When President Trump had protesters cleared from Lafayette Square near the White House in June, so that he could stand on the steps of St. John’s Episcopal Church and display a Bible for the cameras, he did not give the church’s clergy the opportunity to speak. Given what happened next, however, he may as well have handed them a megaphone. The Right Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, who as Episcopal bishop of Washington is the denomination’s leading cleric of the region, suddenly had a national platform to talk about racial justice.
“He did not come to pray,” Budde told CNN, in a message shared widely across social media. She called Trump’s photo opportunity “a charade” that did nothing to calm the soul.
For those who know the history of the Episcopal Church, the moment was especially powerful. Just months before the Lafayette Square incident, Budde had lost a role model and her denomination had lost a pioneering advocate for racial justice. The Right Rev. Barbara Clementine Harris, a Black woman who was the first female bishop in the global Anglican Communion, died at a hospice in March at age 89, following a hospitalization. A groundbreaking figure, she forged a path for Budde and a generation of female bishops and inspired countless other Episcopal leaders, including Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry, who described her as a friend. Harris also withstood fierce political pressure, much of it coming from within her own church. “The impact of her election [as bishop] on all of us was mind-boggling, really,” Budde said in an interview. “She was iconic for me.”
Harris faced fierce battles leading up to her groundbreaking consecration as bishop in February 1989. The first fight came in September 1988, when clergy and lay members of the Diocese of Boston nominated her for the role. She was nominated to serve as a suffragan, a bishop with the same liturgical duties, but less political power, than a diocesan bishop. After winning the vote in Boston, Harris then faced the scrutiny of every Episcopal diocese in the nation; per church tradition, the majority must vote to approve a bishop before they can serve.
In a 2013 interview with the National Visionary Leadership Project, an oral history archive of prominent Black leaders, Harris described the opposition she faced. “I was a woman. I was Black. I was divorced. I had not gone to seminary. I had only been ordained 9 years.” Her detractors, she said, argued “that I was outspoken, that I was left of center. Anything they wanted to use, they used.”
The Episcopal Church, while declining in membership along with other mainline Protestant denominations, has often been linked with political power. So many American leaders have worshipped at St. John’s Church in Lafayette Square, for example, that it’s nicknamed the “Church of the Presidents.” The denomination is affiliated with the global Anglican Communion, the official religious home of British monarchs. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican leader, lowers the crown on the heads of English kings and queens during coronation ceremonies.
Harris was a forceful, quick-witted, and often pointed voice for inclusion of women, people of color, the LGBT community, and the poor in the Episcopal church and beyond, and her election inspired many. It also exposed her to the racism and sexism in her denomination. Her critics portrayed her as a radical choice.
Fredrica Harris Thompsett, the former dean of Episcopal Divinity School then housed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a church historian and theologian who edited the 2017 volume, In Conversation: Michael Curry and Barbara Harris. Thompsett was among the cadre of church leaders who supported Harris’ nomination. They were keenly aware of the historic moment and eager to push their church forward: Not long before Harris’ election as bishop, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the denomination’s leader, had urged members to “go cautiously” when considering female bishops.
Many regions of the Anglican Communion at the time—the late 1980s—did not permit women to be priests, let alone bishops. The first 11 female Episcopal priests in the U.S were ordained in 1974 in Philadelphia. Harris participated in that historic ceremony as the crucifer, the lay person who carried the cross up the aisle of the church.
Harris’s nomination as bishop in 1988 “was a very challenging and for many a scandalous decision, and for many of us justice in the telling,” Thompsett said. Once they’d decided to nominate a woman, she added, they thought, “let’s put a prophet up there, and that was Barbara Harris, who was already well known for social justice advocacy and leadership.”
Born in 1930, Harris grew up in Philadelphia, a self-described “cradle Episcopalian” who came to the priesthood after a career in public relations, including for Sun Oil Company. She became a priest in 1980 at age 50, after studying theology in England and at Villanova University in Philadelphia.
Her obituary published by the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts noted that she said: “The call to ordained ministry came late, and I resisted it.” Feeling unworthy of the call, she said she was helped when a friend told her: “God does not call those who are worthy. God makes worthy those whom God would call.”
