The Rt. Rev. Barbara C. Harris, who was the first woman to be ordained a bishop in the Episcopal Church of the United States -- indeed, in its parent body, the worldwide Anglican Communion -- died Friday in Lincoln, Mass., outside Boston. She was 89.
Her death, at a hospice, was confirmed in a statement by the bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts, the Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates. He did not give a cause.
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.
A black woman, she went on to challenge the Episcopal hierarchy to open its doors wider to women as well as to black and gay people.
Her election in 1988 caused turmoil in the Episcopal Church and in the Anglican Communion, an international family of 46 autonomous churches that includes the Church of England.
Some Episcopalians, objecting to her political views and theological stances, declared that they would not recognize her position and campaigned against her.
She even faced death threats. For her consecration as bishop, on Feb. 11, 1989, at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, police offered her a bullet-resistant vest to wear. Harris declined.
Years later, in a 2002 interview with the National Visionary Leadership Project, she shrugged off the furor. "Nobody can hate like Christians," she said.
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.
At a church service sponsored by a gay advocacy group, Integrity USA, in 2009, Harris -- who could electrify a congregation with her gravelly, stentorian voice -- asked worshippers, "If indeed God, who doeth all things well, is the creator of all things, how can some things be more acceptable to the creator than others?"
She paused, as applause overtook her words, then continued, "If God is the creator of all persons, then how can some people be more acceptable to God than others?"
In a church whose parishioners have included about a quarter of American presidents and business titans like J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford, Harris pressed for the integration of historically segregated parishes -- she was an early member of the Union of Black Episcopalians, founded in 1968 -- and called for greater numbers of women in the clergy.
A Section on 03/19/2020
Print Headline: First ordained Episcopal female bishop