The American National Catholic Church, an alternative Independent Catholic community, is opening its first Pennsylvania parish this weekend, which will be headed by the first woman ANCC pastor.
The Rev. Phyllis McHugh will celebrate Mass at 5 p.m. Sept. 8 at St. Thomas More, in Elkins Park.
The ANCC was founded in 2009 and, while it embraces many of the basic tenets and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, it is a non-Vatican entity.
Chief among the differences between the ANCC and the RCC is the former’s inclusiveness — it ordains women, married people and LGBTs, and offers a union rite for same-sex couples.
It was that universality that attracted McHugh, a former Roman Catholic nun.
The Northeast Philadelphia native was raised Roman Catholic and spent 10 years in the convent.
“I came to the realization that God had other plans for me,” she said about leaving the convent. “I knew I needed to move on and engage the world better than I could do as a nun.”
McHugh remained a teacher and went on to get married and have a son. She earned her master’s degree in Systematic Theology and remained involved in lay parish ministry but was always put off by the strict patriarchal hierarchy within the church.
“I struggled for years with the fact that women not only couldn’t be priests but also couldn’t be deacons. The feeling started driving me crazy and I came to see that when God looked at me, he didn’t see limitations. God wanted me to be able to pursue my calling, and the Roman Catholic Church was never going to give me the opportunity to do that,” she said.
As a lifelong Roman Catholic, she said the decision to leave was a tough one, but that she was heartened when she learned of the opportunities within the Independent Catholic movement.
“I saw, wow, there are other Catholic churches out there where being a woman is not a liability,” she said. “I realized that I do not have to be invalid matter anymore. So I took the plunge and am very happy I did.”
She was ordained in May 2011 within the Old Catholic Apostolic Church and served as associate pastor at St. Miriam’s in Blue Bell before being incardinated into the ANCC this month.
“Theologically, they’re very solid,” she said of the ANCC, noting that the church embraces the spirit of reform fostered at the Second Vatican Council and believes in a collegial, rather than hierarchical, governing style.
McHugh, who will retain her day job in IT tech support through the new venture, said she has been welcomed and affirmed by her brother priests.
Being the first female priest to minister in the ANCC is both an honor and a challenge, she added.
“As a Catholic, this is virgin territory, so what I do and say takes on added importance,” she said. “But I try to think about what St. Paul said about there being neither slave nor free man, nor man or woman; when God looks at us, he doesn’t see gender. He sees each of us as a person. And the challenge to live out that divine acceptance of who we are is at the very base, fundamental level.”
That line of thinking is part of what drives the ANCC’s affirmation of LGBT people.
McHugh said that, as a woman, she can relate to the marginalization LGBTs feel in discriminatory faith communities.
“I find it extraordinary that people do not accept,” she said. “God made us who we are. I know what it felt like to have limitations on what I could do as a member of the church, what I could aspire to. Everyone has a right to live a happy life in all its fullness. Any LGBT person who comes to St. Thomas More will be accepted as they are and encouraged to live their life in all its fullness. My church will be open to everyone, and that certainly is a big welcome to the LGBT community.”
For more information, visit www.stthomasmoreancc.org.