[ACNS, by Gavin Drake] This month, the Most Revd Michael Curry began a new chapter of his Christian ministry when he was installed as the 27th Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church in America – a province of 109 dioceses in 16 different nations. And he has already made waves around the world for his impassioned plea for Episcopalians to take seriously their role as part of what he calls the Jesus Movement.
“I can tell you that I believe passionately in the Great Commission and its call to go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; and teaching them to obey everything that Jesus has taught us,” he said in an interview with ACNS.
“I believe that that’s a call, an invitation and an exciting possibility; and I think that is one of the foundational principles of our call to be the Church: to help to make other followers of Jesus who can then, following his teachings and following the way of Jesus in their life and in our lives together, help to make this world a better world – something that is less like a nightmare and more like God’s dream and God’s vision and God’s intention for the human family and the whole of creation.
“That, for me, is one of the centre-pieces of the Gospel.”
The Presiding Bishop exudes confidence and joy when he speaks about evangelism. It is clear that this is foundational to his understanding of the Christian faith – and he is going to work hard to make it the top priority of the Episcopal Church under his leadership.
“Imagine every Episcopalian, imagine every Anglican, committed to living out the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and living in his Spirit in their lives,” he said. “I dare say we could transform the world. I really believe that.
“Remember Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, in the fourth chapter, at the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus calls on the prophet Isaiah, and it is like Jesus issuing his mission statement, his inaugural address, and he goes back to Isaiah and he defines his ministry in terms of Isaiah’s words: ‘the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach Good News to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty all those who are oppressed and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.’ And then, in the next chapter, Jesus says to Peter: ‘Now follow me.’
“Those are our marching orders. Those are some of the teachings of Jesus. Imagine every Episcopalian getting up every morning and going out into the world actually learning to live like Jesus, to love like Jesus [and] every Anglican around the world – that’s transformative. And I really do believe that that kind of transformative possibility can help us make for a better world – both ourselves, and joining hands with others.
“That’s exciting, that’s the Great Commission. One of my favourite words is ‘go’. That’s one of the words of God to people when he calls them. That’s the word for mission – go. ‘Go and make disciples’; Moses in Leviticus: ‘go proclaim liberty to all the land’; Isaiah responds to the ‘Who will go for us,’ and Isaiah responds and goes.
“We have got an incredible opportunity, a remarkable faith, and my hope and dream and prayer is that we in the Episcopal Church will find ourselves deeply in what I like to call the Jesus Movement which has been going on a long time; and we are the 21st Century iteration of that.
“That’s what we’re about and that’s where we are going.”
It is just under a fortnight since Michael Curry first gave this charge to the Episcopal Church during his sermon at his installation in Washington National Cathedral. He repeated the charge in a video message released the following day. And the response, he says, has been “very positive”, despite the church being “very aware” of the changing nature of the society and countries it serves.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry urges Episcopalians to become the Jesus Movement during his installation service sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington DC. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg / Episcopal News Service
“When I was a little boy growing up everybody went to church or synagogue or temple or something,” he said. “Everybody proclaimed to have a religious tradition – now whether they really lived it out is another question – but there was a sense in which, at least for us, that we were living in a Christian culture to some extent.
“The truth of the matter is that we live in a culture – I’m not sure if secularising is the right word – but where there are more diverse personal possibilities, some of which are religious, that takes people’s attention.
“We can no longer automatically assume that the culture is going to reinforce people’s Christian faith in their walk. Nor should we expect the culture to do that – that’s our job.
“And so now, I think we in the Episcopal Church have the remarkable challenge and opportunity to present the Gospel anew, to share that faith in ways that are authentic and genuