Members of the nation's largest Episcopal diocese elected the first woman bishop in the history of the church Saturday.

Barbara C. Harris, 58, a black priest at Philadelphia's Church of the Advocate, was elected suffragan, or assistant bishop for the eastern Massachusetts diocese, the largest in the country with 192 missions and parishes and more than 150,000 members.After eight ballots, Harris defeated the Rev. Marshall Hunt, 276 to 224. When balloting started, there were six candidates, including two women.

Reached at her home in Philadelphia, Harris declined to comment immediately. Later, a spokeswoman said Harris would respond after her Sunday sermon at the Church of the Advocate.

The election marks the first time a woman has been brought into the historic line of apostolic succession. The lineage of bishops is traced back to the time of the apostles through laying on of hands in the worldwide Anglican Communion - which includes the U.S. Episcopal Church - the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy.

The Episcopal Church first approved the ordination of female priests in 1976. Women were increasingly being nominated for bishop in the Episcopal Church, but until Harris, none had been elected.

Earlier in a statement distributed to delegates, Harris said that if elected, she would contribute "my peculiar gifts as a black woman and as a woman priest. Moreover, I would bring a sensitivity to the needs of different kinds of people including minorities, women, the incarcerated, the poor and other marginalized groups."

This summer at the U.S. Episcopal Church's General Convention in Detroit, a resolution was passed to aid the transition of women into the position of bishop. At a once-a-decade worldwide conference in England later this summer, a resolution was passed that asks each province in the Anglican Communion to respect the views and decisions of other provinces on issues, including consecrating women as bishops.

Harris became a priest in 1980 in Norristown, Pa., and served as chaplain of the Philadelphia County Prisons. From 1968 to 1980 she was an executive in various positions for Sun Oil Co. Beginning in 1984, Harris has been executive director of the Episcopal Church Publishing Co.