Barbara Harris, First Woman Ordained an Episcopal Bishop, Dies at 89


Barbara Clementine Harris was born on June 12, 1930, in Philadelphia, the middle of three children. Her father, Walter Harris, was a steelworker, and her mother, Beatrice (Price) Harris, was an organist at the family’s parish, St. Barnabas Church. (It later merged with another parish, St. Luke’s.) Ms. Harris studied the piano, learning to play dozens of hymns by heart.

She is survived by her brother, Thomas. Her sister, Josephine White, died.

After graduating from Philadelphia High School for Girls in 1948, Ms. Harris attended Charles Morris Price School of Advertising and Journalism and entered public relations, ultimately becoming a manager in 1968 for Sun Oil Co.

Active in civil rights, she traveled to Mississippi to register voters in 1964 and the next year marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

All the while she prepared herself for ordination, studying at Villanova University and the Urban Theology Unit in Sheffield, England. When three retired Episcopal bishops at her parish, the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, ordained 11 women in 1974 — two years before the church had authorized such an action — Ms. Harris was the cross bearer in the procession.

Ms. Harris was ordained a priest in 1980, served at St. Augustine of Hippo Church, a small parish in Norristown, Pa., and was a prison chaplain. She reached a wider audience through her speaking and writing on behalf of racial justice and in opposition to apartheid in South Africa.

Writing in 1984 in The Witness, an Episcopal journal of which she was publisher, she said the church was wasting its energy debating the ordination of women.

“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.’’

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