From left: Shannon Kearns, Chris Carpenter
An Alternative Way to Be Catholic — and LGBT

By Trudy Ring

Originally published on Advocate.com October 03 2013 5:00 AM ET

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.

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.