the substantive issues in the saga, issues that have been ignored by the media in their persistent and dishonest 'simple caring priests being victimised by evil authoritarian Rome' narrative.

The first relates to the odd recurring understory of Buddhism that just keeps cropping up. It's when Peter is heading off to his appearance on Q & A in Sydney. We see Peter and Terry heading off to the airport for his flight. In the car is a little Buddhist image. It's just a glimpse and I'm sure we glimpse a similar image at another moment in the show but I can't recall when. The image itself is none too special, I think Japanese in style, almost a bit of Buddhist kitsch, but I'm wondering if this is an example of what was in the church that caused all those dramas last year with the conservatives. In which case, I think it's quite dishonest to say that the image in the church was simply a representation of a monk. And the Buddha/ist image is then juxtaposed with Peter saying on Q & A, in response to whether he believes in the divinity of Christ, that 'we can't corroborate the existence of Jesus'. It's a point he's repeated in various public fora and I am frankly puzzled by what he intends by it. Would he say the same for Gautama Buddha (for which the same claim can be made quite justifiably, I would say). And if not, why not? Is Peter really signalling here that he no longer believes in anything of the Christian, let alone Catholic, package that as an ordained priest he is supposed to represent and sustain. A lot of good people have left the Roman Church, people I admire and have been influenced by, including many priests who left over celibacy and sexuality issues. So Peter would be in good company and if he's no longer a believer then leaving the priesthood would be an act of honesty in keeping with the Buddha's own dictum of right speech.

Not all the revelations in the show were by Peter and Terry themselves. There was an important moment of revelation from 'the other side', in the person of Adrian Farrelly, who for some reason terms himself Chancellor of the Brisbane Archdiocese (that title is actually held by
James Spence while Farrelly is Vicar Judicial UPDATE I have been informed that Spence retired a few months ago and that Farrelly has been appointed to the Chancellor position but at this time 1/6/09 the Archdiocese has yet to update its website). Farrelly's own contributions to the saga have been none too helpful, however, he cut through all the crap last night and said that if Peter had kept to authorised Eucharistic prayers and worn some vestments when celebrating the liturgy then none of this would have happened. In large part, Farrelly is correct. Questions of social justice and inclusion are a smokescreen here. The Archdiocese did not intervene because of St Mary's social justice work (which is carried out by Micah Projects, not the priests) or because of its commitment to inclusion of LGBT people. If the priests hadn't de-natured the Eucharist there in the last few years then there would have been no problem.

Except... and here the next revelation is just as crucial as Farrelly's. Peter Kennedy was talking about his interactions with Archbishop Bathersby and said words to the effect that every time he (Kennedy) saw him, Bathersby would regale him with 'all the complaints he was getting about Terry Fitzpatrick'. I've heard some of those complaints myself and they have nothing to do with social justice and inclusion. Quite the opposite, in fact. And as I have said repeatedly, Terry's status was one of the key issues raised in Bathersby's first letter to Kennedy last year. It's a fact that's been continuously ignored by the media's handling of the whole affair. Any reporter worth their salt should have been following up those complaints and indeed I've been told that up until now Kennedy has been concerned to keep Terry out of the spotlight as much as possible. Indeed the other intersting fact about last night's programme was that Terry was brought out into the open at all, if one can call such uncritical PR spin being out in the open.

Two other moments of revelation came in the final credits. We learn that Peter is still being paid by the Brisbane Archdiocese. Terry is not a priest of the Archdiocese and to my knowledge never has been. He was originally from Toowoomba but after all these years in Brisbane could hardly be on Toowomba's payroll. In the credits to last night's show we learn that Terry is paid by 'private supporters'.

They must pay him well, because the other and most disturbing revelation of last night's show came in the lead up to the departure into 'exile'. We see Terry coming down from the choir loft in the church with his golf clubs (golf is not a game of the poor) and fishing rod, all part of the packing up to move out. And he laments the fact that packing up the golf clubs and fishing rod brings home to him the reality of having to move. I'm surprised the programme makers didn't ask him why he was keeping such personal items IN THE CHURCH. Indeed to me it was indicative of a real blurring of boundaries that has been an ongoing pattern of behavior both publicly and privately (according to the complaints I've received) that represents priestcraft and clericalism of the worst kind. Both priests were treating the church of St Mary's as their own personal property. I know too that they took more than just their personal items from the church when they left. It seems, they stripped it of just about everything they could carry; even the vestments, I believe, went (curious given that both priests made the such an issue about not needing to wear vestments) and altar vessels. The piano was taken too on the basis that Peter Kennedy had put so many thousands of his own money towards it. The proper thing to have done was to have tabled a receipt to the Archdiocese for reimbursement. The piano belongs to the community of St Mary's which does not only comprise those who have gone into exile but the full community of people that have been part of it since it was founded in the 19th century and all those yet to come in the future. But it would appear that for Peter Kennedy the community 'c'est moi'. And so it comes as no suprise to hear that he has already excommunicated someone from the exile community for espousing ideas of which he doesn't approve. I know he was all too ready to excommunicate in the days before exile, a fact that is also behind the Archdiocesan intervention.

