In what Independent Catholic Church officials believe is the first lesbian Catholic wedding in Pennsylvania, Michelle Werley and Susan Miller proclaimed their love before God on Saturday in a
Bethlehem ceremony. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which denounces same-sex unions, the
Independent Catholic Church leaves such decisions up to local congregations. The Independent Catholic Church of the Lehigh Valley, which held its first local service in October, agreed to administer the sacrament to Werley, 39, and Miller, 45, who have been together for three years. "We hope that this union will show that we are opening our doors to everybody," said the Reverend Troy Keenhold, who agreed to marry the women. "Everyone is welcome here."
Werley and Miller told the Associated Press that their story is not about making a statement, gay activism, or even equal benefits but about love and renewing their relationship with God. Raised Roman Catholic in different parts of the country, Werley and Miller sometimes had questioned the faith, but the routine of Catholicism was somewhat comforting.
Miller had graduated from Allentown Central Catholic High School, receiving many of the sacraments: baptism, reconciliation, communion, confirmation, and matrimony. While she had had relationships with women, Miller said, she really believed she found the man who would make her happy for the rest of her life and wed him in 1987. "When I married, I thought it was for life. I was Roman Catholic; we had a 1 1/2-hour Catholic wedding, our children were baptized, we ate no meat on Fridays during Lent--the works," Miller said. "I really thought this was it." Miller began questioning the church after her son was born in 1988. She said she had a hard time finding a priest to baptize him because she did not
regularly attend Mass.
Meanwhile, Werley was raised by staunch Roman Catholics in the Midwest, attending catechism classes and Mass every week. She started questioning her faith in high school, eventually leaving the church when she married a Moravian man and moved to Bethlehem. Werley said she embraced the Moravian faith when a minister told her the church did not judge people but helped people find their way to God. Roman Catholicism, she said, did not seem as inviting.
Werley and Miller said their marriages dissolved for reasons other than sexuality. They met while working at a local grocery store. Miller was a manager, but not Werley's direct boss. Within three weeks of their first date, Miller had moved in with Werley, and the melding of their families began. The three children fought with each other and with their new parent. "We were like two lionesses protecting our children," Werley said. "It very easily may not have worked."
As with many remarried couples, it took hard work and time for the new family to gel. Then, one day, Werley's daughter brought home a school assignment: a homemade totem pole of her family. Included on the pole were the faces of Miller and her two new siblings. Finally, Werley thought, they were a family.
Something had been missing from the new family, though. After growing up with the Roman Catholic Church, the women craved the familiar faith under which they had been raised. The answer came this fall when a leaflet was dropped on their doorstep. It announced the formation of the Independent Catholic Church and preached acceptance. The word "Catholic" on the flier appealed to them. Though the congregation is new in the Lehigh Valley, the Independent Catholics trace their line of succession of bishops and priests back to St. Peter, believing they are under the direction of the apostle and holding many of the same doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church.
Independent Catholics broke away from the Roman Catholic Church around the 1870s after the pope issued the doctrine of infallibility. Paul Griffiths, a professor of Catholic studies at the University of Illinois in Chicago, said a number of different groups use the label Independent Catholics. While their services are similar, Griffiths said, Independent Catholics are not in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. Independent Catholic priests can marry. Women are welcome in the priesthood. Many priests practice other vocations as well.