First woman bishop receives fond farewell from U.S. church

Published December 1, 2002

In her last address to the diocesan convention, Bishop Barbara Harris, flanked by a new oil portrait, talked about how the Holy Spirit sustained her through her ministry.

New York

With just the right blend of sass and sentimentality, the diocese of Massachusetts bid farewell to its outspoken suffragan bishop, Barbara Clementine Harris ? the first woman to be elected a bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Over several days, culminating in a diocesan convention in November, a string of dignitaries and friends tried — and partially succeeded — in capturing the essence of the civil rights activist whose election smashed barriers and was greeted by many Christian women who felt they now had an icon of their own.

The historic election on September 24, 1988, also set in motion a darker set of responses, as some opponents began what many regarded as a vicious campaign to stop her consecration.

Yet the diocese, which had elected the church’s first African-American bishop when it chose John Burgess as suffragan in 1962 and later diocesan bishop, was ready to push the church onto new ground, in a decision that would ?change the face of the church forever,? in the words of Mark Hollingsworth at a dinner the night before the convention opened.

At the dinner, former presiding bishop Edmond Browning raised his hands, as he had on a similar occasion and said that Bishop Harris ?was ready and you as a diocese were ready — and these hands were ready.?

In response, Bishop Harris said that ?it has been a wonderful journey–even through the bad times. I’m glad that I can stand in the breach so others can pass over.?

At the November convention, she quoted advice from a friend, Bishop Audrey Bronson of the Pentecostal church, who told her to remember that ?the power behind you is greater than the task ahead of you.

?And her words have proven true over these past 13 years. They have been true because the power of God’s Holy Spirit, working through you and others in the church, has guided and sustained my ministry among you,? she said.

She added that it has been ?gratifying to see the climate of the diocese of Massachusetts change dramatically from one of mistrust and individualism to a more common fellowship where our congregations, clergy, diocesan staff and organizations … have moved into closer relationship and ownership of a shared ministry.?

In his comments, Byron Rushing, a Massachusetts state legislator, quickly traced Harris’ 31-year career in corporate public relations, to her participation in the 1974 ?illegal? ordination of 11 women in Philadelphia, to her own study for the priesthood and ordination in 1980 — and her ministry with ?the least, the lost and the left out.?

Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold said that, among the qualities he came to appreciate in Bishop Harris was her ?graced irreverence, especially in complex situations, saying something trenchant that moves us to new plains of insight.?

But it’s not quite the end of the story for Bishop Harris. The diocese of Washington announced a few days later that Bishop Harris, who is moving back to Philadelphia, will serve as Washington’s assisting bishop beginning next summer.


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