It came as no surprise yesterday to the 1000 strong congregation of St Mary’s Catholic Parish in South Brisbane that their long-serving, and “rebellious” parish priest, Fr Peter Kennedy, has been removed from office by the Archbishop of Brisbane.

The decision by Archbishop John Bathersby sets the scene for what is going to be a drawn out, and very messy, process. Fr Kennedy, who is to be removed in two weeks’ time, is unlikely to go peacefully.

And the congregation — one of the largest in the Brisbane Diocese — is not only going to stand by him, it is hardly likely to follow the Archbishop’s direction that it conform with the Diocese’s practices on a range of issues. These include ending the blessing of same-s-x partnerships, and ending baptism practices contrary to the procedures laid down by the church.

The Archbishop also frowned on the practice of involving women in communion services and allowing lay people to deliver sermons. His intervention clearly followed complaints to the Vatican by hard line conservatives in the church. It is not hard to work out that Rome did not give him any room for compromise.

The danger for the church is that even if Fr Kennedy departs the scene relatively peacefully — the Archbishop has advised him to retire — the congregation is likely to dig its heels in and refuse to conform to the church’s procedures. That could lead to a messy showdown that would be a PR disaster for the Archbishop and Rome.

The Archbishop has warned the congregation that if it tries to hold services at another venue it will not be in “communion” with the church, leading effectively to its expulsion.

Fr Kennedy has long been a thorn in the side of the church hierarchy, and has ignored numerous directions to conform with its procedures, despite the fact that he obviously retains the strong support of what is a very large, and very vocal, parish community — including several high profile indigenous leaders.

The Archbishop is obviously hoping that Fr Kennedy will simply go away and that the congregation will ultimately accept the position. But today that seems a remote hope.

This morning, obviously buoyed by the support he has been getting, Fr Kennedy went on radio and was much less “accepting” of his fate, promising that neither he nor the congregation are going anywhere — and that if they have to be arrested then so be it!

And it is getting all the media attention it could possibly hope for.

The Archbishop won’t back down one iota, because Rome won’t let him, and any sign of weakening might inspire a number of other churches in the Brisbane Diocese and beyond which have also come under the scrutiny of the Archbishop for following unorthodox practices — though not as publicly and as blatantly as St Mary’s!

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey