The Globe Docs Film Festival took place from October 25th through the 29th, and I attended a screening of one of the documentaries at the legendary Brattle Theater in Cambridge. The Philadelphia 11 is a documentary film about the first women ordained as priests in the Episcopal Church in 1974 and the controversy that surrounded their priesthood. The film was directed by Margo Guernsey who joined a panel after the screening to discuss the project and answer a few questions. The film was co-presented with the Independent Film Festival Boston and the Boston Globe Docs staff.
The Philadelphia 11 used archival footage from the 70’s and beyond, as well as interviews with some of the priests, to relay the story of the tumultuous time in Episcopal Church history and places the story into the context of the broader American history of civil disobedience at that time. The filmmakers sat down with several of the remaining 11 priests for interviews about what they remember from their ordination. They spoke of the death threats they received for daring to be ordained.
One of the priests mentioned that the procession was kept short during the ordination mass to keep opportunities for violence to a minimum. She described how at one point during the Mass there was a loud bang and the candidates for ordination began checking each other’s vestments for blood to see if anyone had been shot. The threat of violence was real and one of the priests spoke about how she didn’t realize how much danger they were in at the time; how angry people were about the prospect of female priests; it wasn’t until afterward that she got word of the magnitude of the violent threats.
What is wild is that several of the arguments that were being made 50 years ago during the film as to why women were not fit to be priests are still repeated in certain pockets of the Episcopal Church to this day. In the film, the pernicious Francis Swinford said you wouldn’t use grape juice and cookies as the elements for communion, therefore women can’t be priests because they are “made from the wrong stuff.” I’ve heard that same argument made unironically this century by a male priest using Mountain Dew and Doritos as the illustrative “wrong elements” of communion to illustrate how women physically don’t have what male priests have (a penis) and therefore can’t be a representation of Jesus at the altar.
What the documentary failed to mention is that there are churches within the Episcopal umbrella that to this day don’t allow women priests to celebrate Mass at their parishes. As an audience member pointed out during the Q&A, there are two such Episcopal churches in Boston. The panel’s response to this point was that “the fight continues.” That’s my biggest issue with the film, that it made it seem as if once the General Convention approved the female priests in 1976 that the fight was over, and women were suddenly equal across the Episcopal Church.
One such holdout place, the Church of the Advent in Boston, uses spiritual abuse tactics to keep the restless women (and a few men) in line. They shun people who agitate for women to be allowed to celebrate Mass at the altar and declare that the parish isn’t ready for female clergy. They remove the organizers from their ministries such as altar serving, flower guild, coffee hour, teaching church school, choir, reading, and community supper, and won’t allow them to serve.
They go to great lengths to prevent the pro-female priest parishioners from having a spot on the vestry or even being able to vote, illegally striking some from the voting rolls. They block them on all the church’s social media accounts so they can’t tag the church and air their complaints. The clergy, church leaders, and vestry members call the agitators out publicly on social media and in church-wide emails and accuse them of trying to split the church. Accuse them of being man-haters. I know this because it happened to me in the last couple of years as a former parishioner of The Advent.
I was driven out of the church along with many dear friends for very gently attempting to organize to have women priests be allowed to celebrate there, and for simply trying to open conversations on the topic in the parish. Several people at Advent took to wearing pins that said 1974 on them as a sort of silent protest during coffee hour and even the pins were promptly banned by clergy in a petty move.
There is no space at Advent for open conversation about the possibility of women celebrating in the year 2023. The Bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts refuses to step in and do anything about the parish’s break with Episcopal practice, he also refuses to step in and do anything about the spiritual abuse that is decimating the parish. Therefore, the abuse continues, and people continue to be hurt by the very place where they seek shelter and solace because they dare to question the status quo.
Advent is a place many of these “troublemakers” have attended for decades, where their families attended before them for generations. People have poured decades of their lives into this place. But it’s no longer a place of peace, but a place to be kicked around the same way the Philadelphia 11 and their supporters were kicked around 50 years ago. The prevailing attitude by those in power at Advent is “If you want women priests go somewhere else.”
During the Q&A Someone in the audience pointed out that the Episcopalians must do what they can to help the women in the Baptist church who are being prevented from becoming pastors, but I hope Episcopalians don’t forget those in their very own church who are being left behind and even kicked out of their home church as the Episcopal Church as a whole and the world move on in progress.
I appreciated how the film shone a light on the intersection between racism, misogyny, transphobia, and homophobia. It highlighted that the arguments people used against women priests often fell into those broader categories. The old “if we allow this, then what will be next?” panic that we still hear in certain circles from those who are threatened. Bishop Barbara Harris’ voice was a strong one in this film, it’s great that they were able to include her interviews before her death in 2020.
She spoke of her shock at being nominated for Suffragan Bishop of Massachusetts making her the first woman and the first woman of color to be voted into the office, opening the door for countless others. It’s worth noting that while Barbara Harris was a Suffragan Bishop for 13 years, she was never welcomed to celebrate a Mass at the Church of the Advent.
It’s good that this film is shining light on a story that many outside the Episcopal church have no history of and no concept about. Hopefully, it will bring some attention to the plight of the parishes that are still holding out on ordained women 50 years after the matter got settled in the broader church. There are screenings of this film taking place at churches, theaters, and libraries all over the country, but you can be sure one church that refuses to screen or even acknowledge the oh-so-controversial film, despite parishioners’ efforts, is Advent Boston.