Bishop Barbara Clementine Harris
June 12, 1930 – March 13, 2020
The Rt. Rev. Barbara C. Harris, first woman ordained and consecrated a bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion, died on March 13, 2020, at Care Dimensions Hospice House in Lincoln, Mass., faithfully attended by close friends and upheld by the prayers of her worldwide church family. She was 89.
With great grace, Bishop Harris honored her symbolic role while tirelessly serving the people of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts as their suffragan (assisting) bishop for 13 years, from her historic consecration on Feb. 11, 1989, until her retirement in 2002—all the while striving to be faithful to her calling, her church and her God.
She was a spirited and sought-after preacher of hymn-laced, Gospel-grounded sermons, and an outspoken advocate for, in her words, "the least, the lost and the left out."
Arrangements are pending for a funeral service to be held at Washington National Cathedral and a private graveside service in Philadelphia, followed thereafter by a memorial service at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston. Because of the coronavirus pandemic and current restrictions on travel and group gatherings, service dates and details will be set at a later time.
Barbara Clementine Harris was born on June 12, 1930, in Philadelphia to Walter and Beatrice (Price) Harris. She graduated from the Philadelphia High School for Girls and the Charles Morris Price School of Advertising and Journalism, and in 1949 joined Joseph V. Baker Associates Inc., a national public relations firm headquartered in Philadelphia. She was president of the firm in 1968 when she joined the Sun Company (formerly Sun Oil) as community relations consultant. She later was named manager of community and urban affairs and headed Sun's Public Relations Department from May 1973 until becoming a senior staff consultant at Sun's corporate headquarters in 1977.
Bishop Harris was active in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, through the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity (ESCRU), and the National Council of Churches’ Delta ministry, traveling in 1965 to Greenville, Miss., to help register black voters and taking part in the Selma to Montgomery march. She had an active lay ministry in the Episcopal Church, in Christian education, prison chaplaincy and leadership at parish, diocesan and churchwide levels, before discerning a call to ordained ministry. She was ordained a priest at age 50, in 1980--when the ordination of women had been officially recognized in the Episcopal Church for only four years.
Bishop Harris was priest-in-charge of St. Augustine of Hippo Church in Norristown, Penn., from 1980 to 1984. She also served as chaplain to the Philadelphia County prisons, and as counsel to industrial corporations on public policy issues and social concerns. In 1984, she was named executive director of the Episcopal Church Publishing Company and publisher of the social justice magazine The Witness. In 1988, she took on additional duties as interim rector of the Church of the Advocate.
On Feb. 11, 1989, before a congregation of 8,000 in Boston's Hynes Auditorium—and virtually the whole world via live television and international media coverage—she became the first woman ordained a bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion. It was the climax to months of church controversy and a media maelstrom that followed her Sept. 24, 1988, election.
Bishop Harris preached and worked continually for the eradication of racism, sexism and homophobia, and to help bring about the full inclusion of all people in the life and sacraments of the church.
She was a member of the Union of Black Episcopalians and a founding member and president of the Episcopal Urban Caucus. She represented the Episcopal Church on the board of the Prisoner Visitation and Support Committee and was a member of the church’s Standing Commission on Anglican and International Peace with Justice Concerns. She also served as a member of the Board of Trustees of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass.
She was the recipient of at least 17 honorary degrees from colleges, universities and theological schools. In 2007 she received a Wisdom Award from the National Visionary Leadership Project.
Despite all the honors and the high-profile events of her ministry, Bishop Harris would always say that the best moments of her years as bishop were those spent baptizing, confirming and receiving people into the church.
After her retirement, she served from 2003 until early 2007 as an assisting bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington (D.C.). She continued to volunteer and preach at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston during her retirement, even while continuing to be in demand worldwide as a preacher.
In 2003 the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts dedicated its newly built Barbara C. Harris Camp and Conference Center in Greenfield, N.H., in her honor, and in November of 2019, the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta launched the Bishop Barbara C. Harris Justice Project, aimed at strengthening the church’s efforts to address social injustice.
Bishop Harris published two books, Hallelujah, Anyhow!, a memoir written with Kelly Brown Douglas (2018, Church Publishing, Inc.), and the sermon collection Parting Words: A Farewell Discourse (2003, Cowley Publications). She is also featured in In Conversation: Michael Curry and Barbara Harris, edited by Fredrica Harris Thompsett (2017, Church Publishing, Inc.).
Bishop Harris is survived by her brother, Thomas Harris, and his wife, Jennifer, of Homestead, Fla., and their family; and dear friends, including Dorothy Cousins and goddaughter Pat Cousins Smith of Philadelphia and their families.