An Alternative Way to Be Catholic — and LGBT

Churches in the Old Catholic and Independent Catholic traditions offer services that will be familiar to Roman Catholics, along with unqualified affirmation of LGBT people.



From left: Shannon Kearns, Chris Carpenter
From left: Shannon Kearns, Chris Carpenter

The liturgy and rituals are those familiar to Roman Catholics. The pageantry is beautiful. But there’s no doctrine condemning same-sex relationships — and the priest offering communion may be a man or a woman, married or not, straight or LGBT.

Welcome to the world of many Old Catholic and Independent Catholic churches, which offer a Catholic style of worship, sometimes with elements drawn from other traditions, but are not Roman Catholic — not under the Vatican’s authority — and affirm the equality of LGBT people and women.

“It’s a more open and accepting environment,” says Rev. Chris Carpenter, pastor of the Community of the Resurrection in Long Beach, Calif., and bishop of the Diocese of St. George in the Reformed Catholic Church. “You can be yourself and you don’t have to cover up if you’re in a same-sex relationship.”

A similar sentiment comes from Father Shannon Kearns, pastor of House of the Transfiguration, a fairly new Old Catholic congregation in Minneapolis. “It’s a place where you don’t have to check any part of yourself when you walk through the door,” he says. “The world needs more places like that.”

The two clergy members speak from experience with trying to reconcile their identity and their faith. Carpenter is gay and a former Roman Catholic priest. Kearns is transgender and grew up in a fundamentalist Protestant church where being LGBT was considered a sin meriting eternal damnation.

Their current churches have roots in a group of European Catholic churches that split with the Vatican in the nineteenth century over the doctrine of papal infallibility, among other issues, in the culmination of centuries-old tensions. But they also claim a lineage to the founding of the Christian church by St. Peter shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and they aim to combine time-honored rituals with a progressive, inclusive value system, which includes not only equality for LGBT people and women, but other social justice work, such as aiding the poor and disenfranchised.

In the U.S., there are various autonomous jurisdictions — think of them as denominations — of American churches in this tradition. House of the Transfiguration is affiliated with the Old Catholic Diocese of New Jersey, which also has ministries in Delaware, Kentucky, and the District of Columbia. The Reformed Catholic Church is a federation of Independent and Old Catholic churches, with five dioceses in the U.S. plus affiliates in other countries, and it includes some churches that follow Anglican and Eastern Orthodox liturgy and rituals as well. Other Old and Independent Catholic bodies that support LGBT equality — not all such jurisdictions do — include the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, the American Catholic Church, the American Apostolic Communion, the Independent Catholic Church of the West, the Catholic Apostolic Church in North America, and the National Catholic Church of America, as listed by the Human Rights Campaign.

In the U.S., this movement is relatively small but growing. Old and Independent Catholic churches that are LGBT-affirming usually also ordain women as clergy, do not require priestly celibacy, perform marriages for same-sex couples and divorced people, and view birth control as a private, individual choice. Their differences with the Vatican on these matters mean they appeal to many disaffected Roman Catholics. They draw people from other faith traditions as well, however.