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Abandon your plan to participate in a schismatic action—or not

Margo Guernsey’s “The Philadelphia Eleven” is a revelation.

July 29, 2024 marks the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church. “Abandon your plan to participate in a schismatic action” is the bad advice these brave women faithfully ignored. Thus, “The Philadelphia Eleven” tells the story of the first group of women who became Episcopal priests in 1974.”

By way of background, “The Philadelphia Eleven” Director Margo Guernsey grew up in Williamstown. She is also a graduate of UMass Amherst. But she is not Episcopalian. Nor am I. Like Guernsey, I believe this story is for everyone. Here’s why:

Graphic courtesy of Time Travel Productions LLC.

Patriarchy is unhealthy; it is a terminal diagnosis. Even now, the Southern Baptist Convention is gathering in Indianapolis for its annual meeting. Chief among the agenda items is debate about whether to allow female pastors to continue in lead roles. In other words, Southern Baptists may downgrade women back into associate roles. Talk about schismatic action.

The Philadelphia Eleven all felt called to religious life, specifically the priesthood. After serving in various roles as laypeople and deaconesses (a separate order than male deacons), it only makes sense this would occur. Call it aspirational spirituality. These women were mission driven then, as the remaining ones still are today.

But these trailblazing women were met with the usual resistance to change by knuckle-draggers like Anita Bryant (in a cringy clip), narrow-minded priests, and the broader culture (the clip from 1970’s “Diary of a Mad Housewife” is sick comedy gold).

Growing up Catholic, I can attest to the ill effects of narrow-minded priests. More importantly, I have had a lifelong front-row seat to religious patriarchy, homophobia, and important questions related to sexual ethics.

The ordination of women in religious faith traditions is a no-brainer. Organized religion must include all people equally. And as someone who also wanted to become a priest years ago, I know that excluding certain people from full participation in religious life is bad for retention and growth.

“The Philadelphia Eleven” has screened at over a dozen churches across the state since last fall. Audiences have also seen it at several theaters, film festivals, and libraries throughout Massachusetts. And starting next month, readers of The Berkshire Edge will be able to watch this excellent documentary on demand via Kinema.

Of course, being so partial to in-person events, I do hope a local venue will step up to join the filmmakers’ community screening tour. Information is available here. Either way, to watch “The Philadelphia Eleven” is truly to pray twice.

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