Harris, Rt. Rev. Barbara 1930—
Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris 1930—
“Our church is notorious for its short lived love affairs with one cause or another. Today it’s the homeless. Tomorrow they’ll be all but forgotten.” The Reverend Barbara Harris preached these words in the Washington, DC Cathedral a year after her elevation as the first black woman—and the first woman—ever to reach the level of bishop in the Episcopal Church. Harris has built a religious career based on the social aspects of the Gospel, her words reflecting the life of one who has not been afraid to heed Jesus Christ’s call to “deny yourself, take your cross and follow me.”
From a young age Harris felt a call to a life of service to Christ lived out through the established church. As a teenager she founded a youth group at St. Barnabas Church in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, a group that would go on to become the largest such organization in the city. She also found time to accompany the church choir on the piano. When she finished high school, she took some training in advertising and went to work in public relations, well aware that the Episcopalian priesthood was closed to women at that time.
Harris’s commitment to active ministry found an outlet with the St. Dismas Society of her area. St. Dismas is the legendary name given to the thief crucified next to Jesus who begged for forgiveness. He is often referred to as “The Good Thief.” The St. Dismas Society is an organization that visits and ministers to prisoners. Harris dedicated more and more of her time to this activity, becoming a board member of the Pennsylvania Prison Society and remaining in that grueling position for 15 years. Her colleague, the Reverend Paul Washington, has estimated that Harris was so zealous in this work that she spent enough time in the prisons over that period to have served two years of captivity herself. In the early 1960s she also spent a good deal of time working in the civil rights movement, spending her vacations registering voters in the South and marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
About the time that Harris was looking for new oppor
At a Glance…
Born in 1930 in Philadelphia, PA; daughter of Walter and Beatrice (maiden name, price) Harris. Education: Attended Charles Morris Price School of Advertising and Journalism, Villanova University, Urban Theology School of Sheffield, England; Hobart and William Smith College, SID, 1981.
Worked in community relations department of Sun Oil Company; served as president of Josephine Baker Associates; ordained priest in the Episcopal Church, 1980; St. Augustine of Hippo Parish, Norristown, PA; priest-in-charge, 1980-84; Church of Advocate, interim rector, 1984-88; Episcopal Church Publishing Company, executive director, 1984-89; Episcopalian Diocese of Massachusetts, suffragan bishop, 1989-. Former board member of Pennsylvania Prison Society.
Selected awards: Honorary degrees from General Theological Seminary, Episcopal Divinity School; and Amherst College, all 1989.
Addresses: Office—Suffragan Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, 138 Tremont St., Boston, MA 02111.
tunities to serve the church, support in the Episcopal denomination was swelling for the ordination of women as priests. In 1974, without the permission of the Episcopal hierarchy, 11 women accepted ordination from several retired bishops. The women were quickly dubbed the “Philadelphia 11.” Barbara Harris was not among the women, but she did take part in the ordination ceremony, carrying the crucifix that led the opening procession. In a hastily-convened session, the American bishops declared the ordinations invalid. Despite the hierarchy’s condemnation, four more women accepted ordination the next year in a Washington, DC church.
At the regularly scheduled Episcopal convention in 1976, the bishops decided to accept all the ordinations as valid and to allow women to be ordained from that time forward. At the same time they decided to open all ministries to women, including the seat of bishop. This was a momentous step, since in the 450-year history of the Episcopal Church no woman had ever served in that capacity. In fact, traditionalists believed that bishops were the successors of the original apostles, and that their authority was handed down in an unbroken chain of succession from those first followers of Christ. According to these traditionalists, since none of the original apostles were women, neither should any successive bishop be female. The protest over that point was rather mute at first, only becoming a firestorm later when Harris stood prepared to ascend to that rank.
Her days of controversy in the future, Harris was overjoyed at the opening of the Episcopal clerical ranks to women. She went back to school to study theology and to prepare to enter the priesthood. Her studies took her to several well-respected institutions, including Villanova University and Hobart and William Smith College in America, and the Urban Theological School of Sheffield, England. When she came back to the United States, she received her Doctor of Divinity degree and pursued additional studies at Amherst College.
Harris became a deacon in 1979 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1980. Almost immediately upon her ordination, she made a name for herself as a social activist. Besides parish work, she also took on the position of Executive Director of the Episcopal Church Publishing Company (ECPC), a liberal organization that published the controversial magazine The Witness. In her regular column in that publication, Harris took on such issues as bombers who targeted abortion clinics—whom she regarded as terrorists—and the politics of AIDS.
According to the rules of the American Episcopalian Church, after a person is elected bishop in her local diocese, she must be confirmed by more than half of the nation’s other bishops before being elevated to the chair. As soon as Harris was nominated in her diocese, traditionalists and other opponents launched an intense campaign to discredit her. The issue of her gender could not be held against her, since the denomination had opened the bishop’s position to women. However, Harris’s detractors attacked her non-traditional training and even her personal life despite the fact that she had demonstrated a deep commitment to her faith. The issue of her race was not raised, but it probably played some part in fomenting opposition to her sitting in the bishop’s chair.
Harris’s liberal social views were perhaps the strongest cause of the opposition she faced, but they also had proven popular with a large segment of the Episcopal church membership. Her supporters carried the day with force, and she immediately reached out to take a conciliatory position as she was confirmed as suffragan, or assisting, bishop of Massachusetts. Despite a few lingering protests outside the church when she was installed, rejoicing was widespread at her consecration as bishop. The celebration even exceeded the boundaries of the Episcopal Church: other denominations sent supporters to witness the occasion, and among the musicians was the Choir of the African Methodist Church which broke into the hymn, “Ride on King Jesus,” upon seeing Harris enter the church.
Since her election, Harris has striven to be a bishop for the whole church, avoiding a concentration on just issues of gender or race. An Ebony magazine reporter pointed out, however, that she remains an “international Symbol of the struggle for gender equality in the Church.” Her attitude remains remarkably free and open. Recently when a loyal church member bent over to kiss her ring, symbol of her authority as bishop, she pulled her hand back, saying “Forget the ring, Sweetie, kiss the bishop.”
Ebony, November 1995, p. 122.
Philadelphia Tribune, April 29, 1984, p. D6.
Washington Post, January 26, 1989, p. A4; September 11, 1989, p. E1.
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