The Episcopal Church — known for its historically white, upper class membership and decade-long internal struggle over what the Bible says about homosexuality — installed its first African American presiding bishop and primate, Michael Bruce Curry, on Nov. 1 at Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
A highly diverse crowd of 2500 guests filled the towering limestone sanctuary for a rousing multilingual service that began with a Piscataway Indian drum processional and included a gospel choir and prayers of blessing by Jewish and Muslim leaders.
In a lively sermon that hewed more closely in style to the Baptist heritage of his father than that of his Episcopalian mother, the 62-year-old Curry prioritized evangelism and reconciliation for his 2 million-member flock.
Noting the difficulty of both, especially for a church wrestling through internal splintering, Curry said the Holy Spirit had done this work before in the church. He illustrated the point with a moving story about his parents.
It was the 1940s, before desegregation. His mother had brought her fiancé to an all-white Episcopal church service. At the time, Curry’s father was studying to become a Baptist minister. He was so stunned to see white congregants share the Communion chalice with his future wife that he changed his mind, becoming an Episcopal priest instead.
“Any church where blacks and whites drink out of the same cup knows something about the gospel. I want to be a part of that,” Curry recounted his father saying.
Curry’s landslide election in June — 10 days after nine black congregants were shot to death by a white supremacist at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. — is notable for a denomination whose membership is only 4 percent black.
"After the Charleston shootings, it became really important to send a signal about race in the Episcopal Church," said the cathedral’s retiring dean, the Very Rev. Gary Hall, in an interview last week.
Curry’s election is not only a symbol of the church’s need to engage with racial justice issues, but also its need to become “a more hospitable place for people of color,” said Hall.
A 2014 denominational survey found that only 17 percent of black Episcopal churches are growing — and that while black congregations engage in more lively worship and have “clearer purpose,” their congregants tend to be older and are less engaged in evangelism than the denomination’s white churches. Latino, Asian, Native American, and multi-racial/ethnic Episcopal churches were too few to sample individually, though their collective growth is significantly stronger than predominantly white or black churches, the report said.
Over the course of his nearly 40-year ministry, Curry has been active in social justice work, including in the founding of networks of day care and educational centers, securing investment in urban neighborhoods, and involvement in Moral Mondays — a movement involving faith leaders that garnered national attention in 2013 for protesting the North Carolina State Legislature’s decision to make state-issued photo IDs a voting requirement.
In his first sermon as presiding bishop, Curry called for his flock to embody an evangelism that is authentically Episcopalian. This kind of evangelism brings the good news, but also listens and learns “from the story of who God is in another person’s life,” he said.
How a 90 percent white denomination’s authentic style will resonate with people of color remains to be seen. But like Pope Francis, Curry presents a welcoming public face for the church, Hall said.
“The thing that Bishop Curry gives us is an opportunity to hold up the denomination to American culture and say, ‘There's actually a church that stands for the same kinds of things you think Jesus stands for, and that you [might] like to come and explore,’” said Hall.
Acts 17:6-7 formed the basis of Curry’s sermon. The passage tells the story of Paul and Silas being dragged before public authorities for “turning the world upside down.”
“My brothers and sisters, God has not given up on the world, and God is not finished with the Episcopal Church yet. We are the Jesus movement!” Curry said.
He talked about loving enemies and praying for persecutors, saying the “way of love” is the heart of this movement.
But Curry’s installation comes after a contentious decade within the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion. He made it clear which side of that divide he is on, prefacing his sermon with a strong affirmation of outgoing Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s controversial leadership.
“In a time when there is often debate and genuine consternation as to whether courageous, effective leadership is even possible anymore, let the record show that the Episcopal Church has had a leader in Katharine Jefferts Schori,” said Curry to loud applause.
Two years before Jefferts Schori’s tenure, the church installed its first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in 2004. Since then, membership has reportedly declined 20 percent.
Hall said the issues that divided the church are settled among American Episcopalians. When he began officiating same-sex marriages at the cathedral in 2013, the few complaints he received came mostly from conservative evangelicals who “didn't realize this is an Episcopal cathedral.”
Since 2008, “lingering conflict over this issue has become less frequent and less salient for congregations,” the denomination's 2014 internal survey found. Still, Hall believes Curry can be a bridge-builder on LGBTQ issues with theologically conservative African Americans.
“I think he will be able to speak to people of color about human sexuality in a way that white church leaders really can't. I think he has a kind of credibility with them that other leaders don't have. I do think he's really going to be a major figure in that regard,” said Hall.
Foley Beach, Archbishop of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), responded via email to an inquiry about the potential for this leadership change to spur reconciliation.
“I would be delighted if there were true reconciliation. It would be an answer to my prayers, and the prayers of many in the Anglican Church in North America,” said Beach.
“However, if Bishop Curry and the Episcopal Church are unwilling to genuinely repent of the unbiblical teaching and destructive actions that caused the division, then reconciliation simply isn’t possible.”
Curry “pushed orthodox members of his diocese to the periphery” when he was bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina, said the Rev. Cannon Andrew Gross, ACNA’s Director of Communications.
“There has been a lot of talk about ‘going to Galilee’ [a Curry refrain], but unless there is a trip to Damascus, the crisis within the Episcopal Church will continue, and the divisions that it has caused internationally will only deepen.”
Both supporters and detractors weighed in on Curry’s 15-year North Carolina tenure in a Living Church magazine profile that a freelance writer for the publication distributed to journalists at the installation service. The diocese grew both numerically and economically under Curry’s leadership — uncharacteristically so, the article’s author said.
But Anglican/Episcopal divisions were peripheral at most for Episcopal clergy lingering on the damp lawn after the service.
“[Curry’s installation] roots us in the gospel in a way that empowers us to continue the work of reconciliation,” said Br. Robert Sevensky, Superior of the Order at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York.
“He has the potential to help us bring a new language to [Episcopal/Anglican division], so that it can be approached in ways that don’t a priori separate people,” he said when asked about the conflict.
“That’s been one of the hardships of the last decade or so. We’ve entrenched ourselves in our languages.”
Rev. Andrea Hayden, assisting priest at St. James Episcopal Church in Port Charlotte, Fla., agreed.
“It’s a joy and excitement to see what’s going to happen the next nine years,” she said.
“The Episcopal Church has been so heady and we now have a Presiding Bishop, a leader who is … all about the heart, all about getting back to Jesus. I think sometimes we miss that because we’ve been fighting on so many levels of things that are in the world that we sometimes forget who we serve and whose we are.”