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Episcopal Church installs its first African American presiding bishop

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In an impassioned speech, Michael Bruce Curry, the 27th presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and Primate, speaks before a packed house at Washington National Cathedral on Nov. 1. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

By Michelle Boorstein November 1 at 10:22 PM

The public face and style of the Episcopal Church shifted Sunday with the installation of Michael Bruce Curry, the denomination’s first African American spiritual leader.

Curry, 62, a high-energy, evangelical pastor, is expected to bring a positive, Pope Francis-like vibe to a church community marked in recent years by shrinking numbers and legal disputes related to gay rights.

“Don’t worry! Be happy! God loves you!” Curry boomed at the close of his sermon to the 2,500 people gathered in the soaring Washington National Cathedral. Preaching from the elevated Canterbury Pulpit, Curry immediately changed the face of Episcopalianism, historically one of the faiths of the nation’s white elite.

Curry, known for focusing on evangelism and programs for the poor, follows Katharine Jefferts Schori, a somber Nevada oceanographer who was presiding bishop for nine years.

Jefferts Schori oversaw a tumultuous period as Americans turned away from the denomination and conservatives streamed out, in some cases triggering litigation over church properties that bled into many millions of dollars. The church has faced the same tensions that other faiths have had for decades over issues such as gay rights and the female clergy, but it ordained Gene Robinson, an openly gay bishop, in 2003. Since then, the church has lost 20 percent of its membership.

Curry focused his installation sermon on racial reconciliation, a cause at the center of what he calls “the Jesus movement” — a new emphasis on evangelism. Preaching in an animated style more familiar to a Baptist church, he told the story of a young black couple who visited an all-white Episcopal church in the 1940s. The woman, an Episcopalian, approached to take Communion. The man, who was studying to be a Baptist pastor, sat in the back, watching to see what would happen when it became clear in this segregated era that there was just one cup from which everyone would drink.

When the white priest offered the cup to the young black woman, the scene was so dramatic that the man shifted his affiliation and was ordained as an Episcopalian.

“The Holy Spirit has done evangelism and racial reconciliation in the Episcopal Church before, because that man and woman were the parents of the 27th presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church,” Curry said, speaking of himself.

The church broke into roars and applause.

“Yes, the way of God’s love turns our world upside down. But that’s really right-side up,” Curry preached. “And in that way, the nightmare of this world will be transfigured into the very dream of God for humanity and all creation. My brothers and sisters, God has not given up on God’s world. And God is not finished with the Episcopal Church yet.”

[More on Bishop Curry’s life story]

Racial reconciliation has become a higher priority for many predominantly white U.S. churches. The Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of Washington National Cathedral, along with the Rev. Mariann Budde, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, in recent years have elevated it in sermons, programs on gun control and symbolic actions such as removing the Confederate flag from stained glass in the cathedral. The question for Curry and other faith leaders is how to avoid the political polarization Americans both love and hate and with which many young people associate organized Christianity.

While Curry focused on overcoming economic, racial, educational and political divisions, he is known as a progressive who was one of the first bishops to allow same-sex marriages to be performed, in North Carolina. He was involved in grass-roots demonstrations in Raleigh called Moral Monday, challenging local and state governments to address the poor and marginalized.

“Is it an understatement to say we live in a deeply complex and difficult time for our world,” Curry said. “Life is not easy. It is an understatement to say that these are not, and will not be, easy times for people of faith.

“Churches, religious communities and institutions are being profoundly challenged,” he said. “But the realistic social critique of Charles Dickens rings true for us even now: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ . . . Don’t worry! Be happy!”
The installation drew a large crowd for the cathedral, including 150 bishops who streamed in together in white-and-red clerical garb. There were at least 75 “watch parties” of Episcopalians across the country, church spokeswoman Neva Rae Fox said.

The Episcopal Church is the U.S.-based part of the global Anglican Communion, one of the largest Christian communities in the world. Its membership, about 1.8 million, was never large, but until recently was home to a disproportionate number of the United States’ business and political elite. Culturally it was considered a proper part of U.S. society, with a refined and orderly worship style. Although that is a somewhat outdated image, Curry’s installation drove home the change as clergy processed to powerful Native American drumming music and an intense rendition of the black spiritual “Wade in the Water.”

“I wish everyone who thinks Episcopalians are the Frozen Chosen could experience this service,” tweeted one attendee.

The Episcopal Church’s first black leader — and its ‘tortuous’ path toward integration

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The Rev. Michael Curry, the incoming presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, visits Alexandria’s Virginia Theological Seminary for Tuesday’s consecration of the newly built Immanuel Chapel. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

By Sarah Pulliam Bailey October 15

Bishop Michael Curry vividly remembers growing up in segregated Buffalo in the 1950s and ’60s, where on one bright morning in 1963, he crossed Main Street from East Buffalo to West Buffalo to attend an integrated school.

As an Episcopal priest and civil rights activist, his late father, Kenneth Curry, helped lead the boycott of the city’s segregated public schools. And yet, like the larger culture at the time, worship in the Episcopal Church he so loved was largely segregated. As leader of a black congregation in Buffalo, he never would have been called to the pulpit of a white Episcopal church.

Five decades later, Kenneth Curry probably would never have imagined that his son would be chosen to lead the entire denomination.

On Nov. 1, Michael Curry — who was elected this summer just one week after the shootings at a historic African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, S.C. — will be installed as the first black presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church at Washington National Cathedral. He will replace Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who was elected the church’s first female presiding bishop in 2006.

In many ways, Curry’s tenure will be a continuation of what his father taught him: In God’s eyes, all human beings are equal and deserve to be treated as such.

