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. Bishop 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 prayer."
And already, Bishop 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.
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, Bishop 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 Bishop Harris' forehead. A little boy gave her a drawing of a cross and a miter. "Oh, you're good!" Bishop Harris said. When a man she knew asked to kiss her ring, Bishop Harris responded: "Forget the ring, sweetie. Kiss the bishop!"
Since her election, Bishop 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 Bishop 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."
To those who decry Bishop Harris' rise, her distinct differences in background and experience are used as ammunition to label her a troublemaker. But, Washington says, "Anybody who is interested in change is considered a troublemaker to those who do not want change."