Barbara Harris Ends her Term as the Bishop of Massachusetts

Nov 07, 2002 03:00 AM EST

Barbara Clementine Harris, the first woman to be elected bishop in the Anglican Communion stepped down from her position with a graceful farewell. Her 14 year term which started at the historic election on September 24, 1988 is now to be succeeded with the Rev. Gayle Harris.

Over several days, culminating in the diocesan convention November 1, a string of dignitaries and friends tried--and partially succeeded--in capturing the essence of the civil rights activist whose election smashed barriers and was greeted by many Christian women who felt they now had an icon of their own.

The historic election on September 24, 1988, also set in motion a darker set of responses, as some opponents began what many regarded as a vicious campaign to prevent her consecration. Yet the diocese, which had elected the church's first African-American bishop when it chose John Burgess as suffragan in 1962 and later diocesan bishop, was ready to push the church onto new ground--"holy ground," in a decision that would "change the face of the church forever," in the words of Mark Hollingsworth at a dinner the night before the convention opened.

At the dinner, former presiding bishop Edmond Browning raised his hands, as he had on a similar occasion at the same Harvard Club before the historic consecration on February 11, 1989, and said that Harris "was ready and you as a diocese were ready--and these hands were ready." He said that Harris and the diocese had shown "huge trust in God and the church of God."

The Rev. Nan Peete of Southern Ohio, who with Harris attended the 1988 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops, said that they had faced charges that "women were conspiring to change the church." She said that Harris "stands at the margin, viewing the world from all sides," even when that has involved personal cost. "Transformation has been a hallmark of your ministry," added the Rev. Gayle Harris, who will be consecrated suffragan bishop of the diocese January 18, 2003.

In response, Bishop Harris said that "it has been a wonderful journey--even through the bad times. I'm glad that I can stand in the breach so others can pass over."

Harris picked up on “the power of the Holy Spirit?as the theme in her final address to the diocesan convention November 1. She quoted sage advice from a friend, Bishop Audrey Bronson of the Pentecostal church, who told her to remember that "the power behind you is greater than the task ahead of you.

"And her words have proven true over these past 13 years. They have been true because the power of God's Holy Spirit, working through you and others in the church, has guided and sustained my ministry among you," she said.

Harris said that the Spirit also sustained her "through a time when there was a calculated move to neutralize me and to mute my voice here in the diocese." In those "dark and painful moments of hate mail, death threats and the ire of various detractors, followed by days of living in a fish bowl with every word and move scrutinized, I had the wise counsel of the quintessential confidant, ally and supporter--Canon Ed Rodman, who, among other things, advised me not to take it personally and to remember that 'it gets worse when the Red Sox are losing.'"

In listing some of the high points of her tenure, she cited "the partnership and personal friendship" forged with Bishop Tom Shaw, "a blessing I scarcely deserve but one for which I shall be eternally grateful." She added that it has been "gratifying to see the climate of the Diocese of Massachusetts change dramatically from one of mistrust and individualism to a more common fellowship where our congregations, clergy, diocesan staff and organizations...have moved into closer relationship and ownership of a shared ministry."

Shaw called attention to a quilt in front of the stage at the Hancock Center, made by the women of 90 parishes. On the back they wrote, "You are woven into our lives." He also announced later that the diocese has raised $15.6 million towards a goal of $18.4 to build and endow the Barbara C. Harris Camp and Conference Center on a New Hampshire lake. A stunning oil portrait, commissioned by the Union of Black Episcopalians, will hang over the fireplace in the main lodge at the camp, scheduled to open next June.

Yet it was the Friday evening celebration that wrapped together the history, the emotion, and the irreverent humor in a way designed to "convey some of her story in words, images, songs," according to the master of ceremonies, Dean Jep Streit of St. Paul's Cathedral. He introduced a string of participants--"all of these people, all this talent, to try and capture the essence of this woman, this big voice and huge heart packed into this small, spare, exquisite frame."

Admitting that the task was almost impossible, Streit said that Harris "will always be more. She is funnier, and braver, and smarter and tougher than we can describe. She is more loyal, more loving, more gracious and more stubborn than we can say. She is also more compassionate and more sensitive than we can imagine."

In his comments, the Hon. Byron Rushing, a Massachusetts state legislator, quickly traced Harris' 31-year career in corporate public relations, to her participation in the 1974 "illegal" ordination of 11 women in Philadelphia, to her own study for the priesthood and ordination in 1980--and her ministry with "the least, the lost and the left out."

Browning described his emotions as he presided over the 1989 consecration, convinced of the "unmistakable sense of the utter rightness of that moment." He said that Harris "has done more to energize and give us a sense of rebirth than anyone I know. The most exciting day I've spent in the life of this church was that day of consecration" because it opened the whole Anglican Communion to new possibilities for women serving in any role.

Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold said that, among the qualities he came to appreciate in Harris was her "graced irreverence, especially in complex situations, saying something trenchant that moves us to new plains of insight." Through her struggles, he said that Harris had developed "a deep sense of truth that is unwavering. What a gift to this church." In his sermon at a packed convention All Saints Day Eucharist earlier, he said that Harris stood in a long line of Christians "who serve as a word for their age."

The Union of Black Episcopalians Youth Choir provided a jolt of energy, bringing the audience to its feet. The evening ended with a dramatic reading based on interviews with Harris by Anna Deavere Smith of the television series The West Wing, who has received a MacArthur genius grant for her work as a playwright of works that combine theatrical art, social commentary, journalism and intimate reverie. In his introduction of Smith, Streit said that "she tells us truths we don't always want to hear, and because she gives voice to those without voice. In other words, she is a prophet--like Barbara Harris." The audience roared in recognition and laughter as Smith explored some of the many facets of the Harris personality.

And then it was over, with a rousing rendition of the hymn that had been such a highlight of the 1989 consecration, "Sweet, Sweet Spirit." "It is time to say goodbye and thank you for being who you are and accepting me as I am. I'd do it all over again--in a heartbeat," said Harris.

The end of her term as Bishop opens to her a new door of service. Harris has been offered the position as assistant bishop of the Diocese of Washington. She is set to move back to Philadelphia to start the new chapter of her history.

Bishop John Chane said that Harris will bring "a new dimension of involvement in local and national issues and will encourage the congregations of the diocese to more effectively understand and address poverty, racism, war, international concerns, and the need to seek reconciliation within the life of the Christian community and the broader interfaith community."

By Pauline J.