History of the diocese

The Diocese of Massachusetts is among the oldest and largest, in terms of baptized membership, in the Episcopal Church. It officially dates from 1784 when delegates from a few struggling parishes around Boston met with others in the first convention of the Episcopal Church since the Revolutionary War. It took a great sense of mission to build a diocese out of a handful of 18th century parishes, but the spirit matched the purpose. Under the the 19th-century leadership of bishops Griswold, Eastburn, Paddock and Brooks, the church in Massachusetts entered the 20th century as the second largest Episcopal diocese in the country—growth that resulted from a focus on ministry in mill towns and emerging cities.

The diocese historically has been in the forefront of efforts to bring about social justice, racial harmony and economic equity.  Beginning in the early 19th century the diocese made a commitment to founding parishes in cities, relating not only to the wealthy and influential, but also to the working poor.  As a result many, if not a majority, of its congregations are in or near urban areas.

The accelerated pace of social and economic change in the late 19th century gave enormous opportunity for mission. By 1900 the church’s responsibilities threatened to become unwieldy. Bishop William Lawrence pushed for the establishment of the new Diocese of Western Massachusetts in 1902, and immediately sought to unify the now compact eastern Diocese of Massachusetts in a common mission around a physical symbolic center. The vision for a cathedral church was brought to fruition in 1912, when the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston was commissioned to be the “People’s Church.”

The diocese faced in the 20th century the issues of expansion and change that the high tech industry brought to the two major beltways of eastern Massachusetts, which in turn initiated suburban growth and the contemporary metropolitan area.

The diocese has a long tradition of public witness, and its bishops throughout the 20th century and into the 21st--Sherrill, Nash, Stokes, Burgess, Coburn, Johnson and Shaw--provided leadership and awareness to the issues of their day, from war opposition, civil rights and urban affairs, to death penalty opposition, AIDS healing, public education equity, immigration policy reform, gun violence, marriage equality and LGBT civil rights.  They also exercised leadership within the denomination on issues such as the ordination of women, antiracism, world mission and debt forgiveness for developing countries.

The Diocese of Massachusetts is known for some auspicious firsts. In 1970 the late Rt. Rev. John M. Burgess was installed as the diocese’s 12th bishop, thus becoming the first African-American diocesan bishop in the Episcopal Church. In 1989 the Rt. Rev. Barbara C. Harris (bishop suffragan, now retired) was ordained and consecrated, becoming the first woman to be consecrated a bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion.


The Bishops of the Diocese of Massachusetts


  Diocesan Bishops Suffragan Bishops
1797-1803 Edward Bass  
1804-1804 Samuel Parker  
1811-1843 Alexander V. Griswold  
1843-1872 Manton Eastburn  
1873-1891 Benjamin H. Paddock  
1891-1893 Phillips Brooks  
1893-1927 William Lawrence  
1913-1938   Samuel G. Babcock
1927-1930 Charles L. Slattery  
1930-1947 Henry K. Sherrill  
1938-1954   Raymond A. Heron
1947-1956 Norman B. Nash  
1956-1970 Anson P. Stokes, Jr.  
1956-1968   Frederic C. Lawrence
1962-1969   John M. Burgess
1970-1975 John M. Burgess  
1972-1982   Morris F. Arnold
1976-1986 John B. Coburn  
1986-1995 David E. Johnson  
1989-2002   Barbara C. Harris
1995-2014 M. Thomas Shaw III, SSJE  
2001-2011   Roy F. Cederholm, Jr.
2003-   Gayle E. Harris
2014- Alan M. Gates