Inspiring film screened in Toronto

A poster for The Philadelphia Eleven shows some of the first female priests in the Episcopal Church.
Some of the first female priests in The Episcopal Church are shown in this image from the documentary.
 on April 2, 2024

Doc tells story of daring women who stood for ordination in U.S.

On July 29, 1974, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the first 11 women were ordained priests in The Episcopal Church (TEC). Their journey is the subject of a new documentary that was screened at the St. James Cathedral Centre on Feb. 3.

The screening was organized by the diocese and St. John the Baptist, Norway. The Rev. Molly Finlay, incumbent of St. John’s, says she first encountered the film at last year’s Episcopal Parishes Network conference in Jacksonville, Florida, where the producers held a Q&A and showed the trailer.

“While I was watching (the trailer), I found myself getting goosebumps,” she says. “I thought, you know, even though it’s not Canadian, it still speaks to the issues that women faced when pursuing ordination in the Anglican Church of Canada.”

Six months later, she got an email from the production company’s website, which listed multiple screenings of The Philadelphia Eleven throughout the U.S. She immediately thought of parishioners at St. John’s and around the diocese who would be interested in having a screening here. She contacted Bishop Kevin Robertson about hosting it at the cathedral’s larger event space and asked him to give an introduction. She also invited Archbishop Linda Nicholls, the first woman to serve as Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, to give a Q&A afterward, to which she enthusiastically agreed.

The documentary, directed and produced by Margo Guensey and co-produced by Nikki Bramley, tells the story of the daring women who stood for ordination a whole two years before TEC’s General Convention would formally approve it. While there was never any canonical reason why women couldn’t be ordained, it was simply something that bishops and dioceses refused to do – that is, until 1974 and again in Washington, D.C. in 1975, and finally with the canonical cover of a resolution passed at General Convention in September 1976.

The film centres on the women themselves, notably the Rev. Merrill Bittner, the Rev. Alison Cheek and the Rev. Dr. Carter Heyward, through present-day interviews and archival footage. This is effective, drawing the audience into the personal dimension of the ordinands’ journeys to the priesthood and their subsequent joys and struggles. The story is supplemented by the responses of the male clergy who supported or opposed them, their underlying attitudes towards women in leadership and the theological challenge and opportunities posed by women’s ordination. General Convention’s proceedings serve merely as structural scaffolding: the 1976 resolution comes anti-climactically.

The film argues that change in the Church usually occurs from the ground up, emerging from the convictions of those on the margins who courageously follow God’s call despite the uphill battle. Structures, canons and norms mainly respond to changes already underway; they can foster those changes, or stifle them, but they can rarely instigate them. The documentary underlines this point by showing how the push for women’s ordination in TEC was intimately connected to both Black liberation and LGBTQ+ equality in American Christianity. All three of these movements have similar yet distinct journeys of controversy, struggle and acceptance.

Archbishop Nicholls, who was ordained a priest in 1985, reflected in an interview a few days before the screening that “the story of the Philadelphia Eleven and their courage in persisting through difficult circumstances” enabled a normalization of women as priests and bishops in much of the Anglican Communion. She fondly recalls the recent benchmark of 100 women participating at the 2022 Lambeth Conference as bishops alongside their male counterparts.

Ms. Finlay, who was ordained in 2017, is inspired by the Philadelphia Eleven and the subsequent normalization of women priests. “It makes me incredibly grateful to be standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before me,” she says. “It renews my own sense of gratitude for the hard work that was done, so that I could step into this vocation without the obstacles that my siblings in the faith experienced in earlier decades.”

She’s committed to a more diverse priesthood and hopes that the Philadelphia Eleven documentary “sparks a discussion of other forms of exclusion.” She asserts that “this film is not just for women. It’s about all the other people who are left out of the Church who feel they don’t have a voice in the life of the Church, and it’s really our job now to raise up those voices from the margins.”

She says that to do this job, leaders need to intentionally accompany people in marginalized groups as they discern vocations. She cites the Peter Stream in the Church of England’s Diocese of London, which helps those who “maybe aren’t the usual suspects, maybe street involved, maybe lower income demographics” to hear a potential call to ministry. Structures and processes do have an important role in fostering change.

Archbishop Nicholls points to both progress and ongoing work to ensure that the priestly discernment process is open to LGBTQ+ folks.

Bishop Robertson, in his introductory comments at the screening, identified with the struggle of the Philadelphia Eleven. Many of them, like him, identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community.

“I give thanks for those women who have continued to expand our understanding of diversity and inclusion for those of us who are marginalized, perhaps in different ways,” he said. “We are all part of a similar struggle. And I want to honour that today too, within our beloved Church.”

The Primate raised another area of struggle: “We still desperately need to deal with the question of racism in our Church, and why the leadership of our Church does not look like the diversity that’s in our pews.”

For Ms. Finlay, the Philadelphia Eleven documentary, and its focus on the women’s own lives, brings us back to the beginning: discerners need to listen to God’s voice within themselves, and then courageously follow that voice, she says. “I hope that (the film) is inspiring to people who might be considering a call to be brave, and to step forward.”


Female clergy enrich Church, says Primate

The screening of a moving documentary about the first women ordained priests in The Episcopal Church provided an occasion for Archbishop Linda Nicholls to tell the Canadian story, too. General Synod passed second reading of the canon change in June 1975, and on Nov. 30, 1976, the first six women were ordained at four different services in Ontario and British Columbia.

The early experience of those first women was not smooth sailing.

They “were heckled when they preached, they were refused a handshake at the door, they were harassed,” Archbishop Nicholls says. Even though much of the more overt forms of mistreatment had subsided by the time she was ordained in 1986, “there were still vestiges, (such as) an undercurrent of inappropriate jokes in clericus meetings.”

Alongside these microaggressions, ordained women faced organizational hurdles. For example, the Church struggled to navigate the newfound situation of clergy balancing their leadership roles with the responsibilities of motherhood. “Our canons did not appropriately address what it would take to have maternity leave,” she says.

She recalls the deeper questions and opportunities that the Church was now opened to as well. “What would (priests as mothers) mean for a parish? How is that both a gift and a promise?”

She emphasizes this gift and promise, and the progress made because of it.

One such gift: a renewed understanding of clergy wellness, boundaries and family life. According to Archbishop Nicholls, that newfound tension between ministry and motherhood prompts a wider and ongoing conversation – which includes male clergy, unmarried and childless clergy, and the whole Church – about the need for priests to have healthy, responsible and fully developed private and spiritual lives if they are to succeed in ministry.

She affirms that “there are some differences (between women and men in leadership) that come from our socialization, from the way in which we have a place in society and in the family. I think women tend – not exclusively – but tend to work collaboratively and seek mutual support and community.” She says this collaborative culture marks the leadership of female clergy, and that male clergy and the whole Church are learning to follow suit.

She sees these changes as clear signs of God’s hand at work. “Right from the beginning there has been the question of, is this a movement of the Holy Spirit? Or is it a bowing to the zeitgeist, to the social atmosphere around women in the workplace?” she recalls. “My position has always been that if this is of God, that this has been an enriching time and experience for the Church.”

She also knows that this enriching time and experience will continue as female clergy lead by example. She recalls how the discernment of her own vocation got a boost from seeing a newly ordained Victoria Matthews, who would go on to be the first woman in Canada to serve as a suffragan and then diocesan bishop, serve as the curate at a neighbouring parish.

She now witnesses the nationwide impact of her primatial election in 2019. “I have heard from many people how proud they are that our Church has a woman as the Primate,” she says. “They’re really glad to point their daughters to me in the role as Primate and say, ‘Look, this is possible.’”


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