Both men and women, married and unmarried, may be ordained to all three orders of the apostolic ministry (deacons, presbyters, and bishops). All clergy and their ministries are self-supporting, and the Church as a jurisdiction is, by its canons, forbidden to own property. OCCA has a particular concern for those who have been rejected or marginalized by "mainstream" Christianity. One mark of this concern is the jurisdiction's willingness to ordain openly lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual persons as clergy, and to bless their unions as it does those of heterosexual couples. Congregations frequently meet in homes, as did the earliest Christians. OCCA has two religious communities.
The Orthodox-Catholic Church of America was established in the United States in 1892 under the mandate of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius-Peter IV. The founding Archbishop, Mar Timotheus (Joseph René Vilatte) had been ordained priest by Bishop Herzog of the Old Catholic Church in Bern Switzerland on June 7, 1885. Working in Great Lakes area, predominantly in Wisconsin, Fr. Vilatte sought to bring about the return of a Western Rite of Orthodoxy. Fr. Vilatte received both support and opposition in this attempt, but eventually he was consecrated as Archbishop for North America, in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) by Archbishop Francis Alvarez with the permission of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch in 1892. OCCA is grounded, therefore, both in the East and in the West.
In the 19th century, the Indian branch of the Syrian Orthodox Church had begun ordaining local priests for the western rite in order to supply ministers for their western rite congregations. Among these were Bishops Julius Alvarez, Paul Athanasius, Paul Evanious, and George Gregorius, the latter later canonized as St. Gregorius Geverghese). Father Vilatte was ordained by them as Mar Timotheus and appointed as Metropolitan for the newly formed American diocese. The next patriarch (H.H. Ignatius Abdul Masih II, who was deposed in 1905) was not interested in a Western-Rite Church half way around the world and gave it no support. The synod of the American Archdiocese, finding no support from the Patriarchate, declared itself autocephalous (self-governing) in 1910. This declaration has not been recognized by other Orthodox churches and OCCA is, like many other Orthodox jurisdictions around the world, considered non-canonical by the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America (SCOBA).
In 1924 Mar Timotheus left the jurisdiction and returned home to France, living out his life in a Roman monastery. The jurisdiction was held together loosely for several years with no presiding archbishop. In 1932 Archbishop Clement John Cyril Sherwood assumed the leadership of the Church which he maintained until 1969. In 1970 Archbishop George Augustine Hyde was elected and enthroned as Metropolitan Archbishop. His administration saw a consolidation of Western Rite liturgy and an emphasis in ministry to the marginalized of our society. In particular, Archbishop Hyde was the first clergyman in the United States to establish a parish (in Atlanta in 1946) for lesbian and gay Christians. He retired in 1980 with the subsequent election of Metropolitan Archbishop Alfred Louis Lankenau. Under Archbishop Alfred the synod of the church agreed to the ordination of women. Archbishop Alfred retired in 1999 and was suceeeded by the current Metropolitan Archbishop E. Paul Brian Carsten.
The Syrian Orthodox Church vibrantly exists today and has grown across the world. While OCCA has no current official relations with their Mother Church, OCCA accords them the respect due to an Apostolic Church and to a Church who in a time of need assisted Mar Timotheus in his vision for a truly Western Orthodox presence in the United States. The Syrian Orthodox Church continues to acknowledge their ordination of Mar Timotheus.
The Orthodox-Catholic Church of America is not the only jurisdiction to claim Bishop Rene Vilatte. Many other independent and Old-Catholic jurisdictions can validly lay claim to apostolic succession through Vilatte.
In 1921 Mar Timotheus ordained the first African-American bishop, George Alexander McGuire, for the African Orthodox Missionary District of New York, which later became the African Orthodox Church. Mar Timotheus believed that an African American was perfectly capable of being a bishop and would be the proper choice to serve priests and congregations who were African Americans. (Little did he know that Bishop George would eventually take the Church to Africa itself.)
In May 1891, Bishop Vladimir (Sokolovsky), the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in the United States, referred to Fr. Vilatte's flock as "true 'Old Catholic-Orthodox Christians' [now] under the patronage of our Church." The concept that the Church was truly both Old Catholic (Western) and Orthodox was translated by this jurisdiction into the name "Orthodox-Catholic." The concept is that of a Church with Western Liturgy and Eastern (Orthodox) spirituality and theology.