The Rev. Barbara Harris, with the voices of dissidents overwhelmed by cheers from thousands of fellow Episcopalians, on Saturday became the first woman elevated to bishop in a 2,000-year succession dating back to the apostles.
Harris was greeted with a roar of approval from about 8,000 people when she walked down the aisle for a consecration that has drawn world attention because of her gender, background and liberal views.She was faulted by a conservative church member who said in a brief speech that her elevation would be a sacrilege. But when the chief consecrator, the Most Rev. Edmond Browning, asked the congregation if it was their will that Harris be ordained, they thundered out: "That is our will."
"I will obey Christ and serve in his name," Harris said.
"Men and women now stand together before God, in today's world, a world that needs that," First Bishop David Johnson of the Boston Episcopal Diocese said before the consecration, held in a convention center to accommodate the crowd.
Beginning with a solemn procession and culminating in the laying on of bishops' hands and the placing of a pointed bishop's miter on her head, Harris assumed the relatively minor position of suffragan, or assistant, bishop in the Boston Episcopal diocese.
"Just say I'm very proud and very happy. That's all," said Harris' mother, Beatrice Harris.
The 58-year-old former publisher of a liberal Episcopal publication is the first woman consecrated a bishop in any of the three major branches of Christianity - Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism, which includes the Episcopal Church - that consider bishops successors to Jesus' apostles.
Her selection touched off monthslong debate within the church.
Opponents included traditionalists who believe that because the apostles were men, the position of bishop must be reserved for men. Others objected to Harris because of her lack of a college degree and formal seminary training and because of her relative inexperience in parish ministerial work. Still others objected to her strongly liberal writings on gay rights, U.S. policy in Central America and internal church matters.
Harris, who is black, said she believes that some of the opposition to her elevation stemmed from her race as well as her sex.
But by last month her election was confirmed by a majority 118 Episcopal dioceses across the country. As a result of the intense debate, Saturday's rites drew network television coverage and a live local TV audience.
A 1976 vote by Episcopal bishops cleared the way for Saturday's consecration by approving the ordination of women as priests. Harris became a priest in 1980, one of about 1,200 women ordained.
Harris' election last September by members of the Boston Episcopal diocese also touched off debate from other denominations that bar women from the priesthood.
Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston's Roman Catholic archdiocese declined to attend the ceremony and said that the consecration of Harris "has serious ecumenical implications because it departs from a common tradition in regard to sacramental orders."