(RNS) — Retired Bishop Barbara Harris, the first woman to be ordained and consecrated as a bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion, died on Friday (March 13).
She was 89.
Harris died at a hospice house after a recent hospitalization.
“Our hearts are truly heavy at the loss of one who has been a faithful and altogether irrepressible companion, pastor and inspiration to us in the Diocese of Massachusetts for 31 years,” said Bishop Alan M. Gates, leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, in an announcement.
“At the same time our hearts are truly buoyed by the hope which she preached and the conviction she embodied for us throughout all these years,” he said.
Harris, who was known for quoting the words “Hallelujah anyhow” from a gospel song, served as a suffragan, or assisting, bishop in the diocese from 1989 until she retired in 2002. She later served as assisting bishop in the Diocese of Washington from 2003 to 2007.
“Bishop Barbara Harris was not large of physical stature,” said Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry in a tweeted statement. “In fact, the opposite. But she was larger than life. She was larger than life because she lived it fully with her God and with us. She did it by actually living the love of God that Jesus taught us about.”
The great-granddaughter of a woman born into slavery, she described herself as a “fiercely independent” child, and she grew up to take a nontraditional path to the episcopacy, according to a remembrance posted on the website of the Massachusetts diocese. The Philadelphia native joined the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march, became president of a black-owned public relations firm, and was ordained a priest at age 50 in 1980, four years after the Episcopal Church began officially recognizing women in that role.
She broke numerous stereotypes as she became the first woman Anglican bishop, being an African American, a divorcée and a person who had not graduated from seminary.
“The temptation we have,” she said in her first sermon as bishop, “is to play it safe, don’t make waves.
“But if Jesus had played it safe, we would not be saved,” she continued, according to 1989 coverage in the Los Angeles Times. “If the Diocese of Massachusetts had played it safe, I would not be standing here clothed in rochet and chimere and wearing a pectoral cross.”
In a 2004 sermon, “A Circle of Concern,” she urged not only that congregants pray for people with AIDS and those who were hungry or homeless but that they act on those prayers.
“Our circle of concern must enlarge itself over and over and over again to include all of God’s people — especially those who seem hard to love,” she said in a sermon cited in the anthology “Preaching with Sacred Fire.” “For when we love those who seem hard to love, we may be loving ourselves as well.”
The Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas — who edited Harris’ memoir titled “Hallelujah, Anyhow!” — tweeted that she was saddened to learn of her colleague’s death.
“There are truly no words that can adequately reflect the greatness of her life & witness or the gravity of her loss,” wrote Douglas, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union in New York City.
Gates noted that Harris will be honored in the future with a public funeral that will be held at Washington National Cathedral as well as a memorial service at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston.
“Because of the coronavirus pandemic and current restrictions on travel and group gatherings, we will delay setting service dates for now,” he said.
In his announcement, the Massachusetts bishop also quoted Harris’ hopeful words about death:
“If we can believe that Jesus, who died, rose again from the dead, … then we can, in peace, give over those who have died — known and unknown — to a loving, compassionate and ever-merciful God who has prepared for us a better home than this Good Friday world.”