Harris, Barbara (1930—)

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Harris, Barbara (1930—)

African-American suffragan bishop for the Massachusetts Diocese of the Episcopal Church who was the first woman bishop in the history of the Episcopal Church. Born Barbara Clementine Harris in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 12, 1930; one of three children, two girls and a boy, of Walter Harris (a steel-worker) and Beatrice (Price) Harris (a classical pianist); graduated from Philadelphia High School for Girls, 1948; attended Charles Morris Price School of Advertising and Journalism; attended Villanova University (1977–79); attended Hobart and William Smith College; married and divorced; no children.

Elected suffragan (assistant) bishop of the Massachusetts diocese of the Episcopal Church in 1988, Barbara Clementine Harris was the first woman ever admitted to the church's hierarchy. "There seem to be fresh winds blowing across the church," she preached around the time of her consecration. "Things thought to be impossible a short time ago are coming to be." Harris came to her position well into her middle years, having served as a corporate executive before entering the priesthood at age 50. "You don't set out in life to be a bishop," she told Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez in a 1998 interview for The Boston Globe. "At least I didn't." Harris' election to the episcopate was not without controversy. Church traditionalists objected to her gender, her divorced status, and her educational, theological, and ministerial qualifications. Furthermore, her outspoken articles in the liberal and highly controversial publication The Witness caused some to view her as a dangerous radical. But since taking office, Harris has silenced most of her detractors. She has also made good her promise to help broaden the scope of the church to meet the needs of more people, "including minorities, women, the incarcerated, the poor and other marginalized groups."

Barbara Harris was born in 1930 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, one of three children of an educated black family. She grew up in Germantown, where her father Walter Harris worked at a local steel mill and her mother Beatrice Price Harris , a classical pianist, served as the organist and choir director at the neighborhood church. A "cradle Episcopalian," Barbara was baptized and confirmed at St. Barnabas Church and, as a teenager, played the piano for church school and started the Young Adults Group, which at the time was one of the largest youth groups in the city.

After high school, Harris attended Philadelphia's Charles Morris Price School of Advertising and Journalism and, in 1949, took a job with a public-relations firm owned by African-Americans, working her way up to president. In 1968, she joined the Sun Oil Company, where she eventually became a public-relations executive. Continuing to live in Philadelphia, Harris remained active in the church, changing parishes as an adult to follow her religious mentor, the Reverend Paul Washington, who was also known for his political activism. Washington and Harris first worked together as youth counselors during the 1950s. "Church was not something to be played with for Barbara," he said. "She was never someone you could describe as a pew warmer. She was going to get in the midst of things." During the 1960s, Harris worked for African-American and women's rights; she marched with Martin Luther

King, Jr., and was a member of the Urban League, among other organizations.

When ordination became a possibility for women, Harris began studying for the ministry, although she says she struggled against her calling for some time, feeling she was not a worthy candidate. "A friend of mine who was a priest and is now a bishop said, 'God does not call those who are worthy; He makes worthy those who are called.' That helped." She was ordained to the diaconate in 1978 and ordained as a priest in 1980. Her eight years of parish experience included a thriving prison ministry. According to Washington, she spent enough time in prison to have nearly served a two-year sentence herself. Harris was interim rector at the Church of the Advocate when she was elected suffragan bishop.

Old friends insist that her lofty position has not changed Harris, who still favors fashionable clothes, high-heeled pumps, and long, painted fingernails. She still cooks, drives her BMW, employs someone to clean her house, and frequently displays her razor-sharp wit. Once, while addressing the church's continued reluctance to recognize the status of women priests and bishops, she remarked: "I could be a combination of the Virgin Mary, Lena Horne and Madame Curie and I would still get clobbered by some." While down-to-earth and accessible, Harris is nonetheless a woman with a mission. Myrtle Gordon , a national church consultant on aging and on clergy wives, characterizes Harris as "fiercely strong in her beliefs, loyalties, and concern for people's welfare in relation to the witness of the church; a dynamo in her strong conviction; one motivated and propelled to rectify situations caused by the church's failure to perceive and attend to people's needs."

The position of suffragan bishop is a permanent one, giving Harris the opportunity to prove her "worthiness" many times over. Since her election, four other Episcopal women have become bishops.


Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Time. Summer 1990, p. 60.

Valdes-Rodriguez, Alisa. "Former corporate executive answers a higher calling," in The Day [New London, CT]. August 22, 1998.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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