Pioneering Female Bishop Barbara Harris Dies at 89

By Kirk Petersen

Episcopal Bishop Barbara C. Harris, the first woman consecrated a bishop in the Anglican Communion, has passed away at the age of 89.

Bishop Alan Gates of the Diocese of Massachusetts, where Harris served as bishop suffragan from 1989 to 2002, announced: “Bishop Barbara Harris died on the night of March 13, 2020, at Care Dimensions Hospice House in Lincoln following a hospitalization in Boston, faithfully attended throughout by dear friends and upheld by the prayers of so many.”

Harris, an African-American, devoted decades to supporting social justice causes.  According to the Episcopal Archives, she was with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in one of the 1965 marches on the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma, Alabama, and she served as crucifer at the unauthorized ordination of 11 women in Philadelphia in 1974.

The latter episode inspired Harris to pursue a career in ministry. She was ordained a deacon in 1979 and a priest in 1980, after completing an Anglican track in the theology department at Villanova University, a Roman Catholic institution outside Philadelphia. She subsequently served as a priest-in-charge, a prison chaplain, and as executive director of Episcopal Church Publishing Company (ECPC) from 1984-88.

(ECPC, which is apparently defunct, is not to be confused with the much-larger Church Publishing Incorporated, a century-old subsidiary of Church Pension Group. ECPC’s primary publication was The Witness, a progressive magazine that ceased publication in 2006 after almost 90 years.)

The Lambeth Conference, a meeting of Anglican provinces around the world that occurs roughly once every 10 years, determined in 1988 that the controversial issue of consecrating women as bishops should be left up to the individual provinces. Later that year, Harris was elected bishop suffragan (assisting bishop) of the Diocese of Massachusetts, and she was consecrated in 1989.

She served in that role until reaching the mandatory retirement age of 72 in 2002. She was succeeded as bishop suffragan by another black woman named Harris: Gayle E. Harris, no relation.  The first black female bishop diocesan was not elected until 2017, when Barbara Harris served as co-consecrator for the Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows as Bishop of Indianapolis.

At the 1979 General Convention, Barbara Harris, who was not yet a priest, met Michael Curry, who was in his first year as a priest. Despite a 25-year age difference, the two formed a friendship that has endured as they have climbed the ranks of the Episcopal Church.

In 2017, Church Publishing published In Conversation: Michael Curry and Barbara Harris, a collection of conversations edited by historian and former Executive Council member Fredrica Harris Thompsett. In 2018, the same imprint published Hallelujah, Anyhow! A Memoir, by Barbara Harris.

Throughout her career she had a salty and irreverent sense of humor. In November 2018, at a dinner celebrating the 30th anniversary of Harris’s consecration, she recalled when Bishop David Johnson called to tell her she had won the election for bishop suffragan:

“I said I humbly accept. And then I thought to myself, oh shit, that’s not what you’re supposed to say. You’re supposed to say I’ll pray about it and get back to you.”

After drawing more laughter with several more tales, she concluded her prepared remarks by saying: “Thank you for putting your trust in me, and thanks be to God for the opportunity to serve. It’s been a great ride.”

The Diocese of Massachusetts has published an extensive obituary here. The diocese said arrangements are pending for the public funeral service to be held at Washington National Cathedral and a private graveside service in Philadelphia, followed thereafter by a memorial service at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston.


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