Welcoming Catholic Church Opens with First Female Priest

by Andrew Clark

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday September 11, 2012

There are dozens of church offshoots and individual congregations that have done their part to extend an olive branch to the LGBT community and instill the understanding that not all religious leaders agree with currently popular anti-gay religious rhetoric. One such shining example of this is the American National Catholic Church, which last week opened a new parish with the community's first female priest, Mother Phyllis McHugh.

EDGE spoke with McHugh about the new parish and what the ANCC can offer Philadelphia that other churches have not. Having achieved a Master's degree in Theology, McHugh's initial goal when involving herself more deeply in the Catholic Church was simply to work within a parish and alleviate some of the burden carried by the priests as best she could. But her spiritual journey soon led her in another direction.

"What became apparent to me in the course of my studies, was deep down I felt a call to be a priest, a priesthood closed to me because of my gender," she recalled. "About five years ago, I learned that there were actually other independent Catholic churches, churches which would allow me to follow the persistent call that only grew stronger with time."

McHugh's search for the right church led her to the ANCC, where she said she finally felt at home both spiritually and personally. The ANCC is a Catholic offshoot that has made it a priority to announce that they value and welcome all genders and sexualities into their congregations as equals. This includes such radical steps as performing same-sex marriage ceremonies and allowing females the right to priesthood.

But the ANCC is unique in that despite its separation from Rome and increased values of inclusion, it still very much adheres to the principles and values of the Vatican II. For priests and congregation members like McHugh, a desire to be valued as an equal and to accept others' sexualities and gender identifications does not have to be mutually exclusive to the Catholic belief systems they identify with.

"I have found many who came hurting, yet hungry for God, hungry for a Catholicism they could believe in, blossom into. Caring, loving, sharing people who live with their hearts wide open," said McHugh. "All of us, no matter who we are, are deeply and personally loved by God as they are, not necessarily fitting some cookie cutter image of what a good person or a good Catholic looks like."

There is no denying that one of the most tenacious foes of LGBT rights has always been the religious community. This opposition has been displayed from discriminatory church exclusion all the way through million dollar campaigns and fundraising efforts to strip and withhold the rights of LGBT citizens across the globe. The animosity between the two communities has become so deeply personal and antagonistic that it feels almost impossible for members to bridge the gap to find acceptance and understanding of the other without backlash from one's own community. But it may be premature to assume that these circumstances have spiritually bankrupted our community.

EDGE spoke with Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of Dignity, an organization aimed at bringing the LGBT community back to God in safe and welcoming congregations. Duddy-Burke impressed that it was dangerous to label our community as lacking spirituality due to its factual inaccuracy and for fear of giving the religious right a valid reason to work against us.

"I have found that the LGBT community is in fact profoundly spiritual despite the differing levels of pain associated with their religious past," she said. "While they may be more wary of organized religion, much of our community maintains an active spiritual life."

Duddy-Burke continued to discuss her belief that this point is confirmed by the success of LGBT inclusive churches and their effect on organized religion as a whole.

"The ANCC is small, but its numbers are increasing steadily because of what we say and what we do. Our efforts to live the Gospel and carry the message of the love of Christ to others attracts people," said Mother Phyllis McHugh.

"Our community will reach out to find spiritual guidance and fulfillment when they need it, but the proactivity of some of these more modern churches not only give an important show of support to the LGBT community, but also have begun affecting individual congregations of the larger organized religious groups," said Duddy-Burke.

Luckily for women and gay Catholics, Dignity and the ANCC are not alone in their mission to ensure that historically marginalized groups feel welcome and equal in their congregation. There is an increasingly wide interest in examining the Vatican II's more stringent policies that may no longer make sense to carry on in the modern world. The culture of exclusivity seems to be slowly dying out.

This could possibly be a symptom of congregations shrinking at an alarming rate across the board. Much of the church's population seem to have found itself increasingly disenchanted with the many indiscretions from the large organized religions. Without the security of a large parish population, and with it a large donative population, perhaps they can simply no longer be picky about who they invite into their places of worship.

But this is the pessimistic approach. What churches like the ANCC set out to do is to tackle this problem in an optimistic and constructive way. The hope is that by changing some of the more archaic and outdated rules that they can reinvigorate their previous membership. This should not be an unfamiliar scenario for the Catholic Church, as the creation of alternative faiths has forced policy change in the past.

McHugh believes from experience that this movement is promising as it slowly spreads and gains support.

"The ANCC is small, but its numbers are increasing steadily because of what we say and what we do. Our efforts to live the Gospel and carry the message of the love of Christ to others attracts people," she said of the church. In essence, the olive branch has been extended.

The challenge for these equality-based churches will be to convince the much-scorned LGBT community that this is not the same religion that once cast them out. For many, the church and the people most closely associated with it have been a source only of condemnation and fear. This has led to staggering levels of agnostic and atheistic members of the LGBT community whose disenchantment has a much more personal sting.

Will increased opportunity, understanding and guidance from these new churches be enough to rebuild the trust needed for faith? McHugh and the ANCC are convinced that this is exactly what will happen.

"I am excited to open the doors of the church to everyone without telling them to check who they are at the door!" she told EDGE. "I look forward to journeying with the people who join our parish community, reaching out to those in need, celebrating the sacraments with them and ministering to them whenever they need me as their priest. I want to help people who need to heal through that process. I want to help them to blossom in a religious environment that embraces life in its fullness, the life Jesus wished for all of us -- not just some of us."

The American National Catholic Church's is in residence at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 7809 Old York Rd., Elkins Park, PA. For more information on Mother McHugh's parish, visit www.StThomasMoreANCC.org.