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Election of Woman Bishop Ends Long Struggle for Clergywomen

February 12, 1989

BOSTON (AP) _ The barriers of two milleniums of an all-male hierarchy have been broken, and to the women who paved the way for Barbara C. Harris to become an Episcopal bishop, her elevation seems like a miracle.

″I feel very, very happy. In my life, I can see the first woman bishop,″ said the Rev. Florence Tim-Oi Li, 81, the first clergywoman in the worldwide Anglican communion. ″It made me hopeful. Things are realized now.″

Ms. Li stopped functioning as a priest in 1946 in response to pressure from Anglican bishops outside of China, where she was ordained in 1944, but on Saturday she and other pioneer clergywomen helped consecrate Harris.

The ceremony made Harris the first woman bishop in a church that believes in apostolic succession - that the church leadership can be traced to the apostles.

″I think it’s really helped a lot of us see how history is made,″ said the Rev. I. Carter Heyward, one of 11 women ″illegally″ ordained in a service in Philadelphia in 1974 that paved the way for the Episcopal Church’s approval of women clergy two years later. ″My experience in the Episcopal Church is that it really does take some pushing, and I doubt that that’s over.″

In her first sermon as a bishop Sunday, Harris told 400 worshipers at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul to resist the temptation to shut their eyes to issues such as racism and AIDS.

″If Jesus had not taken risks, we would not be saved,″ she said. ″If the Diocese of Massachusetts had decided to play it safe, I would not be here.″

While nearly all of the more than 8,000 people who packed the convention center Saturday for her consecration shouted their approval, others fought right up to the end to preserve the tradition, dating back to Jesus Christ, of all-male bishops.

At the point in the ceremony when objections were called for, John Jamieson, representing a group of conservative Episcopalians called the Prayer Book Society, said her ″pretended consecration″ holds church laws ″in contempt.″

The Rev. James Hopkinson Cupit Jr. of New York City said the election of a woman was ″contrary to the unbroken tradition of 2,000 years of apostolic order.″ He said it may represent an ″intractable impediment″ to relations with other churches that believe in apostolic succession, such as the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy.

The election of the 58-year-old Harris as suffragan, or assistant, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts in September has been the most controversial in recent years. She is the only woman in the 200-member House of Bishops.

In addition to being the first woman bishop, Harris is thought to be the first bishop elected after a divorce and the first U.S. bishop, at least in modern times, to lack both a seminary degree and an undergraduate college degree.

While approval of a locally elected bishop is usually a perfunctory process for the national church, Harris barely won approval from the majority of standing committees and heads of the 118 dioceses in the Episcopal Church. By Saturday, only 61 standing committees and 66 of the 118 bishops had given their consent.

Even a supporter of her election, Dean Elton Smith of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Buffalo, N.Y., said, ″I wish somebody else had been elected to be the first woman bishop.″

Noting that Harris is black as well as a woman, the Rev. Paul Matthews Washington, who presided at the ordinations of the ″Philadelphia 11,″ said in his sermon at the consecration Saturday, ″I would say that today the camel has gotten through the eye of the needle.″

But all that did not matter to Harris when the bishops gathered around her to consecrate her into their ranks.

″I felt during the laying on of hands a part of the ongoing history of the church. I truly felt in apostolic succession at this moment,″ she said.

For women who had come from throughout the country, the service held a special meaning.

″I wouldn’t have missed it. I came in all the way from the Diocese of South Dakota,″ said 67-year-old Inez Harris of Calvary Cathedral in Sioux Falls. ″I was absolutely exhilarated when they put her cloak and mitre on.″

Millicent Carroll, a 66-year-old church member from Connecticut, cried when the bishop’s mitre was placed upon Harris’ head.

″We didn’t think there would be a woman, much less a black woman,″ said Carroll, who is black.

Presiding Bishop Edmond Lee Browning, spiritual leader of the Episcopal Church, said after the service that Harris’ consecration ″means that this church is realizing the wholeness of ministry, the totality of ministry, and I’m sure that others will be following Barbara in the days ahead.″

The Rev. Suzanne R. Hiatt, a professor of pastoral theology at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, said that if the church had not acted by 1994, plans were being made for an ″illegal″ consecration of a woman bishop on the 20th anniversary of the ordination of herself and other members of the Philadelphia 11.

This weekend, she could celebrate.

″I feel part of a great chain,″ she said. ″Barbara is not the end.″

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