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The Bishop of Controversy : Barbara Harris, Whose New Role Shatters Tradition, Tries a Touch of Diplomacy on Her Divided Church

Times Staff Writer

The cameras clicked furiously as the twig-thin woman in a long, black fur stepped toward her stretch limousine.

“I don’t want people to think bishops live like this,” Barbara Harris said with a laugh, making fun of herself in a way that only supremely self-assured people do. “This is special.”

Indeed it was. Harris, a 58-year-old divorced black woman and civil rights activist, was launching a new life as the first female bishop of the Episcopal Church, often jokingly referred to in the United States as “the Republican Party at pray.”

And already, Harris--the first woman to don the bishop’s miter in any branch of Christianity, which believes in the 2,000-year succession of bishops dating to Jesus’ 12 male apostles--has put in a schedule so heavy it has necessitated the presence of a limousine.

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A Busy First Day

On Sunday alone, her official first day as bishop, she: presided at two services, one lasting more than two hours; attended two church receptions; visited homeless pregnant women; and finally was caught squeezing in a smoke while being interviewed quickly by Ebony magazine.

During the busy day, she also revealed herself to be flashy, funny, warm and something new--diplomatic.

Carrying her staff and dressed in the purple bishop’s shirt, a blue suede suit, high heels, gold earrings and manicured mauve nails, Harris cracked jokes and poked fun at herself several times, as when she performed one service ritual out of order. With great patience, she also posed for pictures, autographed church programs, dispensed hugs and remembered names.

“Don’t you kneel! Don’t you dare!” she barked to an older woman, who, instead, placed a cross on Harris’ forehead. A little boy gave her a drawing of a cross and a miter. “Oh, you’re good!” Harris said. When a man she knew asked to kiss her ring, Harris responded: “Forget the ring, sweetie. Kiss the bishop!”

On Good Behavior

Since her election, Harris has seemed to be on notably good behavior, her utterances toned down since the days when she railed against conservative elements in the church, calling them “Podunk Episcopalians” who were afraid of “mitered mamas.”

She now promises not to serve as “a gadfly” for liberal causes but to be a bishop of all the people. Finding her public self is proving to be her latest challenge.

“To be thrust into the limelight is almost disorienting,” said the Rev. Paul Washington, the North Philadelphia cleric whom Harris calls her mentor. “She has been struggling to remain herself and not become something that people perceive her to be. She has had to fight not to allow herself to be changed.”

Harris, hoarse and coughing from a cold, offered her usual support for the disadvantaged but couched it in more palatable language, devoid of name-calling, when delivering her first sermon as a bishop over the weekend at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul.

“We live in a world that oppresses and dehumanizes,” she told the packed house of supporters. “There are times when we are disheartened and discouraged. We avoid the responsibility for becoming involved.”

But then, in a jovial tone that brought laughter, she added: “We rationalize there is no harm in walking with the devil as long as he is going your way.”

Continuing in a more serious tone, she said it is easy not to confront teen-age pregnancy, prejudice, the rampage of drugs, the plague of AIDS and corruption in government and in the church hierarchy.

“The temptation we have,” she said, “is to play it safe, don’t make waves.

“But if Jesus had played it safe, we would not be saved. 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.”

A Woman of Controversy

That was as close as she came to swiping at her critics, who would have had a tough time considering any woman as a bishop, let alone as controversial a personality as Harris.

Harris is believed to be the first divorced person to be consecrated, although other priests have ended their marriages after becoming bishops. Her marriage to Raymond Rollins ended in 1963 after three years. They had no children.

Asked what her biggest disappointment in life has been, her mentor Washington replied: “I think she would have wanted to be married. However, I look at many women and I realize with their amount of energy and the concerns they have beyond themselves, they may never be able to find a mate who will give them the liberty to do what God made them to do.”

Of Harris, he noted: “She’s always been interested in something ‘out there.’ To take that away would be to destroy Barbara Harris. It’s a sacrifice Barbara Harris was not ready to make.”

Longtime Activist

Harris has theorized that some of the disapproval she has encountered has come not only because she is female but because she is black. She is an outspoken advocate for civil rights causes. She has marched in Selma, registered voters in Mississippi and spoken out forcefully against apartheid in South Africa. She has said that the two most important influences on her life were the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Washington.

Much of her experience as a priest and layperson was acquired working with Washington at the Church of the Advocate, the North Philadelphia Gothic cathedral that nurtured the Black Panthers, hosting their convention in 1970.

Harris also has ruffled feathers by expressing support for the ordination of homosexuals and other gay causes.

While tempering her political language, Harris has said that she does not think her positions are at odds with the church. “I feel that I am an open person, politically, socially, and involve myself with issues and causes that are consistent with the church.”

Barred From Men’s Route

Like almost all women pioneers, Harris also has endured the criticism that she does not have the usual credentials and experience of her male colleagues.

But this view overlooks that women like Harris cannot follow the same paths men take to top jobs because those routes are not always open to women. In Harris’ case, for example, the church did not even ordain females as priests until 1974.

Harris did not graduate from college but was a public relations executive in her native Philadelphia for Joseph Baker Associates and the Sun Oil Co. from 1958 until 1980, when she quit to become a priest.

Instead of seminary training, she took correspondence courses from Philadelphia area colleges and the Urban Theology Unit in Sheffield, England.

Although she spent her early adult life flying around the country on public relations business, church activities always were a priority for her from her childhood in a lower-middle-class neighborhood.

“She worked for a living, but she lived for the church,” Washington said.

Childhood in the Church

Like her mother, Beatrice, Harris sang in church choirs and taught in church schools at St. Barnabus in Philadelphia. When 11 women were ordained in an unsanctioned ceremony at Church of Advocate in 1974, Harris flew in from a Los Angeles business assignment to lead the procession in the church, carrying the cross.

She grew interested in the priesthood while making prison visits to a man she knew who had been convicted of murder.

Harris was ordained in 1980 and four years later became executive director of the Episcopal Church Publishing Co., an umbrella group that publishes the Witness, a church journal.

Her flamboyant writings in the Witness, where she outlined her views on social issues, made her politics well-known and branded her as controversial long before her election.

A ‘Troublemaker’

To those who decry Harris’ rise, all of this is used as ammunition to label her a troublemaker. But Washington says, “Anybody who is interested in change is considered a troublemaker to those who do not want change.”

Since her election last September, Harris has received death threats and caused some church members to echo the sentiments of Dean Elton Smith of Buffalo, who told a reporter that even though he supported her election, “I wish somebody else had been elected to be the first woman bishop.”

But somebody else is not what they got. With a scant majority of 61 of 118 worldwide standing committees voting in her favor, in what is usually a perfunctory endorsement, Harris became a woman of history. Her supporters saw the unlikely event as nothing less than the work of God.

“If you think God is not in this, then God is not in this world,” said the Rev. Leroy Attles, a Boston pastor who preached at a service Harris attended Sunday evening.

A Desire to Grow

Washington says he would not use the word ambitious to describe Harris, “but I believe she felt she must always grow and reach a level beyond where she may be at a current moment. She’s not trying to get ahead or be out front. But she has tremendous self-confidence to tackle any kind of job.”

When Harris first told Washington she felt a calling to the priesthood, he told her to give some thought to why she needed to be ordained. She pondered the question a full year.

Harris herself had held doubts about women becoming priests, but her thinking evolved and finally changed.

“When people ask her that question,” said Jim Solheim, spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese in Massachusetts, “she smiles and says, ‘I saw the light.’ ”


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