Her death was announced by the Right Rev. Alan M. Gates, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, who said she had recently been hospitalized in Boston for gastrointestinal problems. Rev. Harris had been ordained a bishop in the diocese and was based out of Boston for most of the past three decades, aside from several years in the District as an assistant bishop for the Diocese of Washington.
For years, she had taken to the pulpit with a mantra in her pocket, written on a slip of paper: “The Power behind you is greater than any obstacle ahead of you.” It seemed at times an unnecessary reminder for a woman who spent so much of her life overcoming barriers, including centuries of church tradition that insisted no woman could serve as a priest, let alone a bishop.
That she became the first female bishop as a woman of color, and the great-granddaughter of an enslaved African American, made her achievement all the more remarkable. She was divorced, had never graduated from college or seminary and had served as a priest for less than a decade when she was consecrated a bishop on Feb. 11, 1989, amid thunderous applause that dwarfed the objections of two protesters.
“She was this combination of strong, prophetic preacher; deep pastoral counselor; someone who always showed up for everyone, everywhere,” said the Right Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of the Diocese of Washington. In a phone interview, Budde recalled that she had been ordained shortly before Rev. Harris was elected bishop, an event that was “earth-shattering in terms of what we knew was possible.”
“Of course there was resistance and there was mean-spiritedness about it, lines drawn in the sand,” Budde said. “The rest of the Anglican Communion was furious with the American church. She just weathered all that. She didn’t succumb to bitterness or meanness, she just did her work. And as an African American woman, she had done so her whole life.”
Steeped in the civil rights movement from a young age, Rev. Harris helped register black voters in the South, participated in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery and became president of Joseph V. Baker Associates, one of the country’s first black-owned PR firms.
All the while, she was active in the Episcopal Church, serving as a prison chaplain and lay leader before heeding a call to ordained ministry in the 1970s. The church was engaged in a heated debate over female priests, which reached a new level of intensity when a group of women defied the Episcopal hierarchy in 1974 and were ordained by three retired bishops. The service for the Philadelphia 11, as the women became known, occurred with Rev. Harris leading from the front, marching down the aisle as crucifier.
The procession was cut short amid safety concerns — disappointing Rev. Harris, who later told an interviewer she had hoped to lead it “like Joshua, seven times around the walls of Jericho.”
Rev. Harris became a deacon in 1979 and a priest the next year, at age 50, going on to deliver sermons that were sprinkled with snatches of hymns and spirituals. Standing about 5 feet tall, she became a self-described gadfly for liberal causes, calling for an end to racism, sexism, homophobia and apartheid in South Africa.
Championing “the last, the lost and the left out,” Rev. Harris spoke out on behalf of LGBT Episcopalians, incarcerated men and women and victims of the AIDS epidemic, declaring, “God has no favorites.” She also extended her ministry beyond the pulpit as a writer, editor and publisher for the Witness, an Episcopal journal where she wrote a column titled A Luta Continua, an anti-colonial Portuguese slogan for “The Struggle Continues.”
In September 1988, representatives of the Episcopal clergy and laity elected her bishop suffragan, or assisting bishop, in Massachusetts. The church had recently changed rules opening the ranks of bishops to women, even as they remained closed elsewhere in the Anglican Communion, an international faith family tied to the Church of England.
“There seem to be fresh winds blowing across the church,” Rev. Harris said in a sermon that month. “Things thought to be impossible just a short time ago are coming to be.”
Conservative church leaders were furious. Rev. Harris had railed against “Podunk Episcopalians” who feared “mitered mamas” and said she received death threats and was twice forced to change her home phone number.
But she also received a flood of supportive letters and recalled a blissful consecration ceremony in which she walked up the aisle before a crowd of nearly 8,000 people as the choir sang an African American spiritual, “Ride on, King Jesus.” After arriving at the altar, she had little trouble donning the bishop’s ceremonial headdress, which had only ever been worn by men.
“The miter fits just fine,” she said.
The second of three children, Barbara Clementine Harris was born in Philadelphia on June 12, 1930. Her father was a steelworker, and she recalled a childhood shaped primarily by the women in her family, including Mom Sem, her maternal great-grandmother who was born into slavery in Maryland in 1857.
Her mother was a church organist and choir teacher who encouraged Barbara’s interest in music, paying for singing and piano lessons by doing laundry and ironing.
Rev. Harris studied at the Charles Morris Price School of Advertising and Journalism in Philadelphia before joining Baker Associates. She had risen to become the company’s president by 1968, when she left to join Sun Oil (now Sunoco) as a community relations consultant. She later headed the oil company’s PR department before turning to ministry.
Her marriage to Raymond Rollins ended in divorce in 1963. Survivors include a brother.
Rev. Harris was suffragan bishop in Massachusetts for 13 years before retiring in 2002. She continued preaching until shortly before her death and called for additional diversity in the church’s ranks, where women now account for 32 of 132 active Episcopal bishops.
It had taken her time to adjust to the position of bishop, she told interviewers, and to moderate some of the more stinging rebukes she had issued toward the church’s conservative wing. Nonetheless, she continued to make social issues such as racial prejudice, drug abuse, government corruption and teen pregnancy a focus in her sermons.
“The temptation we have is to play it safe, don’t make waves,” she told a congregation in 1989, according to the Los Angeles Times. “But if Jesus had played it safe, we would not be saved. If the Diocese of Massachusetts had played it safe, I would not be standing here clothed in rochet and chimere and wearing a pectoral cross.”
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