Philadelphia 11 documentary recalls ‘ruckus,’ sets ordinations within larger justice struggles

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Oct 3, 2023

Gasps echoed throughout the Church of the Advocate when the narrator of “The Philadelphia Eleven” documentary explained that the Rev. Merrill Bittner received this defaced newspaper clipping in the mail with a note suggesting she use the enclosed length of fishing wire to hang herself. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service — Philadelphia, Pennsylvania] Lois Peeples sat at the registration table in a back corner of the Church of the Advocate here on Sept. 30 remembering the scene in the church nearly 50 years ago when the ordination of 11 women deacons as priests touched off a firestorm in the church.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]

See the Film

In-person screenings are scheduled into next year. Click here for the schedule and here for the trailer. [/perfectpullquote]

“It was a big ruckus” on July 29, 1974, she recalled with a smile, noting that many across the church and society at large objected to women becoming priests and bishops.

And, it was “marvelous,” Peeples said, to spend her 89th birthday in her church home of 60 years watching the premiere of the documentary “The Philadelphia Eleven.”

The film tells the story of what it calls “an act of civil disobedience.” The ordinations took place two years and a few weeks before the General Convention agreed that it was permissible for women to become priests and bishops. The 11 were harassed and received death threats.

Five of the “irregularly ordained” women pose for a photo on Sept. 30 after the premiere of “The Philadelphia Eleven.” They include seated left to right, the Rev. Marie Moorefield Fleischer, the Rev. Carter Heyward, the Rev. Emily Hewitt and the Rev. Merrill Bittner. Standing are the Rev. Nancy Wittig and Rev. Betty Powell (one of the Washington Four who were ordained in September 1975). Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Those attending the premiere included five of the six surviving members of the Philadelphia 11: the Rev. Merrill Bittner, the Rev. Emily C. Hewitt, the Rev. Carter Heyward, the Rev. Marie Moorefield Fleischer and the Rev. Nancy Wittig. The sixth surviving priest, the Rev. Alla Bozarth, could not travel to Philadelphia. Joining them was the Rev. Betty Powell, one of four women who were ordained in Washington, D.C., in September 1975.

(Where are the Philadelphia 11 and their ordaining bishops now?)

The women were greeted with cheers and tears. For some of the nearly 150 people at the premiere, it felt like a reunion. For others, it was a chance to express their gratitude for being able to walk the trail the women blazed. The latter group included Diocese of Pennsylvania Bishop Daniel Gutiérrez who credited a woman priest with leading him to his vocation.

“I was raised to the priesthood by the Rev. Sandra Bess,” Gutiérrez said during his welcoming remarks. “I would not be a bishop without her and you.”

Diocese of Pennsylvania Bishop Daniel Gutiérrez greets the Rev. Merrill Bittner before the start of the Sept. 30 premiere of “The Philadelphia Eleven” at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Gutiérrez said that “the cataracts on the eyes of the church and society were removed” when the Philadelphia 11 were ordained. The event confirmed that “the divine image cannot be defaced or distorted by patriarchy, ignorance, hate, fear, marginalization or any of the -isms or constrictions we tend to create,” he said.

The members of the Philadelphia 11, during a question-and-answer session after the showing, set their action in a larger context than just making women priests a reality in The Episcopal Church.

“We did do that, and I believe that it transformed the church,” Bittner said in an opening statement. “But our objective and that of the brave bishops who ordained us was not entirely about The Episcopal Church. Even more, we were participants in changing the world for the better.”

Bittner said that everyone is called to make the world a better place. The challenge is to say yes when the call comes and “to overcome what might be holding us back and to choose to stand up and say, ‘Here I am. Send me,’” she said, echoing Isaiah 6:8.

Members of the Philadelphia 11, in the front row with their guests, watch the documentary about their 1974 ordinations at the Church of the Advocate. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Bittner and her companions repeatedly said that the church and the world still face challenges. They decried the continued pay and placement discrepancies between female and male clergy in The Episcopal Church and its male-gendered liturgical language. Plus, sexism, racism, homophobia and marginalization of the poor are thriving in the world, she noted.

“There is a climate of hatred and belittling of the other these days that must be challenged,” she said. “There are opportunities for all of us to stand up.”

Margo Guernsey, who directed and produced the documentary with co-producer Nikki Bramley, spoke with Episcopal News Service during a break after the screening. “My hope has always been that people see themselves in this story in some way,” Guernsey said. “This is a story that shows us what to do when the institutions we love and were raised in put up rules and barriers that don’t allow us to be our full selves.”

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]

An interactive timeline of the history of women’s ordination in the Anglican Communion is here.

[/perfectpullquote]

Guernsey said that during the nearly 10 years she and Bramley spent on the project, the women showed her that “there is a different form of leadership that’s powerful and it’s a collective leadership. They have demonstrated for us a way to move forward.”

In honor of the 50th anniversary of their ordinations next summer, some dioceses plan to ask the 81st General Convention to include the Philadelphia 11 on the church’s calendar. The Diocese of Los Angeles, for instance, is set to consider such a request at its Nov. 10-11 convention.

Bishops and deputies will consider any filed resolutions when they meet next June in Louisville, Kentucky. Next year’s convention follows 51 years after the 64th General Convention, meeting in Louisville, refused to allow women to be ordained (pages 222-226 here).

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg retired in July 2019 as senior editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service.


Tags