Q&A: Bishop Suffragan Barbara Harris says, ‘people have got to live boldly’

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Jun 12, 2017

Now-retired Massachusetts Bishop Suffragan Barbara Harris, left, helped ordain and consecrate the Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows on April 29 in Indianapolis when the latter became the first black female diocesan bishop in the Episcopal Church. Harris became the first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion in 1989. Photo: Miguel Hampton/Diocese of Indianapolis

[Episcopal News Service] Now-retired Massachusetts Bishop Suffragan Barbara Harris’ historic ordained ministry has always included advocacy for the full inclusion of all people in the life of the Episcopal Church.

Harris began making history with that advocacy as a lay woman on July 29, 1974. She lifted high the cross as crucifer during a service at Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, when 11 women deacons and four bishops broke the then-existing prohibition against the ordination of women to the priesthood of the Episcopal and Anglican Churches. (Women had been allowed to be deacons in the church since 1889. They were known as deaconesses until 1970.)

At General Convention in 1976, the Episcopal Church resolved the rebellion that began with the Philadelphia 11 and agreed to allow women to become priests and bishops.

Harris was ordained a deacon in 1979 and in October 1980, became a priest.

The former public relations executive made her largest mark on church history in 1989 when she became the first female bishop in the Anglican Communion. Her election and subsequent ordination and consecration prompted rejoicing but also brought obscenities, death threats and the departure of some Episcopalians from the Church.
In April, 28 years and 266 Episcopal Church bishops later, Harris helped ordain and consecrate the Rt. Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows as the first black female bishop diocesan in the Episcopal Church.

Now as the Church considers how to encourage a more diverse House of Bishops, Harris spoke to Episcopal News Service about why the house is still mostly male and white.

You were there April 29 when Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows made history by becoming the Episcopal Church’s first black female diocesan bishop. What did that mean to you?

I thought it represented a milestone in the Church, particularly for black women. One of the things that impressed me was the strong presence of black women clergy from around the country who were there to support and celebrate on that occasion. I was very moved by the whole day, that whole weekend.

Bishop Barbara Harris

Age: 87 (on June 12, 2017)
Born: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Education: Attended Villanova University and the Urban Theology Unit in Sheffield, England, and also graduated from the Pennsylvania Foundation for Pastoral Counseling.
Work and activism: Harris worked in public relations before ordination and was active in the civil rights movement, including the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. From 1980-84, she was priest-in-charge at St. Augustine of Hippo Church, Morristown, Pennsylvania. She was also a prison chaplain. In 1984, she became executive director of Episcopal Church Publishing Co., publisher of The Witness, which advocated peace and justice ministries in the Church. She was an associate at Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, which sponsored her for ordination, from 1984 until 1988 when she was appointed interim-in-charge.

During your nearly 38 years of ordained ministry, what sort of changes have you seen in Episcopalians’ attitudes toward women and people of color in church leadership positions?

Certainly, there has been some change with the election and consecration of several women, including just three black women, as bishops. I have regretted that more women have not been elected as bishops, but I think some of that is that some women are reluctant to offer themselves in the process of election.

Why do you think that is?

I think there is still some resistance to women in the episcopate. I do not think that the Church is as open as people might think it is.

Who ought to be responsible for changing those attitudes?

I think it lies with all of us in the Church to be more open to women and to gay and lesbian people, to people of color. I don’t think this Church is as open sexually and racially as people tend to think it is.

What should dioceses consider when searching for and nominating candidates for bishop?

When they begin the search process and form a search committee, and develop their profiles and criteria for the office, they ought to expand their thinking about the role and what kind of person with what kind of experience should be considered. Usually a search committee has a consultant, and I think the people who serve as consultants to search committees ought to encourage a broadening of perspective on the profile.

How should the laity and clergy who elect bishops discern their choice?

They don’t really discern their choice until the walkabouts occur. They need to be exposed a broad spectrum of candidates or nominees.

What advice do you have for women and people of color about discerning a call to the episcopacy?

