Bishop Barbara Harris on empowerment of the faithful

By Leslie A. Brown ’10 M.Div, International Security Studies

If the church is to flourish in the 21st century, it will need to regain its role as a continuation of Jesus’ movement—empowering people at the grassroots level instead of relying on institutional models that govern from the top down.

HarrisThat was a central theme of a March 24 Common Room conversation on “Re-visioning the Church” delivered at Yale Divinity School by Anglican Bishop Barbara Harris, the first woman to have been ordained a bishop in the Episcopal Church and in the worldwide Anglican Communion.  Harris’s ordination as a bishop in the Diocese of Massachusetts in 1989 created a firestorm among Anglicans around the globe at the time but ultimately paved the way for other women to follow suit both in the Episcopal Church and in some Anglican churches abroad.

On campus as the 2010 Luccock Visitor, Harris contended that the  “church needs to plug into social justice movements that are already going on and the church need not be the initiator of defining what the struggle is.”   She pointed to the work begun by the Civil Rights movement, the work of human rights, as the unfinished work of the church.

“People know what they are struggling for,” she said.  “We don’t need to tell poor people what they need...but we need to find ways to help poor people do what they know they need...The biggest hurdle for the church is to get over ourselves.”

Harris underscored the importance of empowerment in the context of social movements.  She noted, “(a movement) is a force in which the people who do the work make the decisions while an institution is a form of social organization in which one group of people make the decisions about what another group of people are going to do.”  She expressed hope that the church “will recapture the sense of being a continuation of Jesus’ movement as opposed to being an institution that tries to make Jesus over into its own image.”

Harris encouraged the adoption of  “a movement psychology as opposed to an institutional modality” to revive the life of the church and joining in dialogue across denominational lines to discern best practices of localized ministry and building community.

Harris began her talk with a brief reflection on her own ordination as a bishop over two decades ago, recalling some of the heated rhetoric surrounding her appointment as Anglicanism’s first woman bishop.  For some critics, her ascension to the episcopate marked the “final crisis of the church.”   Likening the tendency in some segments of the church to hiding in the tree house and pulling up the rope when change is on the horizon, Harris invited students and faculty to discuss together “what is the vision of the church that will sustain the work of justice in this century?”

Harris traced much of what she had to say about church re-visioning to a conversation she had with progressive evangelist Tony Campolo on the role of the church as the “prophetic proclaimer and enabler of God’s kingdom in the here and now.”   She distinguished “re-visioning” from “revisionism,” which Harris said she is often accused of.   Discussion also touched on models of leadership and building community, including the late YDS Professor Letty Russell’s paradigm of group-centered leadership and authority.  

Asked by a student how to address the growing concern in many mainline denominations of  “empty cathedrals,” Harris replied, “I don’t share people’s concern for a great decline in numbers.  I know it is unsettling to see 50 people in a space designed to accommodate 500.”  The important thing, she said, is not so much how many people are in the pews but what those people do.

“I am a firm believer in the faithful element,” said Harris.  “My concern is how do we energize and pastor and nurture the remnant to do the mission and the ministry that we are called to do. “

The Luccock Visitorship was established in 1963 in memory of Halford E. Luccock, who served as professor in the Divinity School from 1928 to 1953. The Luccock Visitor, usually a parish minister, is invited to spend time at Yale Divinity School interacting with faculty and students.