Some of Harris’s fellow church members were openly hostile after she was elected to serve as an assisting bishop. “One diocesan newspaper ran my picture on the front page with a black slash across my face like a no smoking ad,” she recalled, with a dry chuckle, during the 2013 interview with the National Visionary Leadership Project. She received hate mail and death threats (“Nobody can hate like Christians,” she once remarked), and opponents interrupted her consecration ceremony to protest the vote. Some 8,500 people attended her consecration in Hynes Auditorium in Boston. The crowd, including 62 bishops and several armed police officers, was too large to fit in a church. One police officer sat behind her near the altar.
“The Boston police department offered me a bulletproof vest to wear that day, which I declined,” Harris said in a 2009 interview. “I thought, if some idiot is going to shoot me, what better place to go than at an altar.”
The Rev. Canon Susan Russell of All Saints Church in Pasadena, California, the former leader of Integrity, an organization of LGBTQ Episcopalians, called Harris a “prophetic voice against oppression” and “one of the great matriarchs of the movement” for inclusivity in the church.
Active in the civil rights movement, Harris was present in 1963 when the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed the March on Washington in D.C., and she joined the historic voting rights march in Selma in 1965. That year, she also traveled to Mississippi to register Black voters with the National Council of Churches. As a bishop, Harris became an outspoken advocate for marginalized voices, including LGBT Christians. Harris was a key voice at the 2009 General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Anaheim, California, where the delegates voted overwhelmingly to support ordaining gay bishops and develop liturgies for same-sex unions. Russell recalled Harris’s powerful sermon during a convention service with LGBT Episcopalians and their allies.
“She stood up in the pulpit and drew herself up to her full 5-foot-one height, and said, ‘I do not understand how you can baptize people and then tell them they’re not fully welcome in the church. There is nothing that we call half-assed baptized in this church,’” Russell recalled. “When a bishop of the church can stand up and say that on behalf of the LGBTQ community, it was a huge moment. I think it’s hard to underestimate her impact.”
Russell continued: “For anyone who ever feels like there is no way to make change in the church, to look at Barbara’s story and to follow her example is to say, ‘Of course we can.’”
Harris also influenced generations of female priests and bishops, including Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, the first African American woman bishop to lead a regional diocese in the Episcopal Church. Baskerville-Burrows joined the Episcopal church as a young adult, and she recalled the first time she saw news of Harris’s consecration as a bishop. The event made the cover of a denominational newspaper, “just around the time I was really noticing things about the church.”
Baskerville-Burrows said: “For me to be watching for all kinds of signs for where I might fit in this church, and to see this African American woman ordained as bishop, and all of what came with that, the notoriety, the questions about women’s authority in the church and the world, I do remember trying to read everything I could about her at that time.”
Almost two decades later, she counted Harris as a mentor and friend, and Baskerville-Burrows invited Harris to participate in her consecration in Indianapolis in 2017. Describing Harris as a “down-to-earth, tell-it-like-it-is kind of person,” Baskerville-Burrows said, “I wanted to make sure that she would be one of those who would be at the top of the signature list on my certificate, who would lay hands on me most directly, and who would read to me the ordination charge and vows that are a part of the ordination service for a bishop. It was an honor for me to have her in that role because to me, I just know my position here would not be possible were it not for her.”
Budde, the bishop of Washington, D.C., said when she thinks of Harris, she is reminded of Jesus’s parable of the laborers in the vineyard, Matthew 20:1-26. The women bishops who followed in Harris’s footsteps benefit from her struggles and sacrifices, just as the laborers in the parable who arrive late in the day reap the same rewards as the laborers who came before. Harris never shied from showing up in difficult places or speaking up at difficult times, Budde said, and her courage opened the doors for the women who followed.
“Any woman in the church and in society was blessed by who she was and what she accomplished,” Budde said. “That’s just a legacy she’s given to all of us.”
Monique Parsons is an independent religion reporter based in Chicago. She is former interim managing editor of Religion & Politics.