The passing of an icon

On the 13th March 2020 the Rt Rev Barbara C Harris died at the age of 89. She was the first woman to be consecrated as a bishop in the Episcopal Church of the USA and in the worldwide Anglican church. Barbara’s consecration as Bishop of Boston in 1989 happened whilst I was at theological college. Selected a few years earlier to train as a deaconess I arrived at college in the autumn of 1987 just after the Church of England had begun to ordain women as permanent deacons.

Three issues were prominent during my time at Theological college; the ordination of women, issues around sexuality and the apartheid regime in South Africa. Around these issues we talked, argued, debated scripture, wrote liturgies, held prayer vigils and tried to discern the leading of the Holy Spirit. The issue of apartheid was the least contentious but perhaps did not challenge us enough to think about racial issues in our own church and country.

A visit to the states where I had been able to worship and meet with women priests had been important in my own vocational journey. I was surprised by the ordinariness of a eucharist with a woman president; as the service unfolded I was held by the familiar words and actions, focusing on worshipping God not on ‘noticing’ the priest.

In 1989 in the Church of England the ordination of women as priests was for me and many others a longed-for dream that we knew was going to take time, women bishops seemed even further away. In fact, we now know that it would take 5 years for women to be priests and 25 years for them to become bishops. So, the consecration of Barbara Harris was a sign of what would in time be possible for our own church. It energised many of us to continue to work for change.

Barbara was not only a pioneer for women but also for women of colour. She was an African American who had been part of the civil rights movement, marching with Martin Luther King Jnr in the late 60’s. If it was exciting for me to see a woman in the churches leadership it must have been even more exciting for those who longed to see someone from their ethnic background.

One of the things that has been learnt is how much people from groups that have been marginalised or excluded from positions of power need role models who look like them. There is a need for icons who enable us to believe that people like us are good enough for leadership roles and in the church, for us to believe that people like us are good enough for God. In the recent book She Preached the Word Knoll and Bolin concluded that female religious role models could help to close the gender self-esteem gap by lifting women’s self-esteem without diminishing that of men.

In 2009 Bishop Barbara Harris said ‘If God is the creator of all persons, then how can some people be more acceptable to God than others.’ She lived, preached and worked for inclusion. For a church that was hospitable to the rich diverse people of God’s creation. Her death came just as we all began to move into the social distancing made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic so the wonderful joyous celebratory services to honour her life and ministry have not taken place. A time will come when we can really celebrate her life. Now it is good to acknowledge an icon who gave us a different image of an Anglican bishop. A woman who was a sign of God’s inclusive nature who inspired so many of us to campaign for inclusivity in our own church.


Emma Percy

Chaplain of Trinity College Oxford, Chair of WATCH.