The Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris, who died this past March, was a trailblazer in the Episcopal Church. An ardent advocate for LGBTQ+ rights as early as 1989, she excoriated the Episcopal Church for racism and sexism. And while her ordination as a bishop was the first for a woman in the Anglican Communion, and welcomed by liberals in the Episcopal Church, her message already is being diluted and misused.
In short, we are fast losing sight of Barbara Harris’ true legacy.
Harris, for many years a member of the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, also served as a chaplain to local prisons. Prior to ordination, Harris served as head of public relations for Sun Oil. She also advised numerous corporations on social policy and governance issues, invariably arguing for inclusion, equality and social justice.
During her time at Church of the Advocate, Harris had served as deacon at the ordination of the so-called Philadelphia Eleven, a group of women ordained as priests in a controversial move that provoked outrage among some, as well as ecclesiastical charges, later dropped, against the bishop diocesan.
Harris, who had a degree in pastoral care but had not been to seminary, was a controversial choice when she was consecrated bishop suffragan of Massachusetts in 1989. Indeed, she had earlier predicted that the first female bishop in the church would be white, for they had the access, the influence, and the time in ministry to qualify, she said.
Thus, Barbara by her own admission wound up having to eat her words.
Indeed, Harris, known for her quick wit, received numerous threats prior to consecration, refused to wear a bullet-resistant vest during the event, saying, “If I’m going to get shot, what better place than the altar?” She also famously said, “Nobody can hate like Christians.” And the predictable schism occurred as a result of her consecration, with some traditionalists breaking away to form a dissident group in which female clergy were unwelcome.
Over the years, Harris struggled to balance her role as bishop suffragan with her participation in various civil rights causes. It was through the latter that this author knew Harris, who was invariably funny, loving, passionate, kind, and appropriately irreverent — in many ways, the perfect bishop.
Behind the scenes, her experiences with injustice and oppression also made her at times caustic, and she angered more than a few over the years. As a result, her consecration carried with it a sense of marvel, for the church often has difficulty embracing its critics. And no one was quicker to lambaste the church for its shortcomings than Harris, nor more erudite in doing so.
In death, many remember Harris warmly, and she has received numerous awards and recognitions. Indeed, her name is often invoked by liberals in the church as they seek racial reconciliation and social justice, and an increased role for women in the church.
And therein lies the problem.
For example, in the diocese of Massachusetts, the bishops continue to refuse to address this author’s conflict with the Rev. Bob Malm, who inter alia has committed perjury in legal proceedings against the author. And yet Harris would have been the first to demand a full and fair inquiry, followed by real results.
Similarly, the Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde has often invoked Harris’ legacy, and rightly so, for after her retirement as bishop suffragan Harris served for a number of years in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington (EDOW).
And yet Budde far too often takes a pass on clergy misconduct, and while claiming to be an unabashed liberal, typically takes the careful road in situations like Donald Trump’s use of St. John’s Lafayette Square for a photo op.
As for the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, it has gone so far as to say in writing that clergy misconduct is actionable only if there are criminal charges—a notion that would have left Harris apoplectic.
Those examples stand in marked contrast to Harris’ approach, in which, to use her words, she sought out, “the least, the lost and the left out.”
Indeed, many remember the fiery sermon she preached at the 2009 General Convention on the topic of blessing same-sex unions:
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.”
So, as the Episcopal church continues its rapid decline into obscurity and irrelevance, perhaps it is time to look on Barbara Harris’ real legacy.
Hers was not the middle road.
Hers was not the safe road.
Hers was not the easy road.
Barbara Harris’ road was the right road, a prophetic ministry in which all were called to live out the gospels, not by words, but by deeds.
And to Mariann Budde, to the bishops of the Diocese of Massachusetts, and to all who invoke Harris’ name and legacy, while turning their backs on the church’s shortcomings, its failures, its continuing role in racism, sexism, injustice and oppression, I say don’t invoke Barbara’s legacy if you’re not willing to live into it. Barbara would have been the first to call you out for doing so, and she would not have minced words.
You cannot maintain a “false peace” by ignoring the “least, the lost, the left out,” and expect the church to survive.
Or, as Harris wrote in 1984 in The Witness, an Episcopal journal of which she was the editor:
“How typical of this church and the society it reflects to get its adrenaline flowing over nonissues like irregularity versus validity,” she wrote, “while real issues go unaddressed — justice, power, authority, shared mission and ministry and wholeness in the body of Christ.’’