By Kirk Petersen
It took three ballots to elect the next president of the House of Deputies, but only one ballot for the outcome to be apparent.
In a five-person race, Julia Ayala Harris of the Diocese of Oklahoma received 345 votes out of 792 cast on the first ballot, or 44 percent. Ryan Kusumoto of the Diocese of Hawaii was in second place with 295 votes, or 37 percent, with the other three candidates well behind. Harris prevailed on the third ballot with 417 votes, or 53 percent of the 791 votes cast.
Ayala Harris, 41, will become the first Latina, the second person of color, and the youngest person in recent memory to serve as president of the House of Deputies. Her term will begin the afternoon of July 11, when retiring President Gay Clark Jennings adjourns the convention by banging the gavel one last time, and hands it to Ayala Harris.
Jennings has said the decision of the 2018 General Convention to compensate the position meant that for the first time, the more-than-full-time job will be open to deputies who are neither retired nor independently wealthy. Ayala Harris is a full three decades younger than her predecessor, who is retiring at 71 after a decade of service in the role.
The president is compensated as an independent contractor, with no employee benefits, under a compromise reached in 2018. Compensation is set at the discretion of the Executive Council, on which Ayala Harris has served since 2015. Jennings’s compensation for 2021 was $223,166.
The election continues a 70-year tradition of the presidency rotating between lay and clergy. There is no canonical requirement for the rotation, but the House of Deputies seems to take it seriously. The two lay candidates together received 81 percent of the vote on the first ballot, with the remainder split among the three clergy candidates.
The last time the office did not alternate between orders was 1952, when the Rev. Theodore Wedel was elected to succeed the Very Rev. Claude Willard Sprouse. Sprouse died on the day he was reelected. The House of Deputies, being still in session, elected Wedel — so one could argue that it didn’t break the pattern, as a priest was elected to fill the unexpired term of a priest.
But look back from there and the pattern quickly falls apart. Sprouse’s predecessor, Owen Roberts, was the first lay president of the House of Deputies. (Roberts was elected in 1946, the year after he retired as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, which gave him some gravitas.) Before Roberts, the presidency was held by 14 white male priests. In 1976, sociology professor Charles Lawrence became the first, and thus far only, Black person to hold the office.
“I think that by the election of a young person of color, perhaps this could be the beginning of the church seeing leadership differently,” Ayala Harris told TLC after the election.
At a press briefing later, she described being introduced to the House of Bishops as the newly elected leader of the deputies, and said she was surprised and delighted to look around the room and see so many bishops she counts as friends. She was touched to learn that as the election was taking place, the bishops were praying for the wisdom and well-being of whoever was elected.
Ayala Harris brings an unconventional background to the role. She was born into a working-class, Roman Catholic family, with a European mother and a father who entered the country from Mexico as an undocumented immigrant.
She reports on her personal website that she gave birth to a boy at the age of 15, and placed him in an open adoption that continues today. She subsequently was sexually assaulted and stalked at a “prestigious Christian faith-based college” and the way she was treated by the administration drove her to seek a new type of church.
“I had a trusted professor and a classmate who both claimed to be Episcopalians and so I took a leap of faith one Sunday,” she wrote. “I walked into my first Episcopal church and I fell in love. When a female priest, which I had never experienced before, put the Communion wafer in my hand I knew I had been an Episcopalian my whole life. I found home.”
In 2005, at the age of 25, “my husband and I felt called to give away our belongings, like in Matthew 19:21, and move to South Sudan,” she wrote in her candidate profile. They served there for three years with the Mennonite Central Committee.
Tasked with developing a strategic plan for a consortium of religious organizations supporting Sudan, she did so through a participatory process with Western donors and local people in thatched-roof churches. “When I presented the written strategic plan for adoption, it already had the support of all of its stakeholders because they were involved in the process,” she wrote. “This is how I would lead as president of the House of Deputies.”
Ayala Harris is a full-time graduate student at the University of Oklahoma, seeking a doctorate in political science to add to the master’s degree in public administration she received from the same university.
She has worked in nonprofit administration for two decades, and lists on her website long volunteer experience at the parish, diocesan, and churchwide levels, and beyond in the Anglican Communion. (She once joked that “I work to support my Episcopal habit.”)
Among other things, she served on the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church, which in 2014 made sweeping recommendations for changing the governance of the church.
She and her husband, John, a city and regional planning professor, will celebrate 20 years of marriage in December. They have a teenage daughter, Isabella.
In her campaign materials, she smiles with her lips closed because she’s wearing braces. “They come off in 10 days,” she said with a laugh, when TLC asked to take a photo of the braces. She said at the time she announced that if she knew she was going to run, she probably would not have accepted the braces.
The other candidates were the Rev. Devon Anderson, Diocese of Minnesota; the Rev. Edwin Johnson, Diocese of Massachusetts; Ryan K. Kusumoto, Diocese of Hawaii; and The Very Rev. Ward H. Simpson, Diocese of South Dakota.
In two campaign forums, all of the candidates acquitted themselves well, and there was no obvious reason to believe that any of them would take the church in a sharply different direction. In the end, the result may have come down to who wanted it most and worked the hardest for it.
Ayala Harris announced her candidacy in March, just days after the deadline for declaring an interest in running — and before she knew she would clear the mandatory background check. It was more than two months before any other candidate announced. Her campaign materials dominated the handout tables at the back of the meeting hall.
Her most daunting immediate challenge will be to give the sermon at the July 11 Morning Prayer service. “I just have some vague ideas,” she said. Before the convention, “I started thinking, well, it’s presumptuous to have the sermon ready, so I can’t do that. But if I don’t have the sermon ready, then I’m not prepared.”
It’s safe to say she’ll be prepared by the time she gives the sermon.