Patrick Kennedy, this Episcopal Church welcomes YOU!

In case you haven’t been following the story, there’s been a big public disagreement going back and forth between Patrick Kennedy and the Most Rev’d Thomas Tobin, Bishop of Rhode Island — Roman Catholic bishop, that is. It seems that they’ve been going at it over Kennedy’s public stance on abortion rights. The bishop feels that Kennedy should not receive Holy Communion in a Roman Catholic church, given his position on abortion rights.

The Providence Journal (or the ProJo, as locals call it) has all the details (or deets, as some locals call them). Here’s the Quote of the Day on this battle: “If [Kennedy] cannot abide by the teaching of this church, not just this one but others and … what it means to be a Catholic … maybe he should find another fine Christian denomination where he can be more comfortable,” the bishop said.

Wow. In some ways I admire the bishop for his forthright statements. I’ve frequently said that we clergy do not hold people to any meaningful standards, and this is one principal cause of decline in the church. What troubles me about this, however, is the almost obsessive focus on abortion right above all else. When the former mayor of Providence was beating people up and engaging in all manner of political corruption, no one suggested he absent himself from the Eucharist, as far as I know. I’ve never heard of a Catholic bishop saying that right-wing warmongers should be denied access to the sacraments.

In fact, I wonder if the good bishop himself should stay away from the Altar? After all, the teachings of the Gospel and of the Catholic Church are clear on issues of poverty, and yet the bishop has made no public statements of which I am aware on the vile response of the state’s government to homelessness. (Nutshell version: the state cut funding so there aren’t enough beds in homeless shelters. Then homeless people gathered in a couple of “tent cities” to have a place to sleep. The state has since repeatedly sued them, forcing them to move from place to place, rather than provide, you know, housing.)

It is generally not my place as an Episcopal priest to evaluate the bishop’s orders to his clergy about giving Eucharist to the Roman Catholic faithful. However, as a priest in the catholic church, I can call out hypocrisy from Christians, even Catholics, when it happens. This is such a case. To single out one particular political position as a litmus test — particularly when the Gospel seems silent on this particular topic — is unfortunate. Sure, one can easily make a biblical case that opposes abortion rights. I’ll take that up in another post. But the Gospels are emphatic on issues of war, poverty, and many other issues. Why not treat those as litmus issues instead, if one feels compelled to find litmus test issues?

I don’t know the circumstances of the conversations Kennedy has had with his bishop, but it seems to be in bad form for the clergy to discuss these conversations publicly. Suppose I had a difficult conversation with a parishioner. That parishioner could hold a news conference or tell others or whatever she or he wishes. However, I should not comment on those pastoral conversations. It would be appropriate for me to comment on controversial issues that might be raised, but I should not comment about a specific person or an individual pastoral issue.

So, Patrick Kennedy, in the extremely unlikely event you read this, may I offer a couple of suggestions? First, if you feel called to remain Roman Catholic, don’t let a bishop drive you out. It’s your church as much as it is his. No doubt you can find a priest in Rhode Island willing to provide sacramental ministration. Your predicament will inspire many people to reclaim their voice in the church, and that’s a good thing.

But there’s another option. I always tell people to worship in the church where God has called them to be. That may or may not be the church they “like” and it may not be obvious without some discernment. Changing parishes or denominations should not be done lightly. You should know, though, that you are always welcome in the Episcopal Church. We offer the strength, challenge, solace, healing, and grace of the sacraments without litmus tests (except for our simple requirement that you be baptized).

If you’re looking for a parish, I hope you’ll stop by Christ Church in Lincoln sometime. We’re in your congressional district! We’re good at welcoming politicians, without fuss or favortism. Joe Almond, Lincoln Town Administrator is a regular parishioner, and so are several other town and local officials. Though I don’t always agree with every decision they make, I’m glad they’re with us. (No doubt, they don’t agree with every decision I make either!) We are liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat, straight, gay, young, old, rich, poor, and pretty much any other category you care to think of. And we all gather at the Holy Table week by week to feast on Jesus Christ in bread and wine and to see him revealed in the Body of Christ gathered as the church.

So if you stick it out in the Roman Catholic church, you have my prayers and support. And if you decide to embark on a process of discernment looking for a new parish or denomination, you’ll have my prayers and support for that too, wherever you end up.

For the record, we welcome everyone at Christ Church and in the Episcopal Church — not just Kennedys and other luminaries. If reading this, and if you’re looking for a church home, please give the Episcopal Church a try.

Photo from Church Report.

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8 Responses

  1. Ethan Gafford says:

    As to the grander issue in re: Rep. Kennedy, completely agreed. He ought to be welcome in the church. Assuming abortion is a sin, repairing sins of intellect is the Church’s job. As to the bishop’s right to speak, though, I wonder.

    I’m not terribly up on the story, but I wasn’t aware that the bishop actually aired any private pastoral counsel with Rep. Kennedy. If he did, he’s clearly in the wrong.

    Still, if he didn’t breach confidence, is the bishop inherently out of line in denouncing his political stances? A lot of John Chrysostom would have been out of bounds by that law. (One can pretend he wasn’t talking about anyone specific, but he wasn’t really fooling anyone.) I’m willing to bet we both consider him a hero for opposing the excesses of the ruling class in his sermons, even to the point of attacking the actions of specific Christians under his authority.

