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A Film Sheds Light on 11 Daring Women Whose Defiant Act Changed the Episcopal Church

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“The Philadelphia Eleven” is a new documentary about women’s ordination in the Episcopal Church. (Courtesy image)

(RNS) — Ten minutes into a new documentary on the battle for women’s ordination in the Episcopal Church, a short archival clip shows the first time women were seated as full voting members in the denomination’s House of Deputies.

But even as women took that minor step forward, they were introduced by a male priest who described the women deputies as “bringing us something the House has needed desperately for a long time — some beauty.”

Such were the belittling attitudes toward women four years before a group of 11 seminary-educated female deacons challenged their church to accept them as priests in 1974.

The Philadelphia Eleven,” a new documentary dozens of churches are now screening across the country, depicts the buildup toward the so-called irregular ordination at which three bishops (with a fourth observing)  ordained 11 women as priests without the denomination’s approval. The ordination — often described as an act of disobedience — caused deep divisions in the church. The women were vilified in the media and in personal attacks. But they also paved a path toward the full embrace of women priests by the denomination two years later, in 1976.

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Next year marks the 50th anniversary of that irregular ordination and the documentary casts a fresh light on that momentous time and on the methods used to achieve it.

Six of the 11 women ordained — all white — are still living, and their eloquent testimonies that they are equal to men form the essence of the documentary. In contrast, male priests and bishops appear in archival images railing against the idea of women priests, intoning that “priesthood implies fatherhood,” and as one priest insists, “We cannot have a female rooster.”

A still from “The Philadelphia Eleven” documentary. (Courtesy image)

Old-fashioned as those comments may sound, their sentiment is still widespread in Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, where women have yet to be ordained, as well as in the Southern Baptist Convention, where women may not serve as pastors.

The documentary also comes at a time when gender equality has stalled as state legislatures restrict abortion and legislate against trans youth.

“We’re in a space where women’s rights are starting to get rolled back, and to understand the stories of the women who come before us and the shoulders we stand on is the only way we move forward,” said Margo Guernsey, the film’s director and producer.

An independent, Massachusetts-based filmmaker, Guernsey said she never heard about the Philadelphia 11 until she had a phone conversation with one of its leaders, the Rev. Carter Heyward, and came away wanting to know more.

Margo Guernsey. (Courtesy photo)

Margo Guernsey. (Courtesy photo)

Guernsey set about filling in that gap in her knowledge. It turned into an eight-year odyssey that included interviews with the surviving Philadelphia 11 and the people around them, deep dives into reams of archival footage and, most difficult of all, raising money for the documentary, underwritten by 1,200 individuals.

Several of the Philadelphia 11 are now attending  the church screenings. A wider distribution of the documentary is expected in late 2024.

Heyward is featured prominently in the documentary. She and Emily Hewitt were among the group’s leaders. In the early 1970s, both were studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. They were joined by Suzanne Hiatt, who was working as a social justice organizer at Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia.

The Episcopal Church had no rule forbidding female priests, but ordaining them just wasn’t done. After several attempts to allow women’s ordination failed at General Conference, the three began to plot to shake up the status quo.