Barbara C. Harris, the first African American woman to be ordained as a bishop in the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion, died on Friday in Massachusetts. She was 89.
Harris, who grew up in Philadelphia, became the first woman and the first African American woman, to ascent to bishop within the church. She came to her prominent position within the church late in life, after spending years working in public relations for Joseph V. Baker Associates PR and Sun Company.
Harris was ordained as a deacon in 1979 and the next year as a priest in the Diocese of Pennsylvania at the age of 50. She was later elected as a suffragan (assistant) bishop in September 1988 and consecrated as a bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts in 1989.
Her rise to bishop broke centuries of precedent for tens of millions of Christians in the Anglican Communion. The religious institution has members in more than 165 countries. In 2011, Harris was recognized with a Legacy Award (along with fashion industry icon Bethann Hardison, D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and the late playwright and poet Ntozake Shange) at the Black Enterprise Women of Power Summit.
According to the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, Harris was active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, traveling to register black voters in Mississippi and taking part in the march from Selma to Montgomery, AL, in 1965.
In addition to being a talented storyteller in her sermons, she was an advocate many marginalized gropus. She spoke out against racism, sexism, and homophobia during her time in the church.
“God has no favorites,” she said in a 2009 sermon, the Massachusetts diocese recounted. “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.”
Harris served 13 years as the suffragan bishop in Massachusetts until she retired in 2002. From 2003 to 2007, she was an assisting bishop in the Diocese of Washington in Washington, D.C. She continued to volunteer and preach in Boston after retirement, and made time to write her 2018 memoir, Hallelujah, Anyhow!