On a recent Sunday in Little Rocky Run, Bishop Jim Burch of One Spirit Catholic Community ordained a new priest. But it wasn't the usual, single male — it was a married woman named Penelope Ann Thoms.
"I'm absolutely thrilled," said her husband Steve Johnson, a Unitarian minister in Ireland, where they live. "Penny is a gifted minister and a very spiritual person, and she's been working toward this, ever since I've known her."
Burch's church belongs to the Catholic Diocese of One Spirit, which is part of a group of hundreds of ecumenical Catholic faith communities nationwide that celebrate the richness of Catholic spirituality and tradition. Yet as a generic Catholic faith community, One spirit differs significantly.
It shares a common Catholic theology and liturgical tradition, but veers away from many of the disciplines and rules governing the Roman rite of the Catholic Church. Instead, it welcomes divorced and remarried people without the need for annulment, gays and lesbians. It ordains married men and women and does not dictate what people must believe.
Johnson discovered One Spirit and encouraged his wife to attend and seek ordination there, which she did. "We're very much on the same page, theologically," said Thoms, 56. "Jim has an idea of outreach for those who can't or don't want to go to church, but want spiritual guidance."
"I'm a spiritual director," she continued. "It's about helping people find the way they relate to God and all God's creatures. It's also about meeting God in their lives and opening themselves up to God."
"A great many people already have these concepts in their heart, but haven't articulated them, yet," added Burch. "We help them do that. And it's a recognition that God lives in all of us."
Born in Evanston, Ill., Thoms holds a master of divinity and master of arts in spiritual direction from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. She's been a chaplain at two hospitals in Colorado and three in California, as well as with Hospice of Northern Virginia, and is also an accomplished an award-winning writer and poet.
She and her husband met in 1995 on their first day of seminary in Berkeley and have been married for six years. "She's often preached in my churches and is a very powerful speaker," said Johnson. "I'm very proud of her and very comfortable with this congregation that Jim has."
Joy Barnes, executive director of the Women's Ordination Conference within the Roman Catholic Church, presented the vestments of ordination to Thoms during the June 13 ceremony. And clergymen from seven different denominations attended the proceedings.
"More progressive Catholic people have said that we must have women's ordinance," said Burch. "Close to 80 percent of general Catholic people want women to be ordained, but the hierarchy won't talk about it."
Delighted to be part of Thoms' ordination, Barnes said, "She is of the cloth of God, and we're proud to support her in her ministry. It's a great time of celebration — a joyous occasion."
Barnes' organization — which supports both the Roman Catholic and alternative Catholic communities — will celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2005. "We're finding women who have the courage to step outside of Roman Catholic structures and connecting them to different bishops." She estimates that hundreds of women in the U.S. have been ordained — some, as long as 25 years ago.
"The essence of Christianity is that you're supposed to care for and love each other and care for those who have less," explained Burch. "But it's not because you accede to things you're supposed to believe. To me, the essence of Catholicism is that we're made in the image and likeness of God — temples of the Holy Spirit — and sanctified. The whole message of Jesus is 'God lives in you and in every thing."
As for Thoms, he said One Spirit resonated with her thinking. Burch has already ordained three other priests, but she was his first female ordination.
"I'm just a servant," he said. "It's their call, and I'm there to help them do it. It felt very normal — nothing out of the ordinary about it. It just seemed natural, and that's the way it should be." Besides, he added, "Protestants have shown, for a long time, that women make good pastors."
One Spirit meets at the Little Rocky Run Community Center No. 3 at 13900 Stonefield Drive. During summer, services will be July 18 and Aug. 22 at 10 a.m. After Labor Day, services will return to every Sunday. See www.onespiritcatholic.org or www.contemporarycatholic.org.