The Church of the Advocate – A History

The Church of the Advocate at 18th and Diamond Streets in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was built as a memorial to George W. South (1799-1884), a wealthy merchant and a Philadelphia County Treasurer. Designed by Charles M. Burns (1838-1922), the noted architect, in the style of the great European cathedrals, the Church of the Advocate stands as a magnificent example of Ecclesiological design in America.

Beyond its architectural significance, the Church of the Advocate has played a major role in American social history. From it inception, the founders embraced the Free Church principle and abolished the traditional renting of pews - a radical stance of a century ago.

The original congregation reflected the population of the community and was composed of white, well-to-do Episcopalians. During the 1950's the church became integrated as the neighborhood changed from being predominately white to one where the majority are African-American. The factories which had given Philadelphia a solid economic foundation and employed North Philadelphia's labor force fled the city, leaving the community bereft of employment opportunities and setting the stage for the rapid, destructive social changes that followed. In response to these critical changes, the Diocese of Pennsylvania realized that an effective ministry among African-Americans was essential if the Episcopal Church was to survive in the inner city and that the Diocese must support that ministry financially.

The Civil Rights Movement was sweeping the country when the Rt. Rev. J. Gillespie Armstrong appointed the Rev. Paul M. Washington as Rector of the Church of the Advocate in 1962. For the next twenty-five years, Fr. Washington led the Advocate to national and international prominence in the struggle for civil rights and human dignity. The church also carried out a pastoral ministry in the community, providing social services and outreach programs. In June, 1989, the Rev. Isaac J. Miller was installed as Rector. He continues the Advocate tradition of social service and advocacy on behalf of justice.

During the turbulent 1960's and 1970's the Advocate provided hospitality and a meeting place for controversial groups who could find no other place to raise their voices and speak their minds. In 1968 the Third Annual National Conference on Black Power was held at the church, and in 1970 the church was the site of the Black Panther Convention which was attended by 5000 people. These historic events took place peacefully and without violence - a rare occurrence in those troubled years.

Those seeking justice are not limited by color, race, gender or class. When a group of white, middle-class women sought ordination into the Episcopal priesthood, they came to the Church of the Advocate as a place that knew the meaning of discrimination and prejudice. At that time the Episcopal Church still held to the tradition of a male priesthood, although legal advocates for women claimed there was no canon that prohibited women priests. The Advocate welcomed the women in spite of the risk faced as an Aided Parish of the Diocese. Financial support could be withdrawn if the Diocese objected to the action taken by the Rector and the church.

At Sunday services on July 21, the Sunday before the ordinations were to take place, the congregation of the Church of the Advocate approved the statement: "The goals of the Advocate have always been to move towards one world, one people, and one love concept; we are not afraid to take any step or measure that will make that concept a reality."

On July 29, 1974 the ordination of the first eleven women to the Episcopal priesthood took place at the Church of the Advocate. The Bishop of Pennsylvania, the Rt. Rev. Lyman Ogilby, responded generously to the event with only a mild reprimand to the Rector. Two years later the national church officially approved women as Episcopal priests.

Not all events which took place at the Advocate met with controversy. For 63 years, from 1911 until 1974, the Church of the Advocate was the site chosen for the installation of six bishops as the Bishop of Pennsylvania. In 1911, the Rt. Rev. Philip Mercer Rhinelander was installed as the Diocesan Bishop, followed by the Rt. Rev. Francis Marion Taitt in 1929, The Rt. Rev. Oliver J. Hart in 1942, The Rt. Rev. J. Gillespie Armstrong in 1949, The Rt. Rev. Robert L. DeWitt in 1964 and The Rt. Rev. Lyman J. Ogilby in 1974.

The first woman to be consecrated as a bishop in the Episcopal Church, Barbara C. Harris, was a member of the Advocate and was ordained priest at the church in October, 1980. Ms. Harris was the Rector's Warden in 1974 and served as crucifer at the historic ordinations of the first women priests that year. She was the Interim Rector when she was elected Bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of Massachusetts in 1988.