The Life and Work of Saint Mikhael of California
[Editor’s note: This article originally made reference to a particular denomination. The supposed association of Mikhael Itkin with this denomination was apparently made in error. These references have been removed.]
One of the seminal figures in the elaboration of the “gay church” movement in the 1950’s and 60’s, and one of the earliest exponents of that which would – decades later – come to be known as Liberation Theology was Michael Itkin, later known by his religious name of Mar Mikhael and canonized by the Moorish Orthodox Church in America as Saint Mikhael of California (Feast Day, May 6th). In a time and an age when homosexual persons were marginalized and oppressed by the Church as much as by the forces of the traditional social order, Mar Mikhael took a selfless stand in defense of his people and their rights and for the rights of all the oppressed and for social justice generally.
The idea of an Old Catholic/Independent Orthodox ministry specifically to Queer folk was introduced by Bishop George A. Hyde, presiding bishop of the Eucharistic Catholic Church, in around 1946. The first divine liturgy celebrated by that jurisdiction specifically for Queer folk took place on Christmas Eve of 1946, in the Cortton Blossom Room, a gay bar in Atlanta, Georgia, with 85 people in attendance. Hyde led the small group for many years, officially announcing its existence and mission in 1954, in “One” Magazine, the periodical of the Mattachine Society. That announcement attracted many followers, including one Michael Itkin, whom Bishop Hyde first licensed to ministry in 1955 and then ordained to the priesthood on May 6, 1957.
For the next two years through 1959, Father Michael worked as a priest in the Eucharistic Catholic Church, but in emphasizing the politically activist dimension of that ministry split with Hyde in 1959, feeling that the bishop was backing away from an openly gay ministry and “moving back into the closet.”
Father Itkin gathered the more politically and socially radical members of the Church together and led them in the capacity of episcopal administrator until November of 1960, when he was consecrated to the episcopate by Archbishop Christopher Maria Stanley, of blessed memory. Archbishop Stanley had received his own episcopal orders from no less than Hugh deWillmott-Newman, whose orders included (among others) a Syro-Chalderan lineage derived from Archbishop U.V. Herford, primate of England’s Evangelical Catholic Communion established in 1902, following Bp Herford’s own consecration by Mar Basilius of the Syro-Chaldena Church in India, Ceylon, Socotra & Messina.. Father Itkin chose that name for his new community, the first of several, which fact has regrettably contributed to this great man’s obscurity and shadowy “demimonde” status in the ranks of Saints and spiritual teachers.
Father Itkin and his associates first called their group the Primitive Catholic Church (Evangelical Catholic), changed at its November 1960 Synod to the Gnostic Catholic Church (Evangelical Catholic), a name which gave rise to the confusion that the Church espoused the Gnostic heresy. They thereafter adopted the name “Free Catholic” until it was learned that a British group of fascist political leaning also used that appellation. The Synod thereafter changed the name of the Church once again, this time to Western Orthodox Catholic (Anglican Orthodox).
During this period of time, the Synod learned of Bishop Vernon Herford and the Evangelical Catholic Communion which he led, and the Synod corresponded with some of Bishop Herford’s European associates deriving their leave to reformulate the Evangelical Catholic Communion in America. It was only a short time before Bishop Itkin and Archbishop Stanley parted ways, again, due in large part to the radical social activism advocated by Itkin. Also, in 1963, the Communion undertook an internal reorganization as a religious order originally called the Brotherhood of the Love of Christ, later changed to the Community of the Love of Christ to eliminate the sexist connotation of the word Brotherhood.
During the 1960’s the Evangelical Catholic Communion attracted support from the radical community and a number of extremely able leaders such as John Andrew Perry-Hooker, a psychologist working in Boston in the area of youth ministry (among others). It involved itself in many of the civil rights and anti-war efforts, Bishop articulated a theology of revolutionary Christianity based upon pacifism, freedom from oppression, and civil rights. He advocated Gay Liberation and Christianity as a means toward the establishment of an egalitarian, universal androgynous community, having much in common with the yet-to-be-born Liberation Theology.
Increasingly, Bishop Itkin became involved in issues of sexism and gender oppression and in the late 1960’s became one of the first Old Catholic bishops to ordain women, a move that led to a major split in his jurisdiction and the loss of most of its property.
