Barbara Harris Elected First Woman Bishop

Episcopal News Service. September 29, 1988 [88201]

NEW YORK (DPS, Sept. 29) -- The first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion has been elected.

The Rev. Barbara C. Harris, 58, interim-in-charge of the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia and Executive Director of the Episcopal Church Publishing Co., is the new Suffragan Bishop-elect of Massachusetts. She was elected on the eighth ballot from among a field of six candidates on September 24 in a special convention held at St. Paul's Cathedral, Boston.

The consecration and installation is expected to be held early next year -- possibly in early February -- in Boston.

Harris's principal competition throughout the election was the Rev. Marshall W. Hunt, rector of St. Anne's Lowell, Mass., and, indeed, Hunt nearly won the election on the third and fourth ballots. On the fifth and seventh ballots, however, Harris moved ahead in the clerical order, and surged ahead in both orders in the eighth.

The sixth ballot was declared invalid by the president of the convention, Bishop David E. Johnson of Massachusetts, when it was determined that there were irregularities in the balloting. Delegates throughout the convention seemed satisfied that Johnson handled this matter swiftly and thoroughly, and there appears to be no move to question the election.

In addition to Harris and Hunt, the candidates were: the Ven. Denise Haines, Archdeacon for Missions and Urban Ministry in the Diocese of Newark; the Rev. Canon Burgess Carr, Africa Partnership Officer in the World Mission office at the Episcopal Church Center; the Rev. Paul Schwenzfeier, rector of the Church of the Holy Spirit, Mattapan, Mass.; and the Rev. George Welles, Jr., assistant rector of St. Mary's, Barnstable, Mass.

Welles and Carr withdrew after the second and third ballots respectively.

In nominating Harris, the Rev. Mary Glasspool, rector of St. Luke's and St. Margaret's, Boston, emphasized her 30 years in the business community, her parish service as a deacon and priest, and her work with diverse groups in the Church on a diocesan and national level.

"She may at times make us uncomfortable about the way things are, but that is precisely what Jesus did. He made the religious people of his time uncomfortable and when they responded to his vision, they did so by changing their lives," Glasspool said.

Glasspool also pointed out the opportunity for the Diocese of Massachusetts to make history. "We have a rare opportunity to be the first, with the blessing of God's Holy Spirit, to realize unity in diversity, thereby moving us all closer to the reign of God."

Bishop Johnson told a news conference after the election that Harris let out a "deep gasp of incredulity" when Johnson told her of the results. He pointed out that the diocese, largest in the Church in terms of membership, "is truly a diverse group of people" and Harris will bring special gifts to her ministry in Massachusetts. When asked about parishes in the diocese that might object to a woman as bishop, he said he "does not anticipate any split."

When the cheering had subsided after the vote was announced, Johnson asked the convention to make the election unanimous, but there was a handful of loud objections from among the 500 delegates. The bishop asked Harris supporters to "be sensitive to the feelings of others," and added that "the Communion is represented in this family in all its diversity. Unanimity was never its trademark, but unity has always been its desire."

In a statement prepared for release, Harris said she was "deeply honored" and that she "accepts with humility and thanksgiving to Almighty God the election as Bishop Suffragan."

"The significance of this election," she continued, "must be seen in its proper context, which is far broader than any attention that may be focused on me as an individual. It marks a historic moment for the Diocese of Massachusetts, the Episcopal Church in the United States, and the worldwide Anglican Communion, as it speaks to inclusiveness in all orders of the Church's ordained ministry -- deacons, priests, and now bishops."

In a sermon on the Sunday after her election, Harris told the congregation at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia that "a fresh wind is indeed blowing. For some they are refreshing breezes. For others they are as fearsome as a hurricane."

Harris's election must now be ratified by a majority of the House of Bishops and a majority of the 118 diocesan standing committees. There are no indications that the election will be widely contested.

Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning, who was in Cincinnati to consecrate the new Bishop of Southern Ohio, called attention to the historical event, and added, "For many it is the occasion of great joy and celebration. For many it is a troubling time. For all of us it is a time when we will be flooded with deep emotions. It is a time when we will test our commitment to the unity of the Church, but more especially our sensitivity to feelings and convictions of others."

Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie, in a statement released by Lambeth Palace in London, said, "The election of Barbara Harris as the Suffragan Bishop of Massachusetts is an important event in the life of our Communion and in relation to other churches...[Her] consecration will have far-reaching consequences for the character of Anglicanism...The spirit of the Lambeth Conference has given all the bishops -- including those against the ordination of women -- the inspiration to maintain the highest possible degree of unity with those who differ. I renew the pledge I made in Canterbury to do all in my power to serve this unity as we begin to work out the implications of the Massachusetts election."

The Rev. Paul Washington, who as rector of the Church of the Advocate, encouraged Harris to seek ordination, said she "always had a strong sense of justice and compassion for the poor," and he described her as "extremely brilliant."

Bishop Fred Borsch of Los Angeles said: "This is an exciting event in the life of the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion of Churches, and the whole Church catholic throughout the world. It will be both a challenge and an opportunity for many Christians as they see the full expression of the ministry of women. I have known Barbara Harris for many years and believe she is highly qualified to be a bishop, a representative of the witness of the apostles. For a time some may find it difficult to see in her a personal side of continuity and unity in the life of the Church, but I believe that the spirit of God is giving a new gift for the understanding of the unity of all Christians and the future of the faith."

Bishop Frank Griswold of Chicago said: "It is clearly the vocation of the Anglican Communion to lead the way in integrating the gifts and graces of women into the historic three-fold ministry of bishops, priest, and deacons. I have known the Rev. Barbara C. Harris for many years and can only say that she is immensely competent, clear, and articulate in her thought and passionately committed to social justice."

Bishop Graham Leonard of London (Church of England) said the election will cause deep divisions in the Church. "In common with many other bishops, I would be unable to recognize a woman bishop or the validity of any ordinations or confirmations performed by her."

The Rev. William Rusch, Executive Director of the Office of Ecumenical Affairs, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, released a statement saying, "I welcome the news that a woman was elected Suffragan Bishop in the diocese of Massachusetts. The Episcopal Church in the U.S. has been clear for some time of its deep commitment to the equal participation of men and women in the ministry of the Church including the office of bishop. I see this as a helpful event in the growing relationship between our two churches, and I see it as something American Lutherans will enthusiastically support."

Fr. Thaddeus Horgan, S.A., Associate Director of the Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, observed: "Rome and the U.S. [Catholic] bishops have been pointing out that the real issue in our dialogue with the Episcopalians is Tradition. Now that there has been this election perhaps our dialogue should become more focused. We need to look more at Tradition [The Traditional]. We don't know whether or not Tradition allows for the ordination of women. I don't think that the election of Bishop-elect Harris will discourage our conversations. On the contrary, it highlights the necessity to focus on where those conversations should be -- namely the issue of Tradition."

The possible election of a woman to the House of Bishops in the United States was a principal subject for debate at this summer's General Convention of the Episcopal Church and at the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops from around the world. After considerable debate at General Convention in Detroit, the bicameral legislature of the Church passed a compromise resolution that will allow a bishop from outside a diocese to officiate in parishes that request an "episcopal visitor." The resolution remains in effect for six years and will expire unless renewed.

The Lambeth Conference approved a resolution urging the autonomous Anglican bodies around the world to respect one another's decisions regarding women's ordinations and consecration as bishops.

Suffragan Bishop of Massachusetts
September 24, 1988
[Number of votes needed in parentheses]
[Welles withdrew]
Carr 20--
[Carr withdrew]
Schwenzfeier 23
[thumbnail: The Rev. Barbara Clementi...] [thumbnail: The six candidates for Su...]