Barbara Harris
National Visionary

Born 1930 in Philadelphia

First woman elected Bishop in the worldwide Anglican communion (Episcopal Church)

Retired Bishop Barbara C. Harris holds the distinction of being the first ordained female bishop of the United States Episcopal Church. When she assumed this position in 1989, she broke a 2,000-year-old tradition stretching back to the time of Christ. Prior to joining the church in this capacity, she was a civil rights activist, public relations specialist, top executive with the Sun Oil Company, executive director of an Episcopal Publishing Company, lay minister, priest, and writer.

Harris, 5 years old

This interview has
been archived in the
NVLP Collection of
African American
Oral Histories at the
Library of Congress
American Folklife
Harris was born in Philadelphia in 1930. Although she would not be ordained as a priest until almost forty years later, she felt called to a life of service to Christ at a young age. As a teenager, she founded a youth group at St. Barnabas Church in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, a group that would go on to become the largest such organization in the city.

After graduating from the Philadelphia High School for Girls, Harris immediately went to work. She joined Joseph V. Bakers, a black-owned public relations firm, and spent the next few years traveling throughout the country meeting with clients. Harris would also distinguish herself as a leader and public relations expert with Sun Oil Company, where she headed the Public Relations Department.

Harris had an active life in all levels of the Episcopal Church before her ordination to the priesthood. As a priest, she served urban parishes in Philadelphia during the 1980s. During this time, she also received national attention as editor of Witness Magazine, a publication that championed causes such as solidarity actions in Central America; antinuclear activism; gay, lesbian, and women’s rights; and environmental concerns.

Her election as bishop in Massachusetts in 1989 sent shock waves through the Anglican Church. Some of her critics challenged her lack of formal theological training, while others were wary of her progressive views. Harris was strongly defended by many however, and characteristically remained strong during controversy over her election. As she has said, “The temptation we all face is to play it safe; don’t take risks; don’t make waves. If Jesus had played it safe, we would not be safe. I would be not standing here today, clothed in rochet and chimere and wearing a pectoral cross.”

Drawn by William Hamm
of J.C. Nalle Elementary

In the thirteen years following her consecration as bishop, many came to see her as one of the most important spiritual leaders of the latter half of the twentieth century, acting as a force of change for women, people of color, and the poor in the world. She is widely admired for her courage, wit, intelligence, and forthright prophetic voice.

Following her retirement from the Diocese of Massachusetts in 2002, Harris accepted a call to serve as assisting bishop in the Diocese of Washington, D.C, beginning in the summer of 2003. She now resides back in Massachusetts, where she remains an active critic of the status quo who constantly strives to break new ground.


Barbara Harris's Wikipedia page

Roundtable discussion with Barbara Harris

URL (Click to bookmark): http://www.visionaryproject.org/harrisbarbara