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Tributes paid following death of Barbara Harris – the Anglican Communion’s first female bishop

Posted on: March 17, 2020 4:47 PM
Bishop Barbara Harris, then retired, leads the Diocese of Massachusetts in singing hymns during its 2014 electing convention.

Tributes have been paid to Bishop Barbra Harris after her death on Friday in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Bishop Barbara, the first woman to be consecrated as bishop in the Anglican Communion, was admitted to hospital in Boston on 29 February with serious gastrointestinal symptoms. She underwent surgery on 1 March but her condition continued to weaken. After several days being kept comfortable in hospital she was transferred to at Care Dimensions Hospice House, where she died on Friday (13 March). She was 89.

The Presiding Bishop of the US-based Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, has led tributes to Bishop Barbara. “Bishop Harris was not large of physical stature.  In fact, the opposite”, he said. “But she was larger than life.

“She was larger than life because she lived it fully with her God and with us.  She did it by actually living the love of God that Jesus taught is about.  She did it walking the lonesome valley of leadership, paving a way for so many of us whose way had been blocked.  She did it lifting her voice for those who had no voice.  She did with a joke, a whispered word, a secret joy in spite of anything that got in her way, including death.  No wonder she titled her memoir, ‘Hallelujah, Anyhow!’”

Bishop Alan Gates, the Bishop of Massachusetts, a diocese she had served for more than three decades, said: “Our hearts are truly heavy at the loss of one who has been a faithful and altogether irrepressible companion, pastor and inspiration to us in the Diocese of Massachusetts for 31 years.  At the same time our hearts are truly buoyed by the hope which she preached and the conviction she embodied for us throughout all these years.”

The House of Deputies is the US-based Episcopal Church General Convention (synod) house for priests and laity. Its President, Gay Clark Jennings, said: “It is almost impossible to imagine the Episcopal Church without Bishop Barbara Harris. . . Barbara was fierce, faithful, and, as a journalist once called her, ‘memorably direct’ in her insistence that the Episcopal Church pursue justice for all of God’s people.

"Barbara was always completely and totally Barbara. She never pretended to be anyone other than who she was, and she told the truth no matter what the cost. Often that cost was paid with the comfort and dignity of institutional leaders who were, in her view, insufficiently interested in standing with the marginalised and the vulnerable. They learned quickly that her passion for justice was matched only by her wicked and fearless sense of humour."

Tributes were also paid by the Bishop of Indianapolis, Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows – the first black woman to serve as a diocesan bishop in the US-based Episcopal Church. “I have no experience of the Episcopal Church without Bishop Barbara Harris”, she said. “The year she became the first female bishop in the Anglican Communion – 1988 – I had just finished college and was preparing to be baptised.

“I had a subscription to Episcopal Life, our old denominational monthly publication, and I read with wonder its stories about her as I was studying what it meant to be a Christian, to be an Episcopalian. Later, as I prepared for ordination, my practical theology was shaped by The Witness, a publication where Barbara served as publisher for years. Her ministry quite literally helped form my faith.

“In the decades since then, I have watched Barbara from far and near. She was my friend and mentor, and having her participate in my consecration in 2017 was an extraordinary gift. Shortly after that, I was asked to offer an endorsement of a book of conversations between Barbara and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. In that moment, I understood with new force the privilege and responsibility of the legacy that I and so many of my sisters have inherited from her.”

Barbara Harris was born on 12 June 1930 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She worked as Head of Public Relations for the Sun Oil Company before her call to ministry. She was ordained a deacon in 1979 and a priest the following year. In 1998, bishops at the Lambeth Conference resolved that the question of the ordination of women to the episcopate was one for each province to make. Later that year, she was elected to serve as Bishop Suffragan of Massachusetts and was consecrated on 11 February 1989, becoming the first female bishop in the Anglican Communion. 

Bishop Barbara Harris is consecrated on 11 February 1989

The decision was controversial and Bishop Barbara received a torrent of abuse, including death threats. “I certainly don't want to be one of the boys”, she said at the time. “I want to offer my peculiar gifts as a black woman . . . a sensitivity and an awareness that comes out of more than a passing acquaintance with oppression.”

She retired in 2003 and served as Assisting Bishop in the Diocese of Washington until 2007 when she returned to Massachusetts, where – until recently – she volunteered one day a week at Cathedral Church of St Paul in Boston.

“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 in a 2014 interview to mark the 25th anniversary of her consecration.

Arrangements are being made for a public funeral service at Washington National Cathedral and a private graveside service in Philadelphia, followed by a memorial service at the Cathedral Church of S. Paul in Boston. The services will be held at a later date because of current restrictions on travel and group gatherings caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.