Stop the presses! The Roman Catholic hierarchy isn’t always right. The canonisation ten years ago of that wicked rebel Mary McKillop, briefly excommunicated in 1871, has proved that; and even Joan of Arc, condemned as a heretic in 1431 and burned at the stake, was eventually forgiven and canonised nearly 500 years later. And let’s not forget the child abuse scandals.
Where do we fit Brisbane’s own local hero, Father Peter Kennedy, in this scenario? To his supporters he is still a hero, for making his parish of St Mary’s a home for marginalised individuals and Aboriginal Australians, and allowing people of other faiths to worship there.
As a rebel against the direct instructions of the then RC Archbishop, John Bathersby, he was relieved of his parish duties, although not defrocked, and ordered to leave the parish. This he did, seven years ago, and led about 600 members of his congregation to a room given to them in the Brisbane Trades and Labour Council building, and there, with the new name of St Mary’s in Exile, they have been worshipping ever since.
Five hundred years ago he too would probably have been burned at the stake. Today, having given in to the Archbishop’s demands, he is allowed to continue with his priestly duties and, although his congregation has shrunk a little, he continues to worship with his followers, although he is in frail health.
So is this just a storm in a parish teacup? Will it all die away eventually, or will it continue like a slow flame? Bathersby has retired, and presumably many of the Church police, who spied on Kennedy’s services and reported back to the then Archbishop and eventually to the Vatican, have given up their crusade.
This play tries very hard to be objective, and to be political rather than theological. One man against the establishment – it’s as old as human history if you think of Eve’s rebellion in the Garden of Eden – only here it has a modern twist. As a disclaimer, I must admit to being a supporter and a friend of Peter Kennedy and to a lesser extent his side kick, married priest Father Terry Fitzpatrick, but I’m looking at this as a piece of theatre and its dramatic effect. And in that respect I find its attempt to be even-handed very admirable although, like all good theatre, it does make it clear what side of the fence it’s on.
As a play, it’s precise and reasonably easy to understand, although those without a theological background may find some of the arguments puzzling, and throw up their hands thinking, Who cares? And in the great cosmic scheme of things it doesn’t matter. On the other side, if you care about the RC church and its many atrocities, maybe it does.
It’s a small offshoot of a common problem in all religions – by what authority? Jesus was challenged by the Jewish scribes in those exact words, and it’s a question that every institution should ask its leaders. And as such this play is not so much about God as it is about a hierarchy that claims to govern in God’s name, and here playwright David Burton has excelled. We can sympathise with Kennedy as well as being extremely annoyed with him, but what Burton is asking us to do is to put the rebellion in a wider context.
It’s extremely well cast. Peter Marshall, playing Peter Kennedy, has such a physical resemblance to the priest (who was there on opening night, and professed his satisfaction with the play, although he was not consulted during its gestation) that sometimes it was hard to tell them apart – one might almost say physical type-casting, but he also got the characteristics spot on.
Joss McWilliam was almost unrecognisable in his triple roles of Archbishop Bathersby and two parishioners – it’s amazing what a close shave and haircut can do. He gave Bathersby, in particular, the dignity that this man has in real life, although making him rather tougher in the play, and therefore a little easier to dislike.
Quite apart from the small-scale but edgy drama, there are some very funny segments. Kevin Spinks, playing Tony Jones in a wicked send-up of Q&A, with Bryan Probets giving a very naughty mockery of Tony Abbott with a pair of budgie smugglers on his head, provided laugh-out-loud relief. Both the female characters, whether solid-state or wavering supporters, in the form of actors Cheanoa Deemal and Luisa Prosser, gave not just an idea of some of the multi-racial characters who had always been long-term members of the St Mary’s congregation, but provided very subtly-layered performances.
Anthony Spinaze’s design was a model of versatile simplicity, rather like the tone of the play and the ambiance of St Mary’s itself, and all for all, it was an impressive if low-key representation of what may be a local matter, but may have important political ramifications for the Roman church in the long run. I’d like to say ‘watch this space’, but only time will tell. After all, as Tennyson said, “the old order changeth, yielding place to new, and God fulfils himself in many ways”.
We do indeed live in interesting times, and perhaps Peter Kennedy may himself follow in Mary McKillop’s footsteps and become an official saint. There are plenty of people who already think of him as a secular saint, and they’re all hoping that it won’t take 500 years for the church to recognise that. How long, O Lord, how long?