This is the face of the future church, unless the Vatican and the episcopal hegemony between them start to take seriously the need to be a listening Church, and find some way to include all Catholics in pastoral decisions -not just the men at the top in their scarlet robes and comfortable palaces: services with (almost) no congregation.
This report, from Brisbane Times, tells of St Mary’s Brisbane – but it could just as well be about other flourishing congregations around the world (St Stephen’s in Minneapolis, or St Joseph’s, Boston, the congregations with womenpriests, and many others) that are doing perfectly well without the help of professional, celibate male priests, officially approved by the Vatican.
Faith stays strong at Brisbane’s ‘church in exile’
The pictures tell the story of attendance at the two St Mary’s Catholic churches at South Brisbane with the rebel congregation substantially outnumbering the traditionalists last week.
Fairfax Media’s Sun-Herald dropped in unannounced at the 9am services on a recent Sunday to check on parishioner numbers following last year’s very public split.
The church sanctioned by Brisbane Archdiocese’s Archbishop John Bathersby attracted about 45 people while the rebel St Mary’s-in-Exile had about 240 parishioners.
Father Ken Howell officiates at the original location, while Peter Kennedy – who does not use the title ‘Father’ – tends his flock down the road at the Trades and Labour Council building.
Archbishop Bathersby sacked Mr Kennedy as administrator of the church in February last year for unapproved practises including giving communion to divorced and gay people, priests not wearing traditional vestments and baptising babies using unorthodox wording. He gave his last sermon there in April last year before taking about 1000 supporters with him.
Mr Kennedy said last week the break-away group attracted about 500 people over three weekend services. “If there’s a special event about 1000 might come but normally there’s around 500 although not all of those would come every week,” he said.
The Dean of Brisbane’s St Stephen’s Cathedral, Fr Ken Howell who has taken over as administrator of St Mary’s said the decisions made last year were not about numbers, but about ensuring Catholic worship and teachings were restored.
“I am pleased to say that this has occurred and whilst we may be a small community, I am encouraged by the weekly growth of this community and the enthusiastic commitment of the people who have made St Mary’s their Parish,’’ he said.
But advertisements for St Mary’s Masses have appeared in the local paper, presumably in the hope of boosting numbers.
Mr Kennedy said the church had been used for many community events when he and fellow priest, Terry Fitzpatrick celebrated Mass there, including events run by the social justice group, Micah Projects and indigenous Australians.
Partly on the strength of those events, the Brisbane City Council in 2008 – when it was trying to have its controversial $370 million Go Between Bridge approved – agreed to give St Mary’s $1.5 m for noise mitigation because of the predicted extra traffic.
“Now the church can only be used by Catholics for worship so it’s become a very expensive exercise when so few attend,” Mr Kennedy said.
“They (the Catholic archdiocese) are only keeping it open to save face and no other church would be kept going with so few.”
He said the rebel church was part of the Progressive Spirituality Network, a group that has gained popularity with many denominations in the last 10 years.
It updates Christian beliefs and practices in line with the modern world and the latest findings in science, psychology, and sociology.
Mr Kennedy said the group ‘‘reinterprets as metaphor or even denies’’, the supernatural and miraculous elements of Christianity, including core beliefs like the virgin birth of Jesus and the resurrection.
Fr Howell did not comment on general church attendance numbers but said the Brisbane archdiocese would take part in a national church census next year that would supply updated figures.
Archbishop Bathersby said he was delighted with ‘‘standing only crowds’’ at the cathedral at Easter time, especially the number of young people.
It’s good to have confirmation that they are still doing well, but what else would you expect, when their very essence is based on responding to the real need of the people, and not to supporting the remote potentates of the Holy Roman Empire?