Barbara Harris was consecrated bishop on February 11, 1989 and served as Bishop Suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts (1989-2003). She served as Assisting Bishop in the Diocese of Washington (2003-2007). Happily, she is back among us in Massachusetts. We will celebrate the 25th anniversary of her consecration this Sunday, February 16, 2014, with a Gospel Vesper Service.
A day or two before the consecration of Barbara Clementine Harris as Suffragan Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, Cardinal Bernard Law and Greek Orthodox Bishop Methodios issue written statements of welcome. The statements are cordial. They also speak of the danger Harris’s consecration presents for reconciliation among Christian churches, or what has become commonly known as “Christian unity.”
At the consecration, the gospel music of St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church choir alternates with the delicate melodies of the Chinese Congregation and classical European harmonies of Trinity Church choir. The stately cadence of the Book of Common Prayer moves us forward, but in the musical realm there is a preferential option in the air: clearly, the day belongs less to Mozart and more to the music of the Black church. The celebration flows. This is no Tower of Babel: we each hear God speaking in our own tongue.
As Barbara Harris walks down the center aisle, a tiny woman whose voice and presence can fill a cathedral, over 8,000 people burst into applause. (“Not very characteristic of the Episcopal Church,” says one member of the congregation, Mary Shannon.) Throngs of priests, row upon row of beaming women and men, process down the side aisles of Boston’s Hynes Auditorium. Barbara Clementine Harris, a woman and a priest of African descent, is consecrated a bishop by the laying on of hands, according to the tradition of the apostles, by 55 men, most of them white. All through the celebration, the bishops have been purposeful, solemn and excited, with the calm certainty that God, through them, is doing a good thing.
In describing the celebration, those who were there speak of unity. Mary Shannon repeatedly uses the term “body” to speak of the church and of her experience of this day –“finally being part of the body...” “... all of us together in one body.” She is wearing a locket with a picture of her 80-year-old mother, a member of St. Andrew’s Parish in Seattle, who “still carries her white gloves with her in church yet has rolled with the changes.” She speaks in the plural: her mother, her daughters, her husband, her women friends, all rush into the conversation. “I cried,” she says. “I just felt so happy for all of us.”
Modene Dawson of Philadelphia speaks of another unity. For her, and for many African-Americans in the assembly, the significance of the event extends beyond the church. “It’s beautiful for the country,” she says. “It shows racial harmony.” The church which conducts this celebration is not apart from the world; it is the body which proclaims to the world that God is alive in history.
Paul Matthews Washington, in his sermon, speaks about God and history. Harris’s friend and mentor, he is Rector Emeritus of the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, which feeds, clothes, and sanctifies the poorest of the city. In this church was held the first ordination of Episcopal women to the priesthood, in the summer of 1974, less than 15 years ago. Harris, a member of the church, led the procession, carrying the cross.
“We cannot,” says Washington, “overlook the fact that this woman being consecrated today is not just an American woman. She is a Black woman... This is a woman... who has had to struggle; she’s been despised, she’s been rejected... God has lifted up one who was at the bottom of society and has exalted her to be one of His chief pastors.”
Washington speaks of Harriet Tubman, who “nineteen times went back into the land of bondage,” thanking God for her freedom by helping to free others. He speaks of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was raised from her lowly estate and sang of God’s power to raise up the humble and put down the mighty from their thrones: “Mary,” he says after quoting the Magnificat, “was an oppressed woman. That’s how Holy Mary Mother of God felt!” He weeps as he recalls the slavery and oppression of Black people in this country. “Only in understanding the past can we fully appreciate God’s action in this event,” he says.
The Episcopal Church, a church of power and privilege, has chosen “a have-not,” says Washington, but also one who “burns when others are offended,” a “disturbing prophet.” Harries has for years –in her public relations and policy work in the corporate world, in her parish, in her work with the Episcopal Church Publishing Company, in her pastoral ministry—advocated racial and economic justice, taken up the cause of women, spoken out against homophobia; she has, says Washington, devoted enough time to prison chaplaincy “to serve a two-year sentence herself.”
The Right Reverend Barbara Harris, newly robed in bright vestments with Ashanti designs and symbols, presides at her first Eucharist as bishop. Among the concelebrants are Carter Heyward, one of the “Philadelphia Eleven” ordained at the Church of the Advocate, and Florence Tim-Oi Li, the first woman ordained a priest in the Anglican Communion, in Hong Kong, one generation ago. At the distribution, Harris slips over to the far side of the auditorium and gives communion to the people in the hearing-impaired section, who have been singing with their hands for three hours.
A bishop is, among other things, a maker of unity. Barbara Harris has already begun to make unity; but not in the ways in which unity was previously understood or structured. Her brother bishops, Law and Methodios, fear for the health and welfare of Christian unity. But where are the real rifts in our lives today? Are they doctrinal? Where is the real, urgent need for unity? And when we say “unity,” what do we mean? Whose unity, which unity, and at what cost?
The deeper chasm today is not between Protestants and Catholics, or Greek Orthodox and Episcopalians. It is, much more, between haves and have-nots, between Blacks and whites, between men and women, between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. These are the wounds in need of healing, in church and in society. As for denominationalism, it is no longer the principal intrachurch split. Far deeper is the gap within each of our faith communities between fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists.
Early in the service, the Presiding Bishop, Edmond L. Browning, asks if anyone knows of any reason why the consecration ought not to proceed. Two men come to the microphone. The first calls the consecration “a sacrilegious imposture,” the second “an impediment to the realization of the visible unity of the Church for which Christ prayed.” There will be a problem, they argue, with the value of any sacrament celebrated by Harris.
Bernardine Hayes, a computer systems analyst, self-described “dormant Catholic,” and veteran civil rights and peace activist (she is currently Vice President of WAND, Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament), had never before today “seen a woman offer the sacraments. She is so clearly affiliated with the poor,” Hayes adds. “She strikes me as a true minister.” Hayes feels something stir within her during the liturgy –“the realization that the piece of my life which is missing is the spiritual piece.”
This was, she says, "like a Pentecost."
The intervention of the dissenters highlights the lack of unanimity in the church about the consecration (although Browning is quick to point out, at the post-consecration press conference, that the overwhelming majority of Episcopalians support it.) But it is, in its way, a step on the road to greater unity. Perhaps the two men will change their minds; perhaps never. What is hopeful and healthy and makes a body strong is that their pain was not swept under the rug. However token, this part of the ceremony honors difference: and the unity of the Episcopal Church around this celebration –the unity behind the liturgy—is not the easy unity of unreflecting liberals. It has been hard won, tempered by prayer and struggle, and forged through the participatory process of decision-making in the Episcopal Church, a community that gave us two-thirds of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Elizabeth Pearson Rice-Smith, a United Church of Christ minister who witnessed both the ordination of the “Philadelphia Eleven” and Barbara Harris’s consecration, believes that “if our vision of church unity embraces diversity in God’s ministries and the human experience of faith, there is much less need to split off. I think,” she adds, “that women are willing to say things about the messy stuff that don’t condemn or blame or banish. We want to create spirited change that doesn’t mean war, that doesn’t mean people don’t talk to each other, that doesn’t mean annihilation.”
Which unity, and at what cost?
Christians do still need to speak with one another about Eucharist and ministry, about theological thought and ecclesial practice. But the context of this discussion has changed, and so have the discussion questions themselves. Unable and unwilling to hide her particularity, unlikely to temper her prophetic stance, Barbara Harris –not in spite of this but because of this—is a maker, not a breaker, of unity.
(c) Jane Redmont 1989