John Agbaje, right, takes a selfie with the Rev. Michael Curry after the Virginia Theological Seminary consecrated its newly built Immanuel Chapel on Tuesday in Alexandria. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
“I grew up seeing that Jesus of Nazareth has something to do with our lives and has something to do with how we structure and order our society,” said Curry, 62.

Curry, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina since 2000, was elected with an overwhelming majority, the third black candidate for presiding bishop in the church’s history.

“Most black Episcopalians interpret this as catching up, as something they should’ve done before,” said Byron Rushing, vice president of the House of Deputies and a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Blacks make up 6.3 percent of the church’s membership, compared with 86.6 percent for non-Hispanic white members, according to church data.

But as presiding bishop, Curry will face membership challenges that extend far beyond race. Like other mainline denominations, the Episcopal Church — the historic home to U.S. presidents and the nation’s elite — has struggled to fill its pews. It has lost more than 20 percent of its members since it consecrated its first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in 2003, and new statistics suggest that membership continues to fall, dropping 2.7 percent from 2013 to about 1.8 million U.S. members in 2014.
Progressive on social issues

On Tuesday, Curry and other church leaders gathered at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria to consecrate a chapel to replace the one that burned down in 2010. Curry was like a rock star to many of the seminarians, making faces for selfies.

Ian Markham, dean of the seminary, noted that the founders and faculty from the institution once owned slaves and that its new chapel has a plaque noting its past segregation in worship. “We have to recognize the sins of our past and repent of them,” he said.

Curry has a clear passion for evangelism, something he calls “the Jesus movement,” though not a formal movement within the church. He is also progressive on social issues and was one of the first bishops to allow same-sex marriages to be performed in North Carolina churches.

As bishop in North Carolina, Curry was involved in the grass-roots Moral Monday demonstrations in Raleigh, challenging local and state governments to address the poor and marginalized.

“The work of evangelism and social justice must go together, because it’s part of the whole gospel,” he said.

Observers note Curry’s desire to keep his installation service simple and his focus on people on the margins — almost like a Protestant Pope Francis who could help change the face of the church. His friends point to his boisterous preaching style as he moves around the pulpit and gestures with his arms, more Baptist than Episcopal in some ways.

The father of two adult daughters with his wife, Sharon, Curry is known for his infectious laughter and self-deprecating humor. He is an avid reader, a Buffalo Bills fan and a self-described “certified NFL grief counselor,” and a lover of music who took up the violin about seven years ago.

Curry said he was deeply shaped by his Baptist grandmother, the daughter of sharecroppers and granddaughter of slaves. While he was in middle school, she stepped in after Curry’s mother went into a coma brought on by a cerebral hemorrhage.

“My grandmother couldn’t imagine Barack Obama in the White House, and I know she couldn’t imagine her grandson as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church,” he said.
As a family, they would pray every night, and Curry jokingly said he would secretly hope that his father would pray so it would be a shorter one. “If it was the Baptist prayer, it would go on forever,” he said.

His mother, who grew up Baptist, switched to the Episcopal Church after she read “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. His father, who was a licensed Baptist pastor and came from a line of Baptist preachers, followed her.

Curry remembers the denominational bantering between his father and grandmother.

“They would tease each other. She would say, ‘How do you know if someone in your church has the Holy Spirit?’ He’d say, ‘You all got too much Holy Spirit in your church.’ ”

Ending the battles

Curry’s down-to-earth style and gift for bringing people together should prove valuable as he leads a church riven by divisions in recent years over issues from gay rights to how to read Scripture. However, many of its more theologically conservative churches have left the denomination after having been involved in multimillion-dollar lawsuits over the right to church properties.

Part of Curry’s challenge will be to put those battles over social issues fully in the past, said Ryan Danker, a church historian at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.

“If he can bring some peace and healing, maybe end the lawsuits, have discussion and dialogue with various parties, I think he’ll be very successful,” Danker said.

Jefferts Schori, the outgoing presiding bishop, said Tuesday that the Episcopal Church is no longer “the establishment church” in the United States, which she considers to be a good thing.

“We’re more focused on the people of the margins,” she said. “We’re willing to go be with, rather than do for, and I think that’s healthier spiritually.”

The Rev. Sandye Wilson, rector of St. Andrew and Holy Communion Episcopal Church in South Orange, N.J., and a friend of Curry’s, said he is uniquely able to address the range of Episcopal Church members.

“He is comfortable with kings and princes but doesn’t lose the common touch,” Wilson said. “He is as comfortable with people who are very wealthy and comfortable with people in prison.”
The Episcopal Church is affiliated with the larger worldwide Anglican Communion, the world’s third-largest Christian denomination, which is discussing whether it can remain unified amid divisions over sexuality and other issues. A large percentage of Anglicanism is thriving in the developing world, where more-conservative leaders have been unhappy with the Episcopal Church.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who attended Tuesday’s chapel consecration in Alexandria but declined interviews, has called Anglican leaders to a special meeting in January.

The Episcopal Church voted this summer to let gay couples marry in the church’s religious ceremonies, which Welby said “will cause distress for some and have ramifications for the Anglican Communion as a whole, as well as for its ecumenical and interfaith resolutions.”

January’s gathering of leaders includes a review of the worldwide Anglican Communion’s future.

Some believe that Curry’s election as presiding bishop could help lead the way into that future, in which the membership of the global church will probably keep growing more diverse.

“It could change the face of the Episcopal Church, which is — at least in the eyes of many — a largely white, upper-class denomination of people in power,” said the Rev. Adam Shoemaker of Church of the Holy Comforter in Burlington, N.C. “It will be significant now that we have a nonwhite presiding bishop to represent us to the rest of the church.”

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