Bishop Barbara Harris (1930-2020)

by: 
James Melchiorre

On a weekend understandably dominated by reports of the coronavirus, the Episcopal Church lost one of its saints.

The Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris, the first woman consecrated as a bishop in the Anglican Communion and the first black woman to hold that position, died on March 13 at age 89.

As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has noted, Bishop Harris was short in stature (she was slightly more than five-feet tall), but was truly a towering figure.

A lifelong Episcopalian who wasn’t ordained a priest until age 50, Bishop Harris spent the first half of her life as an activist for civil and human rights—she marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—and as a successful public relations executive.

She participated in the 1974 liturgy in her native Philadelphia in which eleven women were “irregularly” ordained, ordinations not recognized by the Episcopal Church until two years later.

Her own ordination came in 1979 and, nine years later, she was elected Bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of Massachusetts, and consecrated in 1989. After retiring in 2002, Bishop Harris served as assisting bishop in the Diocese of Washington, D.C. until 2007 and co-wrote a 2018 memoir Hallelujah, Anyhow!

A Bishop's Blessing

In her more than 40 years of ordained ministry, Bishop Barbara Harris touched thousands, and the memories they share are often deeply personal.

Elisabeth Jacobs is an Episcopalian living in New York City who recalls meeting Bishop Harris in 1995.

“Barbara had the uncanny knack of making you comfortable in her presence,” Jacobs recalls. “I could sit and listen to her for hours because her stories, whether a sermon or over a glass of chardonnay, always offered sage advice.

“One of my personal favorite Barbara quotes: ‘Lis, my mother named me Barbara, NOT Bishop.’”

The Rev. Barbara Cawthorne Crafton, priest and prolific author, remembers writing for The Witness, a magazine for which Bishop Harris served, at various times, as columnist, editor, and publisher. 

“Barbara Harris became a bishop during my first year as part of the clergy staff at Trinity. This is a long time ago now. That she was a woman, a woman of color! It scarcely seemed possible in those days.

“I remember her knowing look when somebody said something absurd, a look so slight that you’d miss it if you weren’t looking carefully. Eloquent as she was, she could also communicate without a word.”

Jeffrey Penn served in the Communications Office for the Diocese of Massachusetts for the consecration of Bishop Harris, during her early months in the diocese. 

“Given the saturation of the Boston media about her, she was recognized throughout the city of Boston by almost everyone,” Penn said.

“Cab drivers, pedestrians, toll booth workers, at restaurants, in the grocery store—everyone offering a smile and a greeting: ‘Hello Bishop!’”

The Rev. Dr. Mark Bozzuti-Jones, a priest at Trinity Church Wall Street, got to know Bishop Harris during his own ministry in Boston and wrote a book titled "The Mitre Fits Just Fine," quoting the words Bishop Harris proclaimed on the day of her consecration..

“This was her way of saying that every person no matter their race, gender, class, sexual orientation or religion is loved by God, and that the Christian community should respect the dignity of every human being.

“Barbara Harris believed that every human being is called to embody God’s compassion, mercy, justice and love,” he said.

Even though Bishop Harris received the treatment of a celebrity in some places and contexts, she knew what it meant to be the target of patriarchy.

The Rev. Winnie Varghese, also a priest at Trinity Church Wall Street, remembers her first conversation with the bishop, when Varghese was a young adult, hearing Bishop Harris describe multiple experiences at the Lambeth Conference that brings together bishops from across the Anglican Communion.

“She said she wouldn't go back to Lambeth if Jesus were there handing out $100 bills,” Varghese said.

“I must have frozen up at one of the stories of appalling rudeness by a fellow bishop, because she laughed, looked at me, touched my head, and said, ‘Some of us are the skunk at the garden party.’

“I hope that blessing comes with that sense of humor.” 

The Very Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas is Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Seminary and Theologian in Residence at Trinity Church Wall Street. She edited Hallelujah, Anyhow!, Bishop Harris’s memoir.

“Bishop Harris paved the way for many of us to follow. In the words of Zora Neale Hurston, Bishop Barbara was, for many of us, our “our highway through de wilderness," Dr. Douglas said.

Bishop Harris’s gift as a storyteller was evident in her sermons as she spoke out against racism, sexism, and homophobia.

"God has no favorites," she said in a 2009 sermon, the Massachusetts diocese recounted. "So to you, gay man, lesbian woman; you, bisexual person; you, transgender man or woman; you, straight person; all of us, the baptized: Let us honor the sacrament of our baptism and our baptismal covenant, the only covenant we need to remain faithful."