But to be quite honest, I'm really bored with writing about the two priests. I only took on this role because they had captured the media coverage of the affair and had seriously misrepresented what was really going on. And it appeared that no one was publicly prepared to challenge the spin that was being promoted through the media, apart from some of the silly conservatives who were taking unjustified credit for the Archdiocesan intevention. Let me put it as plainly as I can. Bathersby did not intervene because Rome told him too. He also did not intervene because he wanted to stop the social justice work of the parish. That work continues; it was never at risk from the Archdiocese. What was at issue was the behaviour and accountability of both Peter Kennedy, employed by the Archdiocese and Terry Fitzpatrick who was employed by no one and thus completely unaccountable to anyone. Such lack of accountablity led not only to them denaturing the key rituals that constitute a Catholic identity, it also led them to create their own quasi-religion, a hodge podge of new age Buddhism lite, ersatz Christianity with a sprinkling of appropriated indigenous religious forms to boot. They capped that off with an authoritarianism and abusive behaviour vis a vis individuals in the congregation, hence the many complaints Bathersby had received. What they had done was set up a Peter and Terry cult which bears little or no relation to social justice or inclusion but encouraged the worst aspects of priestcraft. And if I have labored the point it's because the media have been complicit in their whole spin exercise.

But to St Mary's itself, the parish, the forlorn bride. I have returned as has my flatmate, Mark. It was strange to be back there after all those years. I don't live in the area anymore but I don't want St Mary's to die; it has a rich history and a tradition of social justice and inclusion that must be honoured and maintained. And yes there are some conservatives who have turned up and want to turn things back to the way they used to be once upon a time. Once upon a time does not exist and it's to Ken Howell's credit that he is determined not to radically change the way things are done at St Mary's. I believe he was concerned to hear that the Pride Choir had packed up and moved out on the belief that they would be forced to leave. I'm told he wanted them to stay. Certainly the numbers at Mass now are small but that's to be expected given the history. And small numbers give a sense of intimacy which I like. I also like the somewhat impromptu nature of things; when you arrive you are likely to be asked if you want to do a reading, take up the collection, distribute communion etc. My first mass there I did the procesion for the gifts at the Offertory and last Sunday I found myself assisting the priest as a server. THe other positive thing too is that as Dean of the Cathedral, Ken Howell has a lot of other commitments so he shares his St Mary's role with a number of other priests. On Sunday the priest was from Australian Catholic University at Banyo and there is a very social justice oriented priest involved with the Timorese community who has also regularly celebrated Mass there. This diversity of priests is also a good thing, I think. I have also recognised some faces of people who I remember were very active at St Mary's back when I was going in the 90s. Clearly they did not decide to go into exile and they provide a valuable continuity.

Micah Projects is moving out of the old presbytery. It's not clear why. They say that it's 'to allow members and supporters to continue to access and participate in the work of Micah Projects regarless of where they choose to worship' and I seriously hope that connections are maintained between the organisation and the parish. My concerns are heightened by the fact that there are conservatives who love nothing more than to bring to an end the social justice traditions of the parish. I don't want to see that happen but I'm concerned that the media misrepresentations of what was going on at St Mary's might have given them a false sense of empowerment that is undeserved.