I think people need to examine themselves very carefully and be open to a call to a broader dimension of ministry as represented by the episcopacy. I think a lot of women and people of color are reluctant to do that. Historical rejection has a large part to play in that. People conclude: “Why should I put myself through that process that isn’t going to lead to anything?” When I was asked to allow my name to go into the process here in Massachusetts, I said to myself, well, nothing will come of this but people ought to at least have the opportunity to consider it. Particularly as I did the walkabouts, which we then called “the dog-and-pony show,” I said to myself, I am never going to see these people again in life so I might as well say exactly what is on my mind. I did, and look what it got me. People said to me after the election: “You were the nominee who gave us honest answers and did not tell us what you thought we wanted to hear.”

Do people of color and women and LGBT folks get nominated as tokens so that dioceses can check off a box labeled “diversity”?

I think that happens a lot. [That makes a decision to participate in a particular election harder.] People don’t want to allow their names to go forward in a process because they may be asked to allow their name to go forward someplace else, and if you participate in too many episcopal elections without being elected, then you become kind of soiled goods. People have a tendency to say: “Oh, well, she’s been in three episcopal elections and didn’t make it.” I think people need to look very carefully at the diocese in which they may be asked to let their name be considered, and if it looks totally hopeless, then, given the makeup of the diocese and their operation — not just their history but their current focus — people need to consider that very carefully. Search committees also have to be aware of the climate of their dioceses.

Now-retired Massachusetts Bishop Suffragan Barbara Harris, lower right, stands next to Archbishop Desmond Tutu in a window in the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that honors black saints and black bishops past and present. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

You did not have a quiet episcopacy, at least at the start when you became a new focal point of the debate about women’s ordination, especially as bishops. If you had the choice to go back, and knowing what you know now, would you still do it?

I think I might have on the same basis that I made the decision back then that they ought to at least have the opportunity to consider it, whether it goes anyplace or not. I think I would make the same decision. I think it was the right decision despite some of the ugliness associated with the outcome. All in all, it’s been a good ministry for me. I’m editing the manuscript for a book I am doing. I open each chapter with a verse either from a hymn or spiritual. The last chapter will open with a gospel hymn: “I don’t feel no ways tired. I’ve come too far from where I started from. Nobody told me the road would be easy, but I don’t believe he brought me this far to leave me.” That’s the way I would sum up my ministry.

Is there anything else about this subject of diversity in the House of Bishops that you would like to say?

I think more women and more people of color, not just African-Americans, but more people of color ought to have the courage to make it known that they are open to being considered. Now I know that’s asking a lot, but people have got to live boldly. That’s what ministry in any capacity, lay or ordained, is all about.

A more detailed biography of Harris is here.

The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is senior editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. This interview was lightly edited for clarity and condensed.


Comments (5)

  1. Joan M. Powers says:

    Barbara is one special, priest and bishop.
    Knew her in Philadelphia and she was the only lady then that would help the women in prison.
    I admire her greatly. I was grateful that Barbara spoke at my husband’s ( The very Rev. Frederick Powers) funeral. We have been blessed by having her as a Bishop.
    Happy Birthday Barbara!
    Love & Prayers, Joan Powers

  2. Pamela Pleasants says:

    Happy Birthday Bishop Barbara!
    So happy you a part of my family’s life.
    Pamela Pleasants, Youssef and Zaki Alaoui

  3. Shirley Hutchins says:

    Happy Birthday, Bishop Barbara. You look awesome. I remember when you came to Epiphany and played the piano while we sang music from Let Every Voice–you were amazing and I will always remember that.

  4. Rebecca A. Alden says:

    Happy Birthday, Barbara. I am looking forward to seeing your new book. Becky

  5. nathan baxter says:

    Happy birthday, dear +Barbara. What a courageous witness you have been and continue to be to the Church, the Communion and the world. Mary Ellen and I send our love.
    +Nathan Baxter

Comments are closed.