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.

BY Trudy Ring

October 03 2013 6:00 AM ET

The chapel where the Community of the Resurrection meets in Long Beach, Calif.

“We’re getting a real mix of people,” says Kearns, whose congregation began meeting this summer. Kearns, assigned female at birth, was brought up in a fundamentalist Christian faith that did not allow women to be clergy and taught that LGBT people were hell-bound. After college he broke with the church and came out as a lesbian, although that identity did not seem to quite fit. He continued to be drawn to religion, so he studied for the ministry at Union Theological Seminary, a nondenominational school in New York City. While there, he went through his gender transition.

He still feared that no church would want an openly transgender minister. He admired many Roman Catholic social activists, such as priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan, who protested the Vietnam War, and lay Catholic Dorothy Day, an advocate for workers’ rights, but he knew the church would not be accepting of him. Then he heard from an Old Catholic bishop, and things clicked; he was ordained last year as his jurisdiction’s first openly transgender priest.

“The great thing about the Old Catholic Church is that they have a long history,” he says. “It’s not just some upstart denomination. They take seriously the liturgy, they take seriously the Eucharist. It seemed that I had finally found a home.”

Carpenter was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1995. “I was openly gay in a Roman Catholic seminary 20 years ago,” he recalls. His sexual orientation didn’t create obstacles then, despite official church doctrine, but the atmosphere changed with Benedict XVI’s papacy and with the church sexual abuse scandal, for which gay priests were scapegoated, he says. He served more than a decade as a priest in Arizona, but the appointment of a new bishop who differed with him on outreach to LGBT people led him to leave the church. He made his formal break in 2009 and affiliated with the Reformed Catholic Church, one of several denominations that had invited him to become a clergy member. He was consecrated as a bishop of the church in 2011.

Many LGBT people, of course, remain in the Roman Catholic faith and are committed to working for change from within. Carpenter, as a former Roman Catholic, welcomes Pope Francis’s recent comments, widely seen as a softening of the church’s attitude toward gay people, even though it continues to see same-sex relationships as sinful. Carpenter is not, however, holding his breath for official policy changes.

“I am encouraged,” he says. “I have found it a very positive step. … But I don’t expect doctrine’s going to change in the very near future.”

Meanwhile, churches like his and Kearns’s provide a faith home for those who are devoted to many aspects of Catholicism but unable to accept some of the Vatican’s policies. “We maintain Catholic tradition in terms of the liturgy and the worship,” Carpenter says. “Anybody raised in a Catholic environment would feel welcome.”

These churches set out to be welcoming to people from other faiths as well. The Rev. Marcis Heckman, the metropolitan archbishop — the global leader — of the Reformed Catholic Church, is a gay man who spent many years as a deacon in the LGBT-affirming Metropolitan Community Church, but found he “needed something a little more liturgical” and joined the Reformed Catholic Church in 2002. “I fought and wrestled with my calling for many years,” he says.

He adds that people looking for an LGBT-friendly, social justice–oriented Christian community may find it in many places. The MCC, Evangelical Lutheran Church, United Church of Christ, Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), and several others fall into this category.

“Spirituality is everybody’s journey,” Heckman says. “I believe that people need to find their own home.” But for some seekers, Old and Independent Catholic churches aim to provide that home.