    Sure, the kind of economic issues Chrysostom was yelling about are All Over the gospels where abortion is much harder to find per se. Granted, it’s incredibly dangerous and rather gutsy for a priest or bishop to denounce a specific person in public. Still, do the canons (or less official ethics) of the priesthood and episcopate actually prohibit this kind of behavior, or is this more of a Hotly Debated Issue?

  2. Scott Gunn says:


    I’ve tried to parse what the bishop has said. I just re-read many of his published comments. It’s possible he’s staying on the correct side of the discretionary line that governs pastoral relationships, even outside the bounds of private conversation. But the fact that it’s not easy to tell is itself troubling.

    An example, if I may: Suppose you began a local campaign in Lincoln that gambling is great, and you suggested that this was in accord with your faith. If a reporter called me, as your priest, to see what I thought, I should NOT suggest that your church membership is in jeopardy based on your campaign. But that’s not really what you were asking, of course.

    I should also not comment specifically on your situation or your life, period, publicly. I should not say, “Ethan is misguided because he’s been under stress” or something similar. That would be inappropriate even if we’d never had a private conversation.

    However, I might say that, as an Episcopal priest, I object to gambling, and here’s why…

    There is no black & white line here, I’m afraid. It seems to me that Tobin is being too personal with Kennedy in this matter. But I could be wrong. I am often wrong. I’d be interested to know what others think. Your comment will result in much mulling on my end.


  3. Doreen Gardner says:

    Although I do not agree with Patrick Kennedy on the issue of abortion, I am worried about his mental health after the continued personal attacks by the bishop. While I believe that the bishop’s comments about Patrick’s behaviors and his stability are inappropriate, I also think that the bishop’s public comments show an unconscionable lack of sensitivity and compassion.

    Patrick’s health struggles are well known, and given the fact that he recently lost his father, I suspect this is a very dark time in his life. The bishop has made his he needs to stop, and show Patrick that he and the church love him and care.

  4. Alan Gates says:

    I agree Scott, the recent publications by a Bishop of the universal Church have truly troubled me. While I’m sure a much greater exegesis of the issues at hand are necessary its seems to me a total breach of a standard established in Mathew 18:15-17. This is why I promptly wrote Rep. Kennedy a personal message. It is a dangerous world we live in when we can offer a pastoral response of concern or care on the pages of a newspaper, in the text of a blog, on a facebook homepage, etc. (I hope that does not sting too bad, but I am concerned by the continuing public forum)

    Also, I hope you do take on the issue of abortion from a pro-choice faith perspective. That seem like a blog worthy opportunity…Again it seems that the universal church does not universally support the greater protection of life, for if they did they would support comprehensive health care coverage, adequate housing for all people, adequate social welfare programs, open and healthy access to abortion in the tragic cases when it is seen best by the individual, all of which have proven throughout developed nations to preserve life to the greatest degree.

    Thank you my friend for being a voice among the community of the faithful.

  5. Robin Bugbee says:

    Scott: as usual I agree with much of what you have had to say..however, what the Catholic Bishop of Providence says or does is less important to me than what the Episcopal Bishop of Rhode Island say or does. Bishop Wolf has consistently made outrageous statements in public about the role of gay and lesbians in the church that are beneath contempt. Although you have spoken out, others have been far to silent. When she forbids any discussion on same sex blessings, when she moves Brown chaplain activities to a church (St.Stephens) that only permits one woman priest in the diocese to celebrate the Eucharist (Gerry Wolf) she needs to be confronted and too few of our clergy and lay members are willing to do that.

  6. Chris B says:

    Well said, Scott! I am with you 100%!

  7. Jeff G. says:

    As usual, the media has blown this issue way out of proportion. When I first heard this story on the CNN Jack Cafferty File it sounded like Bishop Tobin publically decried Kennedy for supporting pro abortion legislation and publically denied him communion. When the whole story came out it was revealed that Patrick Kennedy made public a private letter written to him by the Bishop over 2 years ago where the bishop suggested that he may not want to take communion given his stance on abortion. It appears that Kennedy’s actions are timed to be a disguised attack on the church in an effort to further pro abortion legislation. As far as I can tell, the good Bishop has not commented on anything beyond what Kennedy, himself, made public. In fact it appears that the Bishop has only made statements to correct several outright lies Kennedy has expounded about his dealings with the Bishop.

    As far as the Bishop taking such a hard stance against abortion with one of his parishioners; when are you clergymen going to stand up for what is honorable, right, and in accordance with scriptures and teach your parishioners that abortion is murder and support of murder, in any form, will not be tolerated by any church?

    As far as inviting Kennedy to join our Episcopal Church; absolutely if he’s willing to repent for his sins, otherwise, we’ve got enough unrepentant sinners in the Episcopal church already.

  8. mibi52 says:

    Just a political aside: while I love your invitation to him to come to the Episcopal Church, I suspect that a Catholic politician in a state that is statistically the most Catholic in the nation is unlikely to take that step. Yes, I know the Chafees were Episcopalians (and many of the Browns and Sharpes Unitarians, for that matter), but his identity as a populist liberal Democrat might make it difficult for him, even if it might soothe his soul.