So it is my intent to get along to St Mary's and help out as often as I can. I would also hope that those who went into exile will reconsider and return. I suspect many think that the exile is only a temporary thing and that Peter and Terry will eventually be restored to the parish. I can't see how that can happen quite frankly. Mark observed about the exiles

I think the Exilists’ story does show a strange sort of pull away from an absent centre – towards the other. But a certain imaginary other, rather than the others in our midst. The centre might be the institutional church, or a space of privilege. But what’s not going on, I don’t think, is any decentring. There’s something in that centre, still – the priestly authority, and the particular priestly authority of Terry and Peter Kennedy. There’s a gesture towards the other, but I question how much the other is listened to, and more broadly.. there’s something of a spiritual emptiness within that core place.
I would agree. The path they have taken can only lead in one direction, a separate church, a separate denomination. I support and participate in Independent Catholicism myself. For those of us kept at the margins of the mainstream Catholic/Orthodox churches it can be a vital, even necessary way to balance the institutional homophobia and authoritarianism of the mainsteam. But a living religious community needs more to sustain itself than a cult of personality around its clerics. In the end it's not about priests, it's about a community, a living ongoing community of people. That was very much part of the magic of St Mary's. My hope is that the magic, which hasn't quite died, will be sustained and revive to flame forth anew, a beacon of hope once more.

And my next post before this month is over will be on matters biblical.


  1. Thank you, thank you for writing this very informed and erudite BLOG post Michael. I felt, watching Australian story, that we the viewers were not being told the full story.

    I was also bemused/confused as a cradle Catholic by a lot of what Father Kennedy said (um, what does he mean there's no evidence that Christ existed? Never read any Pliny the Elder?).

    I've been going to masses at St Stephen's from time to time to reconnect with my religion. I used to fight against it because of the gay thing, but now as I'm getting older, I can see more of what spirituality means and how important it is and what a great gift I've been given. Damn it, it's my religion too and I'll participate in the full undiluted version if I want to. This was my objection to Father Kennedy's masses -we'll just give you the bits that are politically correct because you're on the outer as a gay person. How offensive! Even the Pope makes a very sophisticated case for the homosexual person as opposed to homosexual practice i.e., the person is not the practice. Not that I'm barracking for the Pope, but he has a point.

    I was thinking of going to St.Mary's, but it might be a bit confronting? I can disappear in a large congregation like St Stephen's and have a more personal experience?

    Thanks again,


  2. Hi Darren, well there are people, not many but some, who have argued that Jesus was not a real person. It's possible to do just as it's possible to argue that Socrates, the Buddha and others are literary constructs. Normally the people who make such arguments are not going to be beleivers or friendly to such subjects.

    I've been going to St Stephens a bit over the years and I also participate in Independent Catholic groups from time to time in Brisbane and occasionaly an Anglican liturgy too, Before he became Pope Benedict is on the record saying that wherever a valid Eucharist is celebrated there is the Church and by that I dont think he emant just the Roman Church. But I also know what you mean about 'it's my religion too' I never understood why Peter Kennedy kept lopping bits off the Eucharist over the years and changing. At first he thought he might be intersted in exposing people to the richness and diversity of liturgical traditions but when I spoke to him about eastern and other liturgies he wasn't interested at all. That was many years ago now.

    I don't think you're likely to stand out in St Mary's unless you say yes to any of the activities that you might be asked to do when you come in the door. Often our self consciousness makes us feel more flamboyant than we really are :)

    Thanks for your comment

  3. Dear Michael,

    You write so very well! As does Mark! And you are both living what is happening there while I can only hear about events from a geographic and temporal distance. It is more than a decade since I was a member of the St Mary's congregation, as I moved interstate, so I keep relating your comments and those of other people to the congregation I knew which isn't reasonable.

    Father Peter gave support to me during the long dying of my father so I have heard of recent events in South Brisbane with distress. It is difficult for me to marry the experiences I had at St Mary's and the kindness of Father Peter to anything like a cult.

    I don't share your confidence that the action of the Archbishop isn't a response to the inclusiveness of St Mary's, and the commitment to social justice of the congregation. When I was there the prayers were spoken in unconventional ways but the words were orthodox to the Catholic Church's teachings so any changes of the last few years fall outside of my experience. The cathedral visible from Oxford Street here is home to a Cardinal who refuses to give communion to anyone who wears rainbow insignia – this contrasts with the open inclusiveness of St Mary’s and Father Peter starkly.

    I respect you and your position deeply Michael, and Mark, so I hope you don’t mind my struggling to say something. My lack of current knowledge knocks me out as a credible voice, but I just felt that I had to try as my experiences at St Mary’s were so very positive, and Father Peter was so very kind to me.

    Best wishes as ever,

  4. Hi Rachel, what you say just highlights even more the tragedy of the whole situation. Peter was a good priest but something has changed over the years. I can assure you that Bathersby's actions are not a response to the inclusiveness of St Mary's. I'm privy to information not in the public domain about what has prompted the Archbishop to act and I can say categorically it had nothing to do with inclusiveness or pressures from Rome. It related directly to Peter and Terry alone, the two of them, not just Peter.