Organizationally, Bishop Itkin’s most radical move came in the early 1970’s when he forsook San Francisco and settled in Los Angeles. He renounced his Catholic trappings and completely reformed his group. He announced that
after a long period of apostasy – including becoming overly-involved in Catholic ritualism, liberal popular protestantism, and Gnosticism – praise God! Both our Church-community and I, myself, have undergone a rebirth through the Holy Spirit testifying to Jesus’ presence in our midst.
While continuing the emphasis on Liberation Theology, the Church now saw itself in a position analogous to the Radical Reformers of the sixteenth century. Accordingly, Bishop Itkin placed himself in the Anabaptist-Quaker-Mennonite tradition and assigned himself the additional task of confronting these churches with their sexism. He replaced the sacramental theology of Catholicism with the Mennonite Confession of Faith, minus the article on “Marriage and the Home” which committed Mennonites to the nuclear, heterosexual family.
Prior to his passing, Saint Mikhael had reassumed the mantle and the obligations of a Bishop of God’s Church, as Mar Mikhael occupying the position of Metropolitan-Archbishop [redacted], while keeping intact his philosophic commitment to the Radical Reformers, and suffusing the whole with a flavor of mystical Sufism. The church claimed unity in faith with the Church of the East, popularly designated as the Nestorian Church, the lineage that Bishop Herford (Mar Jacobus) brought to the West, through his representative David Stanns (Mar David) in 1938. The theology is Orthodox, holding to the Nicene definition of the Trinity. The Church uses as its Lectionary the Peshitta, the Aramaic Biblical text, and in 1978, Bishop Itkin’s jurisdiction was recognized by Mar Anthony (Bishop W. Martin Andrew) of Britain as being
the sole jurisdiction actually carrying on the work of Mar Jacobus (Herford) and of the original Evangelical Catholic Communion in the United States.
Saint Mikhail of California consecrated or assisted at the consecration of a good number of episcopi vagantes, and ordained countless numbers to the Holy Priesthood, many of whom became trusted and competent leaders in their own right, but perhaps the most well-known of the Saint’s followers was Marion Zimmer Bradley, noted science fiction/fantasy author (The Mists of Avalon ) and The Firebrand ). Bradley, a lesbian, was married to Walter Breen (himself a gay man) for many years, and with whom she had three biological and several foster children. After decades of providing pastoral counseling at the Pacific Gay Center, both Bradley and her former husband were ordain by Bishop Itkin in 1980.
Owing to this “dual tradition” identification, Saint Mikhail’s jurisdiction took a distinctly “low church” approach to sacramental life, recognizing only three of the seven traditional sacraments; for historical purposes, the jurisdiction accepted the 1903 Pastoral Letter to the Syro-Chaldean Christians in India authored by Bishop Herford.
Following its own statement of faith which acknowledges Christ as sovereign and liberator, the community was fully wedded to a liberation theological praxis that included a struggle against sexism, heterosexism, racism, classism, imperialism and violence. It strongly supported and worked for Christian Gay/Lesbian liberation, feminism, racial integration, civil rights, economic mutuality, democracy, universal citizenship and non-violence. The Community never considered itself a gay or homosexual Church, but rather a “Christian Covenant-community for all people, preaching the inclusive love of God to everyone.”
Donn Teal, in his 1971 history of the gay movement “The Gay Activists” provides several vignettes of Saint Mikhael’s/Michael Itkin’s persona. In describing Itkin’s presentation of a resolution to the American Sociological Association condemning anti-gay discrimination (September 1969) Jim Kepner (an activist of renown in his own right) described the Saint’s eloquence (p. 61):
Itkin … is a one-man resolutions mill, and next to Leo Laurence is the stormy petrel of the San Francisco gay scene, working hard to be more militant than anyone else except when questions of violence are raised. More angry and unrestrained even than Leo, he is adamantly pacifist, and also an exceptional theoretician.
