Bishop Harris was known not only for being the first woman to be ordained a bishop in the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion in 1989, but also for how justice advocacy permeated her ministry at every level. Bishop Harris, who served in the Diocese of Massachusetts from 1989 until her retirement in 2002 and then was an assisting bishop in the Diocese of Washington D.C. from 2003-2007, was a powerful, galvanizing preacher and writer, an inspiring and incisive leader, and a compassionate pastoral presence. She would often begin her sermons with “Let there be peace among us and let us not be instruments of our own or another’s oppression”. That call to recognize intersectional oppression and to resist it, to stand together and uplift one another, was such an inspiration to us. So too was her wonderfully irreverent sense of humor that could cut through the difficulties of any moment, connecting us and giving us hope. We in TransEpiscopal will always be grateful for the support she gave us early on as we began our work in 2007, both believing in and standing with us as we began advocating for trans and nonbinary people in the wider Church.
Bishop Harris also supported some of us individually as we made our way into our various ministries. “I will never forget Bishop Harris sitting in a rocking chair in her office, listening intently and compassionately as I came out to her as trans in the spring of 2002,” commented the Rev’d Dr. Cameron Partridge, TransEpiscopal steering committee member who was ordained in 2005 in the Diocese of Massachusetts and served there until coming to the Diocese of California in 2016. “I was a Candidate for Holy Orders at the time, and I was frankly anxious about how my being trans might impact my ordination process and ministry. She made it clear that she supported me, regardless of how others might respond down the road, and that meant so much. She not only stood with me, she stood with all of us and called upon others to do the same. I’m so grateful for her ministry not only as a prophetic, trailblazing pioneer but also as a pastor.”
“Bishop Barbara C. Harris was an icon to me as a younger church leader in the 2000s as my deputation from the Diocese of California was working so hard for inclusion of LGBTQ people in our church,” commented Sarah Lawton, longtime Deputy to General Convention from the Diocese of California and TransEpiscopal steering committee member. “I'll never forget her preaching at the Integrity Eucharist in 2009 – as it happens, the year that we passed the first trans supportive resolution at General Convention, the year we had the first openly trans deputy serving in the House of Deputies – and she told the congregation that ‘God has no favorites .... 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.’ Bishop Barbara was electrifying. For a people so often excluded from church ministry, she pointed the way right to Jesus.”
As COVID-19 continues to disproportionately impact Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities across the United States, Bishop Harris’s lifelong advocacy for racial justice and her prayer that we not be instruments of our own or another’s oppression calls all of us to a deeper, insistent solidarity across racial and economic lines. And as a growing legislative wave emerges in statehouses across this country – at least 65 pieces of specifically anti-trans legislation as of earlier this month, aimed at trans youth and particularly at trans girls – we draw strength from the fearless, heartfelt support Bishop Harris shared with us again and again, as well as her own example of courage. As the Rev’d Kit Wang, TransEpiscopal steering committee member from the Diocese of Maine, remembered, “Bishop Barbara Harris’ consecration was the first I had ever attended. The parade of protests was cringeworthy. It felt as if the whole world converged on the Hynes Auditorium!” That convergence and Bishop Harris’ courage remind us, in the words of the Diocese of Massachusetts’ new collect commemorating Bishop Harris, that the “Everliving God… cause[s] fresh winds to renew, refresh, and refine” us and to “summon us to live courageously as Easter people in an often Good Friday world.”
Finally, as we remain physically distant while spiritually connected, we remember what it was like to receive Communion from Bishop Harris. She would put the bread of life in your hand and hold your hand between hers for a moment, looking into your eyes as she said, “the body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” It was such an act of compassion and love.
As Bishop Harris so often prayed:
May the blessing of the God of Abraham and Sarah, and of Jesus Christ born of our sister Mary, and of the Holy Spirit, who broods over the world as a mother over her children, be upon you and remain with you always.