‘Philadelphia Eleven’ documentary gets nationwide theatrical release

By ENS staff
Posted May 10, 2024

This image from the documentary film, The Philadelphia Eleven, shows the eleven women who were ordained as priests on July 29th, 1974. Photo credit: Nikki Bramley

[Episcopal News Service] The feature-length documentary “The Philadelphia Eleven,” about the trailblazers who became the first women to be ordained priests in The Episcopal Church, has been screened at churches across the United States since its premiere in September. This month, the filmmakers are celebrating the movie’s nationwide theatrical release.

Seven theatrical screenings are scheduled for 7 or 7:15 p.m. local time May 14 in seven different cities:

  • Ann Arbor, Michigan; presented by the Diocese of Michigan.
  • Atlanta, Georgia; presented by St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Atlanta.
  • Austin, Texas; presented by Church of the Good Shepherd.
  • Minneapolis, Minnesota; presented by the Diocese of Minnesota.
  • Portland, Maine; presented by the Diocese of Maine.
  • Salt Lake City, Utah; presented by the Diocese of Utah.
  • Syracuse, New York; presented by the Diocese of Central New York.

Each of the seven screenings will be followed by panel discussions with Episcopal clergy. A previous screening was held May 2 in Memphis, Tennessee. Additional screenings are scheduled for May 21 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Scottsdale, Arizona; Silver Spring, Maryland, and New York City; and June 5 in Stamford, Connecticut. Full details and ticket links can be found on the film’s website.

In 1974, no canon specifically forbade women from becoming priests in The Episcopal Church, but to that point diocesan standing committees and bishops 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 on July 29, 1974, 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.”

Margo Guernsey is director and producer of the documentary, with co-producer Nikki Bramley. 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.

The movie’s premiere was held last September at Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, the church where those first 11 women were ordained nearly 50 years ago.