Garland Pollard reports for the Diocese of Southwest Florida:
Rogers Sanders Harris, whose call to Southwest Florida came at a critical time for the diocese, died on Nov. 15, 2017 in South Carolina. His predecessor, the Rt. Rev. Emerson Paul Haynes, had served a 13-year episcopate and died while in office in 1988, which left the diocese without a bishop.
“He just came at a very difficult time,” said the Rt. Rev. Barry Howe, the current assisting bishop of the diocese and, during Harris’ time, dean of the Cathedral Church of St. Peter. “He took a very difficult situation, and made the best of it he could.”
Howe recalls that when Harris arrived, the issues of women’s ordination were left unresolved, and formal plans to elect a bishop coadjutor (a bishop with the right of succession) were never completed. The Standing Committee instead became the Ecclesiastical Authority and several retired bishops assisted during that period, but were never actual administrators. Important decisions were just deferred.
Bishop Harris was invested as Diocesan on September 9, 1989, at the Cathedral. Joan Kline served on the search committee for Bishop Harris, and attended General Conventions with him, and his wife Anne, and recalls having a good relationship with them. “I thought that he was the kind of Bishop that went by the book,” reflected Kline, who said that the previous bishop, Emerson Paul Haynes, was in some ways more hands off. “That didn’t always make him popular with the clergy,” said Kline.
It was during Bishop Harris’ tenure that the diocese first ordained female priests. When the diocese was in the selection period for bishop, Kline recalls that the issue of the ordination of women was central, as Southwest Florida was one of seven outlier dioceses in the Episcopal Church that were not ordaining women, and the previous Bishop Haynes had not ordained women.
The decision to go forward with women’s ordination came fairly quickly, as it had been clear from the time of the election that Bishop Harris would be supportive of the idea. To resolve the issue and many other simmering problems, he arranged a meeting, recalls Bishop Howe. “He called together all the clergy who were not happy, and that was not hard …. The hardness and negativity was all about women, and it had nothing else in common.”
Harris ended up sending Sharon Lewis to seminary; other female priests in the diocese, such as the Rev. Tonya Vonnegut Beck, were licensed. The first woman he ordained was the Rev. Carol Schwenke, who was a then a deacon at Holy Innocents, Valrico. Schwenke said that she was at first a bit intimidated by him, thinking he was strict and standoffish, but that was just because she says she didn’t understand his personality. Later on, every time she saw the Harrises, she would get a hug from them both. “I remember that he went by the book,” said Schwenke, who said that she believed he thought of himself more an interim bishop, one who would “bring the diocese up with the rest of the church.”
“I always felt deeply encouraged by the friendship and understanding of the life of the Diocese of Southwest Florida and our relationship as colleagues in the House of Bishops,” said the current bishop of the Diocese of Southwest Florida, Dabney Smith. “I was pleased for his relationship with the diocese, and pray for his grand entrance into heaven.”
In his first convention address to the diocese on Oct. 13, 1989, Bishop Harris reminded the gathering that Jesus Christ was head of the church. “We are here to do his will, to serve his mission. So I come to be the leader of this diocese, not the head of it.”