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

February 15, 1989|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — 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.

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

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