A woman’s right to lead Christian churches made headlines earlier this summer with the Southern Baptist Convention banning women from the most senior leadership roles. They are fighting a battle that some women started 50 years ago. In contrast, earlier this year the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey consecrated its first woman bishop, the Rt. Rev. Sally French, the first person in the Anglican Communion to be ordained deacon, priest, and bishop by women.
In 1974, a group of 11 women and their supporters organized their ordination to become Episcopal priests in an act of civil disobedience. This story is told in a compelling new documentary The Philadelphia Eleven.
This film tells a story that echoes today as women continue this fight for the pulpit. It explores the lives of these remarkable women who succeeded in transforming an age-old institution when they took a stand despite the threats to their personal safety and the risk of rejection by the church they loved. These women are an inspiration for a generation of women in the ministry, and a clarion call for the entire Christian Church.
The Reverend Nancy H. Wittig is one of the Philadelphia Eleven featured in the movie. “It’s amazing that women are still fighting for rights in the church, and continuing to feel blowback, similar to what we experienced 49 years ago,” she reflected, and then went on to comment, “we are proud of the changes we have accomplished through our priesthood and the ordinations in Philadelphia.”
The film’s director, Margo Guernsey, is not Episcopalian. She reminds us “this is a story for all of us. It is about how to break down barriers with grace and be true to oneself in the process. This story reveals ways in which voices that are inconvenient, are often buried. It also provides a vision for what a just and inclusive community looks like in practice.”
St. John’s Episcopal Church in Somerville is hosting a free screening of the film on Dec. 10 at 2:00 p.m. in the parish hall. The event will feature a public discussion of the film and its implications.