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Why talk about women priests now?

Director of Photography Nikki Bramley, right, records an interview with the Rev. Marie Moorfield Fleischer for Director Margo Guernsey’s film on the first women ordained in the Episcopal Church. (Photo/courtesy of Margo Guernsey)

By Margo Guernsey

I was born in 1974. I am not Episcopalian. I was raised in a UCC church with a male minister, but knew of plenty of women ministers and never questioned women’s leadership in the church. I’m of the generation that always knew of Episcopal women priests, and did not know the struggle that came before. I always assumed it was the norm.

About seven years ago, I learned about the Episcopal ordinations that took place in Philadelphia in 1974, and was blown away by the bravery of the women involved. At what point did they decide to challenge a venerable institution? How did they consider the risks? The more I have uncovered, the more I respect others who were an important part of the process including the members of the Church of the Advocate (site of the ordinations), the priests who were taken to ecclesiastical trial, and the bishops who ordained them. They jeopardized their careers, their parishes, and their futures, in order to support a group of women who were called to the priesthood.

As a former union organizer, student of the civil rights movement and college history major, I understood these ordinations as a kind of civil disobedience that has been forgotten to history classes and the next generation. I believe they should be a part of our national narrative when we tell the story of twentieth century America. That is why I embarked on a journey to make a feature length documentary film, currently titled “The Philadelphia Eleven: To Be Whole.”

Eleven women kneel at the altar of the Church of the Advocate, Philadelphia, during their ordination on July 29, 1974. (Photo/courtesy Episcopal Church Archives)

This was not a small event. The ordinations in Philadelphia in 1974 rocked Christianity by questioning who speaks the word of God. By celebrating their call to the priesthood, these women suggested that God does not have a gender. The media flocked to the story. Major print and broadcast networks covered it for two years.

We are now in a historical moment where patriarchy, white supremacy, untruthful media, and other oppressive structures are flexing their muscles. For people on the front lines, there is a day-to-day challenge of survival. Within any struggle, there is also opportunity to learn from the leaders who have come before us.

The Philadelphia ordinations confronted patriarchy in new ways, simply by being direct. Male bishops and priests who participated in the civil rights movement, and spoke publicly on behalf of women’s rights, were suddenly forced to examine their own positions in a patriarchal institution.

From left, the Revs. Alison Cheek, Carter Heyward and Jeannette Piccard celebrate a eucharistic service at Riverside Church in New York on Oct. 27, 1974. (Photo/RNS/Chris Sheridan)

The ordinations upend generally held assumptions about civil rights and gender. In the 1970s, most leaders of the women’s movement supported white women’s issues at the expense of women of color, and low-income women. Black male civil rights leaders tended to focus only on race, and not on other forms of oppression. Yet there was an intersectional element to these ordinations. Eleven white women were ordained in a black city church, under the leadership of an African-American rector who was actively supportive of the Black Panther Party. An African-American woman led the procession, and would later become the first woman ordained a bishop in the Anglican Communion. A number of the women ordained identified as queer. They did not feel safe making that public; yet the white male bishops ordaining were prepared to defend them if anyone were to raise the issue publicly.

What can we learn from this intersectional challenge to a patriarchal system? I do not think there is ever one clear answer; but there is a lot to contemplate. I strive to make a film that will inspire viewers to go beyond first impressions to a deeper discussion.

The women ordained in 1974 and 1975 stayed true to their call to the priesthood despite institutional obstacles, and by doing so they challenge us to look at our own lives. How do we pursue our vocations regardless of whether society is ready? How do we keep our integrity when it feels like the easy answers ask us to compromise? How do we stand up for justice in every moment when life pulls us in so many different directions? I can imagine post-film discussions where we all reflect on how the story of the original women priests asks us to consider big questions that confront us in our own lives.

In 2015, I, along with my friend and fellow filmmaker Nikki Bramley, started filming the women ordained “irregularly,” because we did not want to lose the opportunity for the women to tell their own stories. The generation that lived through the irregular ordinations have a personal connection that only they can relate. I recognize how different that experience is from my own. I find I am at my best as a director when I am listening and allowing the protagonists of the story to lead. We need to finish filming while we still have the first women priests with us.

Margo Guernsey is a documentary filmmaker based in Boston, Mass. For more information about “The Philadelphia Eleven,” go to TimeTravelProductions.com.

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