    I can understand how in Sydney with the most unpleasant careerist George Pell it might look different; but whatever else his faults might be, Bathersby is no George Pell, thank deity.

  5. Hi Michael

    I think it's a little misguided to condemn the Australian Story program as a "hagiography" because AS gives people a platform to tell their own story from their own perspective.

    After seeing AS I have often been much more critical of the person/s featured than before, because they show so much about themselves when given free rein to tell their own story. Just one example for me was the program featuring Caren Jennings and Shirley Justins - before the AS program I was sympathetic to them, afterwards very critical.

    It was the same watching the AS program about Father Peter Kennedy and St Marys. I was much more sympathetic to him before the revelations in the AS program. It seems Battersby has really been very tolerant and Peter Kennedy could have stayed at St Marys if he'd been prepared to make some quite reasonable concessions.


  6. Hi Christine

    You're probably right about AS although I seem to remember there was a time when I used to enjoy the programme, a time when it seemed to focus more on ordinary little people just doing stuff that no one hears about. Or maybe just little slices of life in this wide brown land. That's why I pretty much stopped wathcing it several years ago.

    But nowadays it seems to want to buy into all sorts of news stories. AS in this case pretty much mirrored the tone of most of the general media coverage too.

    And you're right Bathersby is no George Pell and he wasn't acting under Roman compulsion. He has in fact bent over backwards but Peter Kennedy was too keen to go right off the rails rather than resolve the situation.

  7. I agree with your point Michael.

    I also think that as AS is being presented on the national broadcaster it has an obligation to be fair and present both sides of the story. The ABC is totally anti Catholic as we regularly see on the 7.30 Report and Lateline. It appears to be ABC policy to present the Church in a poor light on everything. An example was in the interview re St M's and the only opinon from the other side was the man filmed in the dark and the position cut and pasted to amke the Church look in a poor light.


  8. I think it is a fair point to say that not only the ABC but most of the news media in this country takes a lazy out and falls into an all too easy anti-Catholicism. It's an old trope left over from the days of the Protestant ascendancy and associated sectarian struggles. In the case of St Mary's just about al of the coverage has been framed in that old anti-Catholic trope, by the ABC the MUrdoch Press and so forth. THe real irony of the Murdoch papers promoting Peter and Terry as vicitms of the Roman juggernaut because they stood up for social justice values is that the Murdoch Press is normally the one that attacks people the most for supporting and promoting such values. But not in this case instead they had a nice little sensational dramas that could be played out and certainly weren't going to waste time on investigating the facts of the matter.

    I'd like to know who these 'private supporters' are paying Terry and how much they pay him. And what obligation does Terry have to meet in return. But will any of the media follow that up (and I think there would be some intersting discoveries if they did)? Nope, easier to beat the old Catholic can instead.

  9. I should have it recorded here that Peter Kennedy's Pentecost homily is now up on the web at the St Mary's website http://www.stmaryssouthbrisbane.com/pentecost2009

    From reading it, it's pretty clear that Peter is no longer Catholic and really no longer Christian. THe piece is pretty incoherent rubbish which bears no relation to any history I know, let alone supposedly best contemporary theology that he's always going on about. Even moe disturbig is that the 'exile community' seem to be accepting rubbish like this without question, presumably because Father knows best. Here's a sample:

    "In the opening paragraph of their book “The Laughing Jesus”, which many of you have read, the authors Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy suggest that it is unlikely that any of us have ever seen a laughing Jesus. It is unlikely because according to them we have inherited a distorted form of Christianity created by the church in conjunction with the Roman emperor Constantine at Nicaea in 325 CE – a distorted form of Christianity which focuses on Jesus as the “man of sorrows”. The image that has dominated our Western culture is that of a man being tortured to death on a cross, “In this sign you will conquer”.

    According to Freke and Gandy, the original Christians were Gnostics who understood Jesus, not as an historical person, who “suffered for our sins,” but as the mythical hero of a symbolic teaching story which represents the spiritual journey, which leads to the experience of awakening – gnosis or knowing – awakening to the truth of Ultimate Reality. Awakening to the truth that all is One – that there is only God.

    The literalist church that began with Constantine did all it could to suppress the teachings of the Gnostics/mystics and the image of the laughing Jesus. It succeeded so well that it now seems strange to even suggest that Christianity was originally about awakening to the truth of Ultimate Reality – that all is Oneness – that there is only God."