[Episcopal News Service] Eleven Episcopal women broke down barriers to ordination on July 29, 1974, when they became the first female priests in The Episcopal Church. Now remembered as the Philadelphia Eleven, their story is the subject of a feature-length documentary currently in production, and an online sneak peek is scheduled for June 30 of work-in-progress scenes from the film.
Margo Guernsey, director and producer of “The Philadelphia Eleven,” told Episcopal News Service in a phone interview that she was born the same year the 11 subjects of her film were ordained to the priesthood, at Philadelphia’s Church of the Advocate. Two years later, women’s ordination was officially authorized by General Convention. Guernsey, who grew up in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where her family was part of a United Church of Christ congregation, said she was aware as a child that the Episcopal church in her community had a female priest.
That didn’t seem unusual to Guernsey growing up, so when she first learned a few years ago about the trail to equality blazed by the Philadelphia Eleven, it came as something as a shock. Outside of The Episcopal Church, “it’s not a very well-known story,” she said.
Guernsey, who now lives in the Boston area, and co-producer Nikki Bramley aim to finish their documentary in time for wide release by 2024, for the Philadelphia Eleven’s 50th anniversary. They had hoped to offer their sneak peak in Baltimore, Maryland, next month during the church’s 80th General Convention, but when church leaders scaled back convention plans because of COVID-19, Guernsey and Bramley moved the sneak peek online instead.
The event will be held on Zoom at 7:30 p.m. June 30 and will feature a highlight reel of about 10-15 minutes followed by a question-and-answer session. The producers will be joined by two of the Philadelphia Eleven, the Rev. Nancy Wittig and the Rev. Marie Moorefield, as well as the Rev. Betty Rosenburg Powell, one of four women ordained in 1975 in the Diocese of Washington.
Response has been overwhelming. An initial invitation to the sneak peek generated so much response that the sign-up page temporarily failed. They eventually filled all 300 available spots, and this week, the producers decided to reopen the sign-up to allow up to 200 more people to attend.
Tickets are free and can be obtained through online registration.
Guernsey and Bramley have been coordinating with Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission and a coalition of progressive Episcopal groups known as The Consultation to raise awareness of the project and help raise funds to complete it. “Throughout our planning, we’ve been clear that this story is critically important,” the Very Rev. Amy McCreath, dean of Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston, told ENS by email. McCreath serves as president of Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission.
The ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven “was a major turning point in the history of the church and also an extraordinary effort at faithful, persistent and ultimately effective strategic organizing,” McCreath said. “Many are growing up in The Episcopal Church without knowing this story, and many are growing up in our nation who have no awareness of any movements for women’s leadership and liberation in any church.”
In 1974, no canon specifically forbid women from becoming priests in The Episcopal Church, but diocesan standing committees and bishops to that point had almost uniformly rejected women’s requests for ordination to the priesthood. Only one of the Philadelphia Eleven had received the backing of her standing committee, and their bishops refused to ordain them.
Instead, three retired bishops agreed to ordain the 11 women, even though doing so without the approval of diocesan leadership could be seen as violating canonical law and church tradition. Church leaders debated the validity of the women’s ordinations for two years, until General Convention approved a new section of the church’s ordination canons in September 1976 saying its provisions “shall be equally applicable to men and women.”
The fight for women’s rights in society continues today, and last week’s Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade underscores the importance of promoting stories like the Philadelphia Eleven, McCreath said.
“So many are feeling discouraged, lonely and fearful as hard-won rights are being rolled back and the prospect of more rights being threatened looms,” she said. “This film tells a story of struggle and hope, of God at work through the lives of ordinary people taking holy risks in service of God’s people.”
Six of the Philadelphia Eleven are still living, and Guernsey and Bramley interviewed each of those six for the documentary, as well as the Rev. Betty Bone Schiess before she died in 2017, and the Rev. Alison Cheek, who died in 2019.
Before taking up documentary filmmaking, Guernsey previously worked as a union organizer between earning degrees in history from Brown University and the University of Massachusetts. From that experience, she sees the Philadelphia Eleven as figures who bridged the religious and the secular amid the civil rights activism of the 1960s and 1970s.
“I’m definitely drawn to the stories of voices that have been marginalized,” she told ENS. As an independent documentarian for the past 10 years, she said she wants to raise up stories from history that “haven’t been a part of our narrative” as a society.
She traces the origins of “The Philadelphia Eleven” to another film project she was developing around 2014. While conducting research, she spoke with the Rev. Carter Heyward, who shared with Guernsey the story of her ordination at a time when The Episcopal Church wouldn’t yet fully accept it. It prompted Guernsey to shift gears and focus on Heyward and her fellow trailblazing priests as subjects of a documentary through her company, Time Travel Productions.
Bramley, a cinematographer, soon joined the project and began accompanying Guernsey on trips to film interviews with the surviving members of the Philadelphia Eleven, fitting that work in between the pair’s other projects. Then in 2019, they launched a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter to help ramp up their efforts to produce a feature-length documentary.
We are nearing the end of five amazing days in NC in celebration of the life of the Rev. Dr. Alison Cheek and so much more. Thank you to all who are supporting this journey. #Documentary #womenpriests #ordainwomen #liberty #equality pic.twitter.com/ObZ96PI7l4
— PhiladelphiaElevenDoc (@PhilElevenDoc) November 5, 2019
Institutional donors have included Virginia Theological Seminary and the Episcopal Women’s History Project. The filmmakers estimate a little more than a third of the money will be used to obtain the rights to archival footage, which “makes the 1970s come alive” in the film, Guernsey said. “It feels like it could be today.”
The current cut of the documentary is about 85 minutes, which Guernsey expects will be close to the final length. She and Bramley are continuing to raise the money needed to secure archival footage, complete edits, add music and mix the sound. They hope to have a cut ready to submit to movie festivals in 2023 before seeking a distributor for release in 2024.
Information about production costs and how to make donations is available on the film’s website.
On the film’s website, Guernsey describes the theme of “The Philadelphia Eleven” as “the story of a call that is denied, and the determination to overcome the barriers and live out the call with integrity.” She also asserts that misogyny “is as real today as it was at the time these events took place.”
When asked by ENS to elaborate on that theme, Guernsey said she didn’t feel equipped to speak specifically about how conditions have or haven’t changed for women in The Episcopal Church since 1974, but “in society in general, we still are facing the same struggles,” she said. “There’s a lot to be learned and there’s still a lot of work to do.”
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at email@example.com.