Former Lawyer Becomes First Black Female Episcopal Bishop In The South

The Rev. Phoebe Roaf is only the fifth black woman to become a bishop in the history of the Episcopal Church.

The Episcopal Church has ordained an African American woman to serve as a bishop in the South for the very first time.

The Rev. Phoebe Roaf, 55, was officially consecrated as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of West Tennessee on Saturday. She is the fifth black female bishop in the history of the Episcopal Church.

Born in Arkansas, Roaf is a fourth-generation Episcopalian. Her brother is former New Orleans Saints player Willie Roaf.

The bishop told HuffPost that growing up, she never saw anyone who looked like her behind the altar.

“As someone who grew up in the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas in the late 1970s when there were no female priests and no African-American priests in that diocese, I never could have envisioned myself sitting in this seat,” Roaf said in an email.

Rev. Phoebe Roaf (center), flanked by Bishop Michael B. Curry, is consecrated a bishop in Hope Church in Memphis on May 4, 2019.
Rev. Phoebe Roaf (center), flanked by Bishop Michael B. Curry, is consecrated a bishop in Hope Church in Memphis on May 4, 2019.
Lisa Buser

The Harvard, Princeton and University of Arkansas School of Law grad had already been a research analyst and a lawyer when she felt called to become a priest in her early 40s.

After graduating from Virginia Theological Seminary in 2008, Roaf became the first black woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Louisiana. Known to parishioners as “Mother Phoebe,” she served churches in New Orleans and Virginia before being elected to her current position at the West Tennessee diocese’s annual convention in November.

Roaf said the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been a significant influence in her life. King was killed in 1968 in Memphis, the same city where she was consecrated a bishop this past weekend.

“I am honored and humbled to serve the church as Bishop and hope that girls and boys who see me in this role will be hopeful about the future of our church,” Roaf said. “As the first black woman to serve as an Episcopal Bishop south of the Mason-Dixon line, there are great expectations surrounding my tenure.”

The Episcopal Church’s top bishop, Michael B. Curry, who earned worldwide fame for his sermon at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s royal wedding, presided over Roaf’s consecration ceremony at Memphis’ Hope Church. Curry is the first African American to serve as the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop.

The line of black female bishops in the Episcopal Church began with Barbara Clementine Harris, who was consecrated in February 1989 as the suffragan bishop of Massachusetts.

The 1.7-million-member Episcopal Church is the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Like other Christian denominations, the Episcopal Church has recently been experiencing a decline in membership and attendance.

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