Feb. 10—History! Barbara C. Harris


Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.
Ephesians 6–10

Dear People and Friends of the Diocese of New Jersey,

History! On February 11, 1989, Barbara Clementine Harris was ordained and consecrated as Bishop-Suffragan of the Diocese of Massachusetts. She was the first woman in history consecrated as a bishop, not only in The Episcopal Church, but in the whole of the worldwide Anglican Communion. It was a moment in women’s history. It was a moment in Black history. It was moment in church history. It was a moment in American history. It was a moment in the history of Gospel justice.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Barbara Harris was a “cradle Episcopalian.” After high school, she pursued a career in marketing and advertising and was for many years an executive for Sun Oil Company. She was an active in the church as a lay person and 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, Mississippi, to help register Black voters and taking part in the Selma to Montgomery march.[1]

She sensed a call to holy orders later in life. She was a “late-vocation” priest, being ordained as a transitional deacon in 1979 and to the priesthood at age 50 on 1980. This was four years after the first women had been ordained to the priesthood in The Episcopal Church at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia. Interestingly, Barbara Harris served as crucifer at that historic ordination service.

She was elected Bishop-Suffragan of Massachusetts on September 24, 1988. I remember that day vividly. I was in my second year at General Theological Seminary. When news broke of Harris’s election, there was an impromptu champagne celebration in the front lobby of the seminary. We all recognized how historic that election was.

The Rt. Rev. Barbara C. Harris

Of course, Harris’s election and later consecration were not welcome in all quarters. A story about Harris in The Religion and Politics Newsletter includes an account of a 2013 interview Harris gave with the National Visionary Leadership Project. In this interview, Harris described the opposition she faced. “I was a woman. I was Black. I was divorced. I had not gone to seminary. I had only been ordained 9 years.” Her detractors, she said, argued “that I was outspoken, that I was left of center. Anything they wanted to use, they used.”[2] In the wake of her election, she received an enormous number of threats and volumes of hate-mail.

As the Religion and Politics Newsletter reports: “Some 8,500 people attended her consecration in Hynes Auditorium in Boston. The crowd, including 62 bishops and several armed police officers, was too large to fit in a church. One police officer sat behind her near the altar.” According to Bishop Harris, “The Boston police department offered me a bulletproof vest to wear that day, which I declined…I thought, if some idiot is going to shoot me, what better place to go than at an altar.”

There are countless stories to tell about the historic, remarkable life of Barbara Harris. The Diocese of Massachusetts offers the following account of the sermon she preached at a Eucharist sponsored by Integrity (the LGBTQ+ Advocacy Group of The Episcopal Church) during the 2009 General Convention in Anaheim, California. It provides true insight into her strength and the character of her faith:

She declared as boldly as Peter that God has no favorites; called the church’s prior restraint on consecrating gay bishops a “false peace”; made clear distinctions between the sacred and the profane, what is sacrament and what is not; and, with the General Convention at that time still debating whether to allow marriage blessings for same-sex couples, she declared that the church should get out of the marrying business altogether and stick to administering holy blessing.

“If we can develop rites and blessings for fishing fleets and fisherfolk, and for hunts, hounds, horses and houses, including the room where the indoor plumbing is located, we should be able to allow clergy in the exercise of their pastoral ministry to adapt and to appropriate the pastoral office of the blessing of a civil marriage for use with all couples who seek the church’s support and God’s blessing in their marriages. Friends, yes we can do that,” she proclaimed.

“Indeed, God has no favorites,” she concluded to cheers and applause. “So to you, gay man, lesbian woman; you, bisexual person; you, transgender man or woman; you, straight person; all of us, the baptized: Let us honor the sacrament of our baptism and our baptismal covenant, the only covenant we need to remain faithful.”[3]

Yes, history was made on February 11, 1989, when Barbara Clemetine Harris was consecrated Bishop-Suffragan in the Diocese of Massachusetts. Recognizing and honoring this, the most recent General Convention held in Baltimore, Maryland in July of last year, passed Resolution C023 which stated, in part:

Resolved, that this 80th General Convention of The Episcopal Church hereby directs the inclusion of the observance of the consecration of Bishop Barbara Clementine Harris, first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion in the Lesser Feasts & Fasts Calendar of The Episcopal Church, and authorize trial use of the proper for the triennial 2023-2024 to be observed on February 11.

Tomorrow, February 11, 2023, with the people’s consent, it will be my distinct honor and privilege to ordain The Reverend Elizabeth Marshall Casasola to the sacred order of priests on behalf of Bishop Alan Gates and the people of the Diocese of Massachusetts. For this occasion, we will be observing the lesser feast of the Consecration of Bishop Barbara Clementine Harris. The service will take place at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Spotswood at 10:00 AM.

Of course, in the Diocese of New Jersey we are celebrating the history that has been made in our election of the Reverend Canon Dr. Sally French as the 13th Bishop of New Jersey. Please continue to hold her, her husband the Reverend Clarke French, and their children John and Elizabeth in your prayers during this time of transition.

Indeed, the wind is blowing and the Spirit of God is powerfully at work, so let us pray…

Everliving God, in every generation you cause fresh winds to renew, refresh, and refine your people and in your Word summon us to live courageously as Easter people in an often Good Friday world. Defend us in our own day to make no peace with oppression; that boldly following the example of your servant Barbara Clementine Harris, chosen bishop in your church, we may strive not for ease or fame but gladly toil and walk with you all along our pilgrim journey; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
                                    (Collect to Commemorate the Consecration of Bishop Barbara C. Harris)

Blessings and peace to all.

In Christ,
Bishop Stokes's SignatureThe Right Reverend William H. Stokes
Bishop of New Jersey


[1] Sukraw, Tracy – “Barbara C. Harris: Remembering an irrepressible ‘first’ and tireless advocate for justice” – Diocese of Massachusetts website, March 14, 2020 found at Barbara C. Harris: Remembering an irrepressible “first” and tireless advocate for justice | Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts (

[2] Parsons, Monique – Remembering the Right Rev. Barbara Harris, the First Fdemale Bishop in the Anglican Communion – Religion and Politics on-line newsletter, December 1, 2020 found at Remembering the Right Rev. Barbara Harris, the First Female Bishop in the Anglican Communion | Religion & Politics (

[3] Sukraw, Tracy