Gay Mormons find acceptance in Restoration Church
Larry Tidwell speaks to parishioners at the Restoration Church of Jesus Christ. (Isaac Brekken/The Salt Lake Tribune)
Parishioners of the Restoration Church of Jesus Christ participate in the sacrament at a service. The church has a primarily lesbian, gay and bisexual membership. (Isaac Brekken/The Salt Lake Tribune)
This is the logo of The Restoration Church of Jesus Christ. "Our mission is to those who feel outcast and lost," says Larry Tidwell, presiding patriarch of the church.
By Rosemary Winters
The Salt Lake Tribune
The small chapel looks like hundreds of others in the Salt Lake valley: powder blue upholstered pews with back pockets that hold green hymn books, auditorium-style seats in the front for speakers, a white lace tablecloth draped over a table for blessing the sacrament.
But the congregants set this chapel apart from any wardhouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: The Restoration Church of Jesus Christ has a primarily lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender membership.
But this is not a "gay copy of the LDS Church," says church president Robert McIntier.
The Restoration Church teaches that Joseph Smith restored the gospel of Jesus Christ to the earth and that the Book of Mormon is an authentic scripture, but it also has many teachings that are distinct from the LDS Church.
The LDS Church teaches that it is not a sin to be attracted to others of the same sex, but that those Mormons who do should ignore those feelings and live the law of chastity, abstaining from sexual activity outside of marriage.
Mormons are also taught that heterosexual marriage is sacred and essential to reach the highest realm of heaven. But these teachings leave many gay Mormons torn between a religion that promises eternal salvation or accepting their sexuality to find a loving relationship in this life.
In The Restoration Church of Jesus Christ, members don't have to make such a harrowing choice: gay people can have sexual relationships while receiving the blessings of the gospel. For them, chastity means sex between two people who have mutual love and respect.
"The Lord can't require gay people to have sex within the bond of marriage if they can't get married," says Larry Tidwell, presiding patriarch of the church. "My own feeling is that those who have the law will be judged by it, and those who don't have the law will not."
Believing that the faith's first president, Antonio A. Feliz, received his priesthood power in 1973 from LDS Church President Harold B. Lee, The Restoration Church performs "sealings" -- much like marriage ceremonies in the LDS Church -- in a room of the chapel that has been dedicated as a "temple."
Like the LDS Church, Restorationists have endowment ceremonies but they do not do them as proxies for others nor do baptism for the dead. The church believes in the same scriptures used by the LDS Church, but also has its own book of scripture, Hidden Treasures and Promises, which contains revelations members believe were given to church leaders by God.
Unlike the LDS Church, which limits priesthood membership to males 12 and older, the Restoration Church allows women to hold the priesthood and any church office, including president. Members believe in a Heavenly Mother along with Heavenly Father and speak openly about her.
They believe in the Word of Wisdom, which forbids the consumption of alcohol and tobacco, but that it is a health guideline, not a requirement for church callings or temple recommends, documents that attest to a candidate's "worthiness" to enter the temple.
It was in 1985 that six men in Los Angeles who had left the LDS Church founded The Church of Jesus Christ of All Latter-day Saints -- later changed to The Restoration Church of Jesus Christ to avoid confusion with the LDS Church -- as a haven for gay Mormons who feel estranged from the LDS Church but still keep the faith. Feliz, author of Out of the Bishop's Closet, was named the first president but was voted out eight months later when members disliked changes he made without their consent. The Los Angeles congregation disintegrated after Feliz left. In 1989, there were congregations -- called "families," not wards -- in Salt Lake City, Sacramento, Houston, Albuquerque and San Diego, but now only the Salt Lake City group remains.
"Our mission is to those who feel outcast and lost," says Larry Tidwell, presiding patriarch of the church. "This church is an option, a choice for the marginalized."
Angela Carter attends the Restoration Church with two of her kids and her partner Bonnie Workman. She enjoys being able to worship the way she learned in her youth in the LDS Church, but without feeling judged for her sexuality. "It's very different from the LDS Church," she says. "We accept one another."
Carter and Workman are among only about 10 people who attend Sunday meetings regularly, and Tidwell recognizes this church is not an option that appeals to everyone in the gay LDS community, which likely numbers in the thousands. Some reject religion entirely when they come out, especially those who maintain Mormon beliefs, he says.
"They've been burned [by the LDS Church], and they don't want to come here and be burned again," Tidwell says.
Other gay Mormons may try to remain active in the LDS Church or become inactive but hope the church's policy on homosexuality will eventually change.
Rick Bickmore followed LDS principles for many years. He served a mission, married in the temple and tried to overcome his attraction to men. When he realized he couldn't love his wife the way she deserved, the two divorced. He stopped attending LDS services because he disagreed with the church's teachings about homosexuality.
"I knew in my heart that it was right for me to be gay and that wasn't something that should be changed even if it could be," he says.
For the past six years, Bickmore has directed the Wasatch chapter of Affirmation, a national support group for gay and lesbian Mormons. He has investigated other religions, but he has decided against joining another church, including the Restoration Church. He says the LDS Church is "the most true church, the one that comes closest to the mark."
Bickmore holds onto the hope that some day a new divine revelation will change LDS policy on homosexuality, just as the church received a message in 1978 to open its once-closed priesthood to black men.
The Restoration Church of Jesus Christ does not claim to be the only true church, but rather sees truth in all churches spawned by Smith, including the LDS Church and the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints).
The Restoration Church has experienced a lot of flux in its 19-year history. Two years ago, McIntier and Tidwell were the only two people showing up on Sunday. Now a few more come regularly to meetings, and McIntier says he is in touch with about 50 people who are affiliated with the church but live too far away to be active members.
"There are so many times when it would be easy to give up," says McIntier. "But little things keep happening to make me think this is still the right path, this is still what God wants us to do."
For more information about the Restoration Church of Jesus Christ, call 801-359-1151 or visit http://www.poboxes.com/rcjc.