Boston Episcopal Diocese Elects Church’s First Woman Bishop
The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts on Saturday elected the first female bishop in the 450-year history of the Anglican church.
Whoops, shouts of joy and applause rocked the sedate St. Paul’s Cathedral when Bishop David Johnson told delegates that on their seventh ballot they had elected the Rev. Barbara C. Harris, a black priest at Philadelphia’s Church of the Advocate, their new suffragan, or associate, bishop.
Harris, a veteran of the civil rights movement and a former businesswoman, bested a favorite son, the Rev. Marshall Hunt of Lowell, Mass., by a vote of 145 to 108 among the clergy and 131 to 115 among lay delegates. Church law requires a simple majority within each group for election.
The still-smoldering controversy over ordination of women as priests and bishops, approved by the Episcopal Church in 1976, was reflected a moment later when Johnson, according to tradition, asked the assembly to “vote by affirmation” for its new bishop. Most joined enthusiastically in the assent, but a few shouted “No.”
Harris, 58, was not present. Johnson said that when he phoned her in Philadelphia with news of her election, she responded with “a deep gasp of incredulity.”
Although Harris won over a field of six candidates, which included another woman and a black man, the race was essentially between her and Hunt. Hunt led for the first three ballots and was especially strong among the lay delegates.
Delegates realized they were making history in their church and that the election of a female bishop, the first in the 70-million-member worldwide Anglican communion, would unleash controversy.
Threats of Split
At last summer’s Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops worldwide, there were threats from some bishops, particularly in the Church of England, to split from the church if any members of the communion elected women bishops.
For that reason particularly, the first phone call Johnson made after Saturday’s election was to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was out.
According to Episcopal church law, the election of any bishop must be affirmed by a majority of the church’s diocesan bishops nationwide and by a majority of its dioceses. Johnson said that this process is expected to take about three months but that he anticipated no difficulties.
Before entering the priesthood, Harris headed the public relations department of Sun Oil Co. During the 1960s and ‘70s, she was involved in the civil rights movement in Philadelphia and the South.