It’s hard to tell who’s the priest at St. Clare Ecumenical Catholic Community. On Sunday mornings, in the SNAP building, about 35 people shake hands, embrace and catch up on how their weeks are going until a man wearing jeans, a button-down shirt and sneakers announces it’s time to begin.
He’s not wearing a clerical collar. When the music begins he drapes a stole around shoulders. A wedding ring glistens on his finger.
The Rev. Tom Altepeter started St. Clare’s in June, 2012, about nine years after the Ecumenical Catholic Communion was formed.
“We’re a homeless shelter for homeless Catholics,” Altepeter explained.
The Ecumenical Catholic Communion celebrates the seven traditional Catholic sacraments (baptism, Eucharist, reconciliation, confirmation, marriage, holy orders and anointing the sick), but takes a contemporary approach to church structure, life and discipline.
The ECC ordains women, is open and affirming of the LGBT community and allows priests to be married. It’s also organized in a non-hierarchical manner. Pastors are selected by local communities, rather than appointed. Bishops are also elected and have term limits.
“We’re not competing with the Roman Catholic Church,” Altepeter said. “A lot of people come who identify as Catholic, but maybe don’t fit in (with the Roman Catholic Church).”
That includes Altepeter.
He had originally intended to become a Roman Catholic priest and was attending seminary when he began to question celibacy.
“At the time, if the Roman Catholic Church had allowed married priests, I would have done that,” he said.
He looked at other denominations, but they didn’t quite fit, he said.
The Rev. Frank Krebs had a similar experience. He pastors Sts. Clare and Francis near St. Louis, MO. He was a Roman Catholic priest until 1990. In a recent visit to Spokane, he explained that he left the priesthood because, as a gay man, he wanted the opportunity to settle down with a partner. He joined the corporate world for several years before being introduced to the ECC.
“These are my people.” He said that’s how he felt when he found the ECC.
His church started with about 20 people in 2005 and has grown to about 150 worshipers.
“We’re finding our way to each other to hook up and network and it’s really a phenomenon,” Krebs said. “One group or another was excluded by the Roman Catholics and they don’t want to not be Catholic, so they formed churches that are Catholic, but that include them so they feel at home.”
Today the ECC, which was originally comprised of 11 faith communities, includes more than 50 congregations spread across the U.S., the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Lithuania and Austria, totaling some 5,000 members.
Two missions have spun out of the Spokane group — one in Pullman and one in Colfax.
Linda Kobe-Smith, of Spokane, has been attending St. Clare for just more than a year. She found herself un-churched after leaving St. Anne’s Parish, where she had served as pastoral administrator when the parish was ran be Franciscans.
She felt there were gender equality issues within the Roman Catholic Church, among other things, and didn’t think she’d find a faith community in Spokane again, she said.
Not having that community, she said, felt like a wasteland.
She found St. Clare through word of mouth and said she found the nourishment she had been looking for. Others, she said, have had the same experience.
“I think the people there (at St. Clare’s) were ready to graciously part ways with what had been and look for something new and different,” she said. “Some of the really good parts — the catholicity, liturgy, incarnation — all those things people treasure, they didn’t have to leave behind.”
St. Clare’s meets in the Snap Building Sundays at 9:30 a.m.
Peter Hickman, the presiding bishop of the ECC, said the denomination’s focus isn’t on growth. Rather it’s on creating a Catholic church where the dignity of every person is honored, he said.
“Many concerned and likeminded Catholics are seeking for a more compassionate, inclusive expression of our common Catholic tradition,” said Bishop Peter Hickman, the presiding bishop of the ECC.
The ECC will elect a new presiding bishop for the first time in its history at its 2014 Synod, which will take place in Colorado in October.
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*Tom Altepeter is a writer for Spokane Faith & Values.