Teal goes on to describe (p.91) the Bishop as a leader among California’s “gay liberationists” and a leftist, quoting the Bishop:
If we are to build a loving and peaceful society, we can only do so by loving and peaceful means. If we meet the violence of the oppressors with violence of our own, then we become the same as them and if our revolution should succeed, we become merely the new masters, and oppressors ourselves…
In addition, Teal quotes (p.100) an opinion piece written by the Bishop, a self-described “Libertarian Socialist – Anarchist Communitarian” appearing in the Berkeley Free Press elaborating the Bishop’s opposition to violent methodologies as a commitment no less intense than his commitment to political and social revolutionary change:
It is obvious that those of us who hold to the principles of revolutionary nonviolence and the building of a community of love based on decentralist lines could not, in any way, support David Hilliard [note: a Black Panther Party member and activist leader] when, under the pretense of speaking for peace, he called for violence, when under the pretense of speaking for peace he spoke against the peace movement like a left-wing Spiro Agnew, when under the pretense of speaking for peace he attempted to have the anthem of his political party – vanguard or not – imposed on us as the anthem of the entire movement that day. We cannot see that violence, in any man’s hand, is any less violence.
When a man is murdered, regardless of the polemics surrounding that murder, another human being is dead without consideration of color, class, nation or politics.
When a man is helped to become a transformed and liberated human being, he then aids in the revolution.
As such, in our consciences, we had no choice but to protest his [Hilliard’s] speech as we did.”
Bishop Itkin was not speaking in favor of the existing political-social-economic structure in America, he was speaking out against violence as a means for changing that system and against
Supporting structures such as the Black Panther Party and the Weathermen, which we cannot help but view as elitist in their insistence that they are the vanguard of the revolution.
Thus are the few preserved words we have of this Holy Man at hand, but from those few words we can postulate a being of great spiritual evolution, courage almost to the point of unreasonableness, acute theoretical ability and ineluctable belief in the equivalence of means and ends; in short, a man not terribly unlike him whom Itkin would call his Savior.
WRITTEN WORKS BY SAINT MIKHAEL of CALIFORNIA (MAR MICHAEL ITKIN)
The Radical Jesus & Gay Consciousness, Communitversity West, (Hollywood, CA, USA) 1972
The Hymn of Jesus, Pax Christi Press (New York, USA), not dated (believed to be 1963), 11pp.
Faith & Practice of the Brotherhood of the Love of Christ, Pax Christi Press (New York, USA) 1966, 26pp.
The Spiritual Heritage of Port Royal, Pax Christi Press (New York, USA) 1966, 49pp.
Statement on Hallucinogenic Drugs, Pax Christi Institute Press (Washington DC) 1966, 13pp.
Towards Christian Resolution, Pax Christi Press (New York, USA) 1966, 6pp.
CHURCH DOCUMENTS UNSIGNED BUT BELIEVED TO HAVE BEEN AUTHORED BY SAINT MIKHAEL of CALIFORNIA (MAR MICHAEL ITKIN)
Constitution: Being the Canons Ecclesiastical of the Brotherhood of the Love of Christ and its Affiliated congregations of the Evangelical Catholic Communion, Pax Christi Press (Berkeley, Ca, USA) 1963, 17pp.
Church Directory of the People’s Eucharistic Catholic Community Church, Chancery Office, Community of the Love of Christ (Mar Vista, CA, USA) 1974, 4pp.
Radical Christians, Unity and the Orthodox Faith, Community of the Love of Christ (Berkeley, Ca, USA) 1970, 11pp.
The Rebel Jesus, The People’s Church Collective-Jesuene Ek-klesia (Hollywood, CA, USA), 197_, 4pp.
The Rule of Life, The community of the Love of Christ of the Evangelical Catholic Community, 1968, rev.ed. 1973, 3pp.
The Rule of Life of the Brotherhood of the Love of Christ, Pax Christi Press (Berkeley, Ca, USA) 1963, 14pp.
Successio Apostolica, Pax Christi Press (New York, USA) 1966, 10pp.
The Meaning of the Name ‘Jesuene Ek-klesis’, The People’s Church Collective-Jesuene Ek-klesia (Hollywood, CA, USA), 197_, 4pp.
Bibliography of Sources
Pruter, K., & Melton, J.G., eds. The Old Catholic Sourcebook: Sects & Cults in America
Bibliographical Guide, Garland Reference Library of Social Sciences, v. 179, Garland Publishing (New York, USA) 1983
Hogan, S., & Hudson, L., eds. Completely Queer: The Gay & Lesbian Encyclopedia, Henry Holt & Company (New York, USA) 1998
Melton, J.G., ed. Encyclopedia of American Religions – Vol. III, Triumph Books (Tarrytown, New York USA) 1991
Teal, Donn, The Gay Militants, Stein & Day Publishers (New York, USA) 1971