Gender Equality in the Black Church

Did the Anglican church appoint a black woman bishop?

In 1989 Barbara Clementine Harris (1930–) became the first woman Anglican bishop in the world. Although she was elected on September 24, 1988, she took office the next year. On February 12, 1989, she was consecrated suffragan bishop (an auxiliary bishop who is given a special mission) in the Diocese of Massachusetts. As a woman, her election to a post held only by men from the time of Saint Peter, aroused the same controversy as the ordination of eleven women priests did in 1974. This earlier event encouraged Harris to prepare for the priesthood to which she herself was ordained in 1980. Harris felt a call to the church while she was a young child growing up in Philadelphia. While a teenager, she was baptized and confirmed at St. Barnabas Church in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. She completed college courses and special training for mid-career clergy recruits at Villanova University from 1977 to 1979, and received a doctor of sacred theology degree from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in 1981. She was ordained to the diaconate in 1979, and from 1979 to 1980 she served as deacon-in-training at the Church of the Advocate. She was ordained to the priesthood in 1980. From 1980 to 1984 Harris was priest-in-charge at St. Augustine-of-Hippo in Norristown, Pennsylvania, and interim rector at the Church of the Advocate, the position she held when she was elected as suffragan bishop of the Massachusetts diocese. Harris’ election stirred controversy—she was divorced, female, an advocate of women’s rights, and had a different educational background than suffragan bishops usually possessed. Harris survived the controversy, however, and became an effective religious leader and catalyst for social justice.

The first time a woman was named a bishop in the AME Church was in 2000, when Vashti Murphy McKenzie was selected.


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