This interview with rebel Catholic priest, Peter Kennedy, took place almost exactly 12 months after his departure from St Mary’s Parish in South Brisbane. Since leaving, he and his followers have formed a congregation outside the Catholic Church that they call St Mary’s-in-Exile.
Trouble had been brewing between Kennedy and the local hierarchy for a number of years. This came to a head in August 2008 when Archbishop John Bathersby sent Kennedy a letter accusing him and his parish of ‘practices that separate it from communion with the Roman Catholic Church’.
A number of heated exchanges followed — exacerbated by taking place in the full glare of the media spotlight — culminating in a letter from the archbishop the following February terminating Kennedy’s appointment to the parish. Initially Kennedy refused to go, but he and his supporters finally departed from the parish in April 2009, marking a final rupture with the Catholic Church.
On this anniversary of the split, he reflects on the state of his community, how he views his priesthood, whether a return to the Catholic fold might be possible, and the importance to him of the mystical approach to religion.
The interview was recorded for Eureka Street at a conference called Common Dreams, a meeting of religious progressives held over four days at St Kilda Town Hall in Melbourne in mid-April 2010.
This forum is indicative of where Kennedy sees his new spiritual home. As he says in the interview, one of the first groups he connected with after his departure from the Church was the Progressive Spirituality Network in Brisbane, and St Mary’s-in-Exile will probably continue to be part of the progressive Christian movement.
This progressive movement has gathered steam in the last ten years or so. It seeks to update Christian beliefs and practice so that they are in line with the modern world, with the latest findings in science, psychology, and sociology. It tends to reinterpret as metaphor, or even deny, the supernatural and miraculous elements of Christianity, including core beliefs like the virgin birth of Jesus and his resurrection.
It straddles denominational divides, and is probably most clearly seen in its intellectual leaders, the chief one being retired US Episcopalian bishop, John Shelby Spong. Others include English theologian Don Cupitt who inspired the Sea of Faith Network, and theologian and Presbyterian minister from New Zealand, Lloyd Geering.
In the video, Kennedy refers to a book of essays recently published about him and his falling out with the Church. Called Peter Kennedy: the Man who Threatened Rome, it is no mere hagiography. While most writers — and it includes heavyweights like Paul Collins, Martin Flanagan, Hans Kung and Joan Chittister — are in sympathy with him, there is an excellent chapter by Neil Ormerod, professor of theology at the Australian Catholic University, who is critical of Kennedy, and points out very clearly why he can no longer be considered part of the Church.
And that is a pity. As the video shows, he is a man of some eloquence, conviction and charisma, well able to communicate to the broader culture. In these days of shortage of priests, and crisis in the Church on a number of fronts, there is an urgent need for people with his abilities.