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  • Writer's pictureSt. John's

This week's Influencial Black Episcopalian: Barbara Harris

Updated: Feb 10, 2021

“If God is the creator of all persons, then how can some people be more acceptable to God than others?" - Bishop Barbara Harris

Barbara Harris has a lot of firsts - she was the first woman to be consecrated as Bishop in the entire Anglican communion, and the first black woman to be consecrated as Bishop in the Episcopal Church. When she was consecrated bishop in 1989, over 8000 people attended her ordination in Boston while she was making history.

Ms. Harris served as suffragan, or assistant, bishop of the Massachusetts diocese from 1989 until her retirement in 2002, and in some ways, she was an unlikely candidate for the role. She had neither a bachelor’s nor a seminary degree, and she was divorced — a profile that some critics said made her unfit for election, regardless of gender. Others feared that she was too progressive for the church. She went on to challenge the Episcopal hierarchy to open its doors wider to women as well as to black and gay people. Some Episcopalians, objecting to her political views and theological stances, declared that they would not recognize her position and campaigned against her. She often criticized the church as being too dogmatic — as worrying over the particulars of canon law instead of preaching inclusivity, a truer reflection of Christ’s teachings, she believed.

Bishop Harris was long active in civil rights issues, participating in freedom rides and marches in the 1960s, including the Selma to Montgomery marches led by Martin Luther King Jr. She spent summer vacations registering black voters in Greenville, Mississippi. She dismissed the risks she took, saying only, "Everyone was in danger." Bishop Harris was very outspoken about injustice. As early as 1989 she was reported as arguing for gay rights and lambasting the Episcopal Church for racism and sexism.

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