The Roman Catholic Church has been in the news a lot. Sex abuse scandals have surfaced not just in the United States but around the world. And while some other churches have changed their policies and now welcome female clergy and gay, lesbian and transgendered worshippers, the Roman Catholic Church has made no such changes.
And for the Rev. Thomas S. Altepeter, the adherence to old dogma made the church he grew up in an uncomfortable place to worship.
“It just wasn’t a good fit anymore,” Altepeter said. “To me it came down to justice. I don’t like the way the Roman Catholic Church treats women. I don’t like the way it denies people who have a deep desire to become priests the opportunity to do so.”
Altepeter is the priest of the newly established St. Clare Ecumenical Catholic Community that meets for services every Sunday in a rented room at SNAP’s headquarters on Fort George Wright Drive – the former convent for the Dominican Sisters.
“We began meeting in people’s homes in 2012, but as the congregation grew we were running out of space,” Altepeter said. “We hope meeting here will help us grow.”
St. Clare is a member of the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, through which Altepeter is ordained. It’s the first such community in the Spokane area. Altepeter said the ECC dates to 1870, when the Roman Catholic Church declared the Pope infallible.
“There was a group of Catholics in Europe who said they were not going to live like that,” Alterpeter said. “The ECC is a modern extension of that movement.”
Altepeter was raised Roman Catholic and he wanted to be a priest. However, after entering seminary he realized something about himself.
“Celibacy and I were not good friends,” he said. Altepeter changed tracks and earned a doctorate in psychology. As an adult he returned to school and got a master’s degree in spirituality from Loyola University. A recent transplant from Wisconsin, where he also was involved with the ECC, he used Facebook and LinkedIn to make contacts in Spokane.
When he first moved to Spokane, he didn’t know anyone. “I used to go to the grocery store just to see other people,” he said, laughing.
A Facebook search connected him to a local woman he’d taken a class with at Loyola in Chicago.
That one connection has grown into a group of about 30 people who meet for worship and to celebrate the Eucharist on Sundays.
“It’s remarkable, maybe even miraculous, that our group has grown so fast,” said Altepeter, adding that he doesn’t like measuring success in numbers. “I’d rather have a small group here who is deeply affected than 500 people who aren’t really with me.”
St. Clare’s service follows the same structure as a Roman Catholic service, but the language is gender neutral and the congregation is invited to silently reflect on the day’s reading before freely discussing it.
And where Ecumenical Catholics share a common theological and sacramental tradition with Roman Catholics, they are not affiliated with the Roman church, governed by the Roman hierarchy and are not required to follow mandates from Rome.
“This allows us to be contemporary in the ways we live out and celebrate our faith life,” wrote Altepeter in a statement about the St. Clare. “We ordain men and women, married and celibate. We welcome gay, lesbian and transgendered individuals and we welcome everyone to the Eucharistic table. As we read the Scriptures, it appears that Jesus welcomed everyone and rejected no one.”
The vast majority of ECC members are former Roman Catholics who broke with that church for personal or political reasons, yet still longed for a place of spiritual belonging and missed the sense of belonging and community that comes with attending church.
Does the ECC have dreams of reforming the Roman Catholic Church?
“No, absolutely not,” Altepeter said. “We have just decided to quit complaining about the church we had and to create the church we like.”