Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Harris attended the Philadelphia High School for Girls (Class of 1948). There, she excelled in music and wrote a weekly column for the Philadelphia version of the Pittsburgh Courier called "High School Notes by Bobbi". The Alumnae Association Philadelphia High School for Girls has recognized her as an Outstanding Alumna for her professional work. She has been installed in the Court of Honor. Information about Outstanding Alumnae is readily available to all current students so that they are aware of the accomplishments of the predecessors.
After graduation from Girls High, Harris attended the Charles Morris Price School of Advertising and Journalism in Philadelphia, where she earned a certificate in 1950.
She later attended Villanova University, the Urban Theology Unit in Sheffield, England, and also graduated from the Pennsylvania Foundation for Pastoral Counseling.
Prior to her ordination to the priesthood, Harris served as head of public relations for the Sun Oil Company.
Harris has long been active in civil rights issues, participating in freedom rides and marches in the 1960s, including the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, led by Martin Luther King, Jr.. She spent summer vacations registering black voters in Greenville, Mississippi. She dismissed the risks she took, saying only, "Everyone was in danger."
Throughout her various careers, Harris has been noted for her liberal views and her outspokenness. As early as 1989 she was reported as arguing for gay rights and lambasting the Episcopal Church for racism and sexism.
Her rector at the Church of the Advocate on the north side of Philadelphia, Paul Washington, became convinced of Harris's serious interest in seeking holy orders, and recommended her to Lyman C. Ogilby of Pennsylvania. Ogilby ordained her as a deacon in 1979 and a priest in 1980. She served as an acolyte in the service in which the first eleven women were ordained priests in the Episcopal Church on July 29, 1974. She was the priest-in-charge of St. Augustine of Hippo Church in Norristown, Pennsylvania, from 1980 to 1984, served as chaplain to the Philadelphia County prisons, and also as counsel to industrial corporations for public policy issues and social concerns. She was named executive director of the Episcopal Church Publishing Company in 1984, and publisher of The Witness magazine. In 1988 she served as interim rector of the Church of the Advocate.
Harris was ordained Bishop Suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts on February 11, 1989. As the first woman ordained as a bishop and an African American, she received death threats and obscene messages. Though urged to wear a bullet-proof vest to her ordination, she refused. A contingent of the Boston police were assigned to her consecration. Her comment was merely, "I don't take this in a personal way." The Episcopal Synod of America was formed in response to her consecration.
Speaking of her work as bishop, Harris said, "I certainly don't want to be one of the boys. I want to offer my peculiar gifts as a black woman... a sensitivity and an awareness that comes out of more than a passing acquaintance with oppression."
Harris retired from this position in Boston in 2003. She was succeeded as bishop suffragan by another African-American woman, Gayle Elizabeth Harris.
Harris served as Assisting Bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, DC until 2007, and as president of the Episcopal Church Publishing Company, publishers of The Witness magazine.
In 2010, Harris suffered a stroke in her home in Massachusetts. She appears to have made a full recovery and preached at an ecumenical worship service in the historic Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, on September 5, 2010. Her sermon was entitled "It Isn't Easy Being Green".
The Barbara C. Harris Camp & Conference Center is a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts located in Greenfield, New Hampshire. The center is named in honor of Harris. A task force was convened in 1997 to explore the potential of the center and their recommendation to proceed with the development of the center was approved by the diocesan council in 1998. From 1999 to 2002, the development of the center was under the direction of diocesan staff. In addition, over 200 lay and clergy volunteers lent their time, energy, and expertise to the project, working in a variety of roles. An extensive fund-raising campaign also took place in order to finance the construction and to fund a scholarship endowment and an operating endowment. The center welcomed its first summer campers in July 2003.Bozzuti-Jones, Mark (2003). Miter Fits Just Fine: A Story about Barbara Clementine Harris: The First Woman Bishop in the Anglican Communion. Boston: Cowley Publications. ISBN 1-56101-220-3.
Bozzuti-Jones, Mark (2003). Miter Fits Just Fine: A Story about the Rt. Rev. Barbara Clementine Harris: The First Woman Bishop in the Anglican Communion. Boston: Cowley Publications. ISBN 1-56101-220-3.