Bishop Barbara Harris reflects on a pioneer role

February 25, 2009

On February 28, 2009, the first female primate in the Anglican Communion, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the elevation of women to the episcopate. The celebration and Eucharist at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston marks two decades since the consecration on February 11, 1989 of Barbara C. Harris as suffragan bishop in the Diocese of Massachusetts. That service took place before a congregation of 8,000 in Boston's Hynes Auditorium—and virtually the whole world via live television and international media coverage. "The Mitre Fits Just Fine" announced the front page of the Diocese of Massachusetts' newspaper, The Episcopal Times, following the proceedings. For the first time in the history of the worldwide Anglican Communion, a woman had donned the symbolic regalia of the church's highest order—and an African-American woman at that, one who was divorced, had not graduated from seminary and had been a priest for just under 10 years. It was the climax to months of church controversy and the media maelstrom that followed Harris's September 1988 election. Questions about Harris's qualifications arose during the election process, and though dealt with, still loomed large, some said at the time, because deeper objections to her race and gender could not be raised aloud in liberal Massachusetts. Objections continued into the consent process, with the necessary approval by a majority of diocesan standing committees coming just ten days before the scheduled consecration. As Harris herself said in a sermon delivered in Philadelphia just after her election, there would seem to be fresh winds blowing in the church, refreshing to some, frightening to others. Bishop Harris, retired since 2002, took time for an interview and reflected on women's ordination, the controversies of the day in the Anglican Communion and why she still loves the church. What does this 20th anniversary bring to mind?One of the things I was reminded of is the difficulty surrounding my consent process and the fact that today we have 14 women bishops in this country alone, one of whom is the presiding bishop, and several women bishops in other provinces of the communion, including New Zealand, Australia and Canada, and one who was appointed bishop suffragan in Cuba. While it is not yet a critical mass when you think of the overall number of bishops, it certainly is significant movement forward. So I would say that, like the Virginia Slims ad, we've come a long way, baby. But we've got a long way to go. Why is that?Well, I think there are still pockets of resistance to women's ordination, period. That's a part of it. Do you think the church gets complacent?We do tend to get complacent. This happens in a lot of situations, not just with women's ordination. Something changes somewhat for the better and we think that we have conquered a problem. I think this holds true in the society generally. I was in conversation with some people the other day and it seemed that because Barack Obama has been inaugurated as president the whole matter of race relations in this country has been solved. It just isn't true. We have to remain vigilant and keep revisiting situations to make sure that we are still paying attention to what needs to be done. What are your thoughts on the controversies of the day in the Anglican Communion?I think the whole Windsor process is an overreaction, which leads me to talk about the covenant, which I don't believe we need. I think our baptismal covenant is sufficient. We certainly do not need a juridical covenant; but rather, if we must have one, then it ought to be more relational in nature than designed to punish. I think that the pastoral council that is being suggested is an added layer of ecclesiastical bureaucracy that we do not need. We need to simply trust each other that we are acting in the best interests of our respective provinces. Interventions and crossing provincial boundaries need to stop. That is not a solution to controversies within a province. The controversies of the day are not anything new. Controversy has always been present in the life of the church from her earliest, earliest days. There is an introductory comment on Paul's letter to the Colossians in which it says: the unity, stability and survival of the church was threatened by doctrinal diversity. This is nothing new. I think of the centuries that it took to reach agreement on the doctrine of the Trinity. Some folk want us to settle complex issues without even delving into them in any meaningful depth. And I think that schism is real, because we have competing claims of orthodoxy and other claims that are cause for hostility and division. A covenant or a Windsor Report [is] not going to quell controversy. How has the controversy around Gene Robinson in the episcopate been different from the controversy you went through as the first woman? How is it similar?Speaking to what is different, Gene is not our first gay bishop. We've had several before him. I was distinctly the first woman. In terms of what is similar, it is the fact that people have been resistant to the idea of someone different filling a particular office. But I think we need to be very careful about saying that, you know, all of these things are so similar. That's another trap we fall into. Issues of race, issues of gender, issues of sexual orientation may have some similarities, but to lump them together as the same is a mistake. Why do you love the church?I love the church because the church has proven time after time that she can rise to new heights and be more than she has been. Our disinvestment response to apartheid in South Africa is one shining example. There are times when the church exerts holy boldness and imagines what God can do through the likes of us, or what the likes of us can do by the amazing grace of God. Where in the church now do you feel fresh winds blowing?The fresh winds I see blowing are in the emerging church movement, new approaches in evangelism, radical welcome, the things that are awakening the spirituality of young adults and young people who are being drawn to an active life in the church. Even such things as the hip-hop Mass that are in the idiom and language of young people who otherwise might not know anything about the Gospel and the love of Jesus Christ. I'm not disturbed that I may say in the 23rd Psalm, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," and a young person on the streets of the South Bronx says, "Jesus is my homeboy, he's got my back." If that brings that young person to an understanding of the love of Christ, then, as the kids say, I'm down with that. What word would you leave with the church on this occasion?I would commend to the church this Franciscan benediction that I have come to love, because I think it is kind of marching orders for the church in the 21st century: "May God bless you with discomfort...At easy answers, half truths and superficial relationshipsSo that you may live deep within your heart. "May God bless you with anger...At the injustice, opression and exploitation of peopleSo that you may work for justice, freedom and peace. "May God bless you with tears...To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger and warSo that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy. "And may God bless you with enough foolishness...To believe that you can make a difference in the world,So that you can do what others claim cannot be doneto bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor. Amen." That would be my 20th anniversary blessing to the church.