25 years after consecration of Bishop Barbara C. Harris

By Tracy Sukraw
Posted Feb 21, 2014

[Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts] The world was watching on Feb. 11, 1989, when Barbara C. Harris was consecrated before a congregation of nearly 8,000 at Hynes Auditorium in Boston, thus becoming the worldwide Anglican Communion’s first female bishop.

The historic and, at the time, controversial nature of that event signalled for many a hoped-for sea change toward church leadership that looks more like the church’s actual membership, a majority of which is women.

Twenty five years later, however, the reality is more ripple effect than tidal wave as women are still only gradually making their way into the episcopacy; communionwide, the church is still counting its firsts.

Tracy J. SukrawBishop Harris at the 25th anniversary celebration.

Bishop Harris at the 25th anniversary celebration. Photo: Tracy Sukraw

Roughly half of the Anglican Communion’s 38 member churches, or provinces, allow women to be ordained bishops.  Sarah Macneal was elected the first female diocesan bishop in Australia last November, and Ellinah Wamukoya of Swaziland, consecrated in November 2012, is Africa’s first.

New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, South India and the extra-provincial Anglican church in Cuba have also elected and consecrated women as bishops.  About a dozen others have cleared the way canonically (Wales most recently) but have yet to elect and consecrate a woman.

The Church of England, the communion’s mother church, itself still does not allow for women to become bishops, but its General Synod on Feb. 11–the 25th anniversary of Barbara Harris’s consecration–approved a measure that, if accepted by a majority of its dioceses and then Parliament, could enable women to become bishops in England this year.

Closer to home, just 20 of the 239 bishops consecrated in the Episcopal Church since Barbara Harris in 1989 are women, most recently Anne Hodges-Copple, the bishop suffragan, or assisting bishop, of North Carolina, last year.

Thirteen of them are currently among the 139 active members of the church’s House of Bishops, according to numbers provided in January by the Office of the Presiding Bishop.  (When retired bishops are counted, there are 19 women out of a total of 291 currently in the House of Bishops.)  One, Katharine Jefferts Schori, is presiding bishop and primate of the province–another Anglican Communion first for a woman.  Only three are active diocesan bishops: Mariann Budde in the Diocese of Washington (D.C.), Mary Gray-Reeves in the Diocese of El Camino Real in California and Catherine Waynick in the Diocese of Indianapolis.

“What the numbers say to us is that we haven’t broken through the unconscious assumption  that bishops will be men,” said Dr. Fredrica Harris Thompsett in a phone interview.  She is the Mary Wolfe Professor Emerita of Historical Theology at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge and a historian who has written extensively on women’s roles in the church.

“There’s a hesitancy to see this as a continuation of sexism, and an assumption that we’ve dealt with sexism in the church because women are ordained.  But if women are the majority of the church and 40 percent of its ordained leadership, but only 20 of its bishops, then those are assumptions that should be rigorously and structurally challenged.”

The church’s numbers mirror those for women in corporate America.  Catalyst, a nonprofit devoted to women and business, reported at the end of 2013 that, for the eighth year in a row, there was no significant change in the number of women on corporate boards (16.9 percent of board seats in 2013 compared to 16.6 percent the previous year) or in executive officer positions (14.6 percent last year versus 14.3 percent in 2012).

In the church, it’s not an issue of there not being qualified women, Thompsett said, citing women currently serving as cathedral and seminary deans and in leadership at the diocesan level.  “My historical work tells me that unexamined systems perpetuate themselves, and when there is a lag like this, it takes investigation and structural support to move things forward.”

The Rt. Rev. Gayle E. Harris, elected bishop suffragan in Massachusetts 11 years ago, said in an interview that what’s notable to her about the number of women in the episcopate 25 years after Barbara Harris’s consecration is not only that there are so few women serving as diocesan bishops, but also that so few women of color have been elected–out of relatively few candidates of color, male and female.  She and Barbara Harris, together with Carol Gallagher, are the only three.

Tracy J. SukrawBishop Gayle Harris, Bishop Barbara Harris and Bishop Carol Gallagher at General Convention in 2012

Bishop Gayle Harris, Bishop Barbara Harris and Bishop Carol Gallagher at General Convention in 2012. Photo: Tracy Sukraw.

“To me it’s striking that the first woman elected bishop was a black woman, and we’ve stepped back from that bold path, in my opinion.  Barbara Harris was no token–she was the most able and fit person for that role.  Where we’re at now reflects the fact that the color line is still an operating principle in our church and in our society, and that racism and sexism walk hand in hand,” she said.

In a Feb. 10 phone interview, Bishop Barbara Harris herself conveyed ambivalence about the progress and lack thereof that the numbers convey.  She took a broad view, sharing the hope that 25 years from now the Episcopal Church in general will look “more like our total society looks, with all kinds and conditions of people being actively involved.”

Now 83, she volunteers about a day a week in the offices of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in downtown Boston and keeps up an active schedule of travel and speaking engagements nationwide and abroad.  Preaching the Gospel is where her ministry is focused now, she says.  “I’m just grateful that I’ve had this opportunity to serve, in my lay ministry, which was active, and in all three orders of ordained ministry, as deacon, priest and bishop,” she said.

The full interview follows.

David ZadigBishop Harris at her consecration in 1989.

Bishop Harris at her consecration in 1989. Photo: David Zadig

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think back to your consecration service in 1989?
Well, I remember that I was overwhelmed by the crowd of people when I came into the auditorium in the procession.  Then as the procession that I was in came down the aisle, the choir from St. Paul’s AME Church was singing “In That Great Getting’ Up Mornin’” and then they segued into “Ride on King Jesus, No Man’s Gonna Hinder Me.”  They didn’t know exactly when I was coming in, but anyhow, that’s how it happened.  That was breathtaking.

Fast forward 25 years.  What do you think it’s notable to say about women in the episcopacy in 2014?
It is great to see that we have three women diocesan bishops.  It would be great if there were more—and not just because they are women but because of their call to leadership. Unfortunately, 25 years later, not enough women’s names are going forward in election processes.  It is good to see that there are women’s names coming up on slates of nominees and not just by petition.  In the recent election for suffragan bishop in North Carolina, for example, there were four women and one man on the ballot.  That’s the first time I’ve seen that happen.  And of course, in Los Angeles [in 2010] there were two, both of whom were elected as bishops suffragan.  That was unusual, too.

What kind of leadership does the church need right now?
I think the church needs imaginative bishops to lead dioceses, people who will think a little outside the box, who will dare to do things like Tom Shaw has done with initiatives for youth and young adults, for example, and with embarking on major fundraising initiatives to fund new and exciting ministries.  A little experimentation is in order, absolutely, and a little courage, too.

You are often called a courageous person.  Can you say a little more about courage in leadership?
I think you have to have the courage of your convictions and be willing to speak them, both in preaching and in your interactions with people.  I have tried to make that a hallmark of my ministry, speaking the truth in love.  And I think that people have come to expect that of me and have been accepting of it.

What have you been preaching about lately?
I certainly have been talking about women in lay and ordained ministry, and I continue to preach about justice issues and serving and caring for the poor and the disadvantaged.  They are major themes with me.  I hate that expression “What would Jesus do?” but, indeed, that is what Jesus would do.  And I think that’s what we’re called to do as followers after Christ.

What do you think the church will look like 25 years from now?
I would hope that 25 years from now the church would look a lot more like our total society looks, with all kinds and conditions of people being actively involved in the life of the church.  And I certainly would hope that there would be a lot of young people involved in leadership roles.  I would hope that that would be true sooner than 25 years from now.  And, I would hope that we might recapture some of that sense of missionary urgency, of small groups of people actively working and doing things with a sense of urgency of drawing others in.  I think that’s absolutely imperative.  We can’t continue to be bogged down in structures that do not allow us to be agile in ministry.

What do you most like to do at this stage in your ministry?
I think that I have been given something of a gift for preaching, and I still enjoy that aspect of ministry.

How do you go about preparing to preach?
I think about the group to whom I will be speaking and what they might need to hear.

Need to hear rather than want to hear?
Exactly.  You got it.  Then I try to think about what I can say that is faithful to the Gospel as I understand it, and how that aligns with what we face in our present day society.  I’m a great believer that some of the Gospel is captured most effectively in poetry and song, and so I always try to think of and make reference to hymns that relate to what I’m preaching about.

You must be looking forward to hearing the St. Paul’s AME Choir again at the service honoring your anniversary.
I am.  They’re going to sing a thing they sang at the consecration, which is very special to me.  It’s a hymn called “Close to Thee.”  I think it captures what I have hoped my life and ministry have represented, and it goes:  “Thou my everlasting portion, More than friend or life to me, all along my pilgrim journey, Savior, let me walk with thee.”  There is a second verse that says:  “Not for ease or worldly pleasure, nor for fame my prayer shall be; gladly will I toil and suffer, only let me walk with thee.”  Then the chorus:  “All along this Christian journey, savior let me walk with thee.”  That’s one of my real favorites.

I’m just grateful that I’ve had this opportunity to serve, in my lay ministry, which was active, and in all three orders of ordained ministry, as deacon, priest and bishop.

View photos from Bishop Barbara C. Harris’s consecration and the past 25 years here, and photos from the Feb. 16 anniversary celebration here.


Comments (5)

  1. martha knight says:

    Thanksgiving and blessing for the episcopate of Bishop Barbara Harris. May more women continue to persevere.

  2. Greg Jacobs says:

    Barbara Harris has been a “drum major” for justice and equality in a world and in a church that often prefers the beat (conformity, silence, hypocrisy) of a different drummer. She has never wavered from telling the unvarnished truth and from holding our beloved Episcopal Church accountable for its acts of omission as well as its acts of commission. God’s continued blessings, Barbara, on you and on your ministry.

  3. The Rev. Peter W Peters Ph.D. says:

    Barbara brought to her episcopal role wisdom hewed in the hard work of living justly, humor at the folly of humankind, and joy in the God who never abandons us. Thanks be to God for this servant and pathfinder.

  4. George Waite says:

    Irrelevant church, footnote of a woman.
    Nothing to see here; mainline churches are the bow of religion heading for the bottom of the ocean.

  5. Nan Ross says:

    My first day on the job as a journalist working for an Episcopal diocese was the day before Barbara Harris was ordained and consecrated a bishop of the Episcopal Church. I knew very little about her then, only that my own diocese (Arizona) did not support her ordination. Over the 25 years of working for and serving in the church, I’ve seen a lot of progress, but we have stalled a bit — just like our society. There’s so much further to go. We have to be intentional about identifying and calling women to serve as bishops, priests and deacons — and CEOs, board members and senators. This is a wonderful article. Kudos and gratitude to Tracy Sukraw for her careful research and skilled writing.

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