Bishop Michael Francis Augustine Itkin was one of the seminal figures in the ""gay church"" movement in the 1950's and 60's. Later known by his religious name of Mar Mikhael, Itkin was 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, 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, Father Michael worked as a priest in the Eucharistic Catholic Church, but in emphasizing the politically activist dimension of that minisitry 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.
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 that 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. The Synod corresponded with some of Bishop Herford's European associates deriving their leave to reformulate the Evangelical Catholic Communion in America. A short time later, Bishop Itkin and Archbishop Stanley parted ways, again, due in large part to the radical social activism advocated by Itkin.
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). Bishop Itkins articulated a theology of revolutionary Christianity based upon pacifism, freedom from oppression, and civil rights--and the Communion was involved in many civil rights and anti-war efforts. 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 movement.
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 moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles, 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. Bishop Itkin placed himself in the Anabaptist-Quaker-Mennonite tradition and took on the additional task of confronting these churches regarding 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 death, Mar Mikhael had reassumed the mantle and the obligations of a Bishop of God's Church, occupying the position of Metropolitan-Archbishop of the Holy Apostolic-Catholic Church of the East (Chaldean-Syrian), 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. 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 Cathoic Communion in the United States.""
At its height, the Church, headquartered in Daly City, California (190 Palisades Drive) had 15 parishes with 3,500 members in the United States and 6 foreign missions. Mar Mikhael was assisted by a Synod of Bishops in administering the Church, which had jurisdiction for North and South America as well as for the Far East. In the process of its growth acquiring charismatic practices and promoting the gifts of the spirit, i.e., healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues, among others. That fact, along with its consideration of itself as standing within the Radical Reformed heritage, rendered the jurisdiction unique in the annals of the Syro-Chaldean tradition.
(The biographical statement above was edited from information found at http://www.geocities.com/moorishorthodoxchurch/ITKIN.html.)
Biography Date: December, 2002
Catholic (Eucharistic) | Catholic (Evangelical/Syrian-Chaldean) | Hyde, George | Clergy Activist | Gay Liberation Movement | Women and Religion | California | Los Angeles | San Francisco | Itkin, Michael
“I knew Bishop Itkin very well in the period 1971-1977 and, in fact, had a room in the boarding house where he had a small apartment (on 22nd Street in San Francisco). I have mixed feelings about him from my memories. On the positive side, I believe that his commitment to gay liberation was authentic and heart-felt and he was involved in many demonstrations for LGBTQ human rights. On the ambivalent side, he certainly was an autocephalous bishop who never seemed to find a spiritual center, even though he did have a genuine spiritual side to him. He could be manipulative and egocentric and would sue at the drop of a hat. His life has ended and I would prefer to remember him for the many positive things he did for gay liberation. ( Winston Leyland was publisher of the Gay Sunshine Journal (1971-1981) and is current publisher of Gay Sunshine Press and Leyland Publications books.) ”
– as remembered by Winston Leyland on April 16, 2012
“In many respects a strange, but, truly spiritual man. I was ordained and consecrated by him in New York City in the 1960's, before his move west. I chose to study and be a working priest, rather than get into the mad world of cross consecrations, and tiny congregations. His act made a real change in me. His choice of a heterosexual to carry on his line wasn't, and isn't, outside of his mission. He chose to minister to outcasts, and outsiders; not an unfamiliar ministry. My choices were a bit more mundane. As annoying as he could be, I was blessed to have known him. Who says a saint has to be in a suit, and minister to little old blue-haired ladies.”
– as remembered by Norman Saul (MRF Paul) on April 22, 2020
“I was and still am a Hippie, that is a Highly Intelligent Person Seeking Inner Enlightenment...I knew Michael with my friends, three gay men--Keith Ham, Wally, and Howard. Those three became members of the Hare Krishna movement with Keith becoming Swami Kirtanananda who headed New Vrindavan in West Virginia.
We were all, including Michael, extremely interested in the use of psychedelics to increase spiritual awareness. That was how we all managed to end up visiting Dr. Timothy Leary at Millbrook. Michael had written an essay about the connection of LSD to the spiritual experience which Dr. Leary was interested in publishing. Your article about him does not credit the influence that psychedelics had on his awareness not only for the liberation of gays to be part of the spiritual human community, but also his recognition that women are equally endowed with a spiritual element that some might call a soul others would refer to the Atman as the embodiment of God in each one of us.
I recall that we had an encounter with a priest and Michael was very amused because the priest was very diffident toward him due to the purple band on his collar that announced that he was a bishop.
Ignoring the part that psychedelics played in Michael's growth, spirituality, and awareness, does a disservice to the roots of human interaction with the divine. I hope that you will include this part of Michael's history.”
– as remembered by Dr. Jeri Rose on September 15, 2014
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