The U.S. Episcopal Church on February 11 consecrated Barbara C. Harris as its first woman bishop in a ceremony in Boston marked by both joyous celebration and dire warnings.

For the 8,500 worshipers in Hynes Auditorium and tens of thousands of sympathizers not present, the admission of a female to the denomination’s highest order of ministry symbolized the culmination of a movement that began in 1974 with the illicit ordination of 11 women as priests at a Philadelphia parish. In 1976, the national church opened all orders of the Episcopal clergy to women.

But the election of Harris as suffragan (assisting) bishop of Massachusetts had wider implications. With her consecration by Episcopal primate Edmond Browning and 54 other bishops, the Anglican communion—a family of 70 million Christians in 28 national churches that grew out of the Church of England—became what church leaders have called an “impaired” communion.

A Church Divided

Last summer, the Lambeth Conference of worldwide Anglican bishops, meeting in Canterbury, England, explicitly but uncomfortably affirmed the right of Anglican churches to name female bishops. The 58-year-old Harris, an activist priest/publisher from Philadelphia known for her outspoken liberal views, became the first, as she knelt before Browning and other senior bishops of the U.S. Episcopal Church for the ancient rite of the laying on of hands, which is believed to date back to Jesus’ commissioning of the apostles. When she rose and donned the cope and miter, signifying her new dignity, she became at once a new focus of unity and a symbol of division among Anglicans and within Christendom.

After the three-hour service that mixed Mozart with Afro-American spirituals such as “Ride On, King Jesus,” Browning ...

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