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.