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Group reaches out to bring others in

This fledgling Catholic community takes away barriers to leadership roles.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
Published November 3, 2007


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Last week 120 believers from around the country gathered in Pinellas County for a meeting of the small Ecumenical Catholic Communion.

As they chatted over coffee Wednesday, before morning prayer, Presiding Bishop Peter Hickman walked past the sandals and shorts crowd wearing a white robe - correctly called an alb - and stole. At present, he is thegroup's sole bishop.

Hickman later discussed his fledgling organization, which became a formal religious movement only four years ago.

First, members of the Ecumenical Catholic Communion are not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. The group does not accept the pope as its leader and unlike the Roman Catholic Church, ordains female priests, openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and married men.

"I think that we have a gift to offer and that is a way of being Catholic in the modern world that opens the door for those who want to have a Catholic identity and experience," Hickman said.

"There's a real richness to the Catholic tradition. However, many people cannot participate in the Catholic tradition, because of the policies of Rome. The policies of Rome are very exclusionary."

George Von Stamwitz is the church's chancellor, or chairman of its leadership council. Speaking at the Sirata Beach Resort and Conference Center in St. Pete Beach, where the group was meeting last week, Von Stamwitz said believers have joined the group for three or four central reasons. Those include its support of leadership roles for women and sexual minorities, full participation of the laity in church matters and acceptanceof married priests.

The community of believers is rooted in the Old Catholic movement, which grew out of a disagreement with Rome during the 1800s, Hickman said. Many of the Ecumenical Catholic Communion's 5,500 members are former Roman Catholics, "who felt marginalized by the Roman Church," he said.

The small religious group is made up of 26 faith communities around the country and in Puerto Rico and is strongest in California and Colorado. Locally, Holy Spirit Ecumenical Catholic Church holyspiritecc.org meets at 1141 Ponce de Leon Blvd., in Clearwater.

The group has about 35 priests, many ordained in the Roman Catholic Church. Among its clergy are former Roman Catholic women who felt called to the priesthood.

"As a bishop, I have ordained more women than I have ordained men," said Hickman, adding that there are also a number of former Protestant ministers who have become priests in his group.

Hickman, 51, the married father of five, was a former Baptist minister. He became a priest in the Old Catholic movement in 1984. In 2002, he was invited to head the loose group of communities around the country that coalesced into the Ecumenical Catholic Communion. He was elected to the office of presiding bishop the following year.

One of the purposes of the St. Pete Beach meeting was to discuss the election of new bishops who could assume Hickman's position when his term expires in four years.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

[Last modified November 2, 2007, 22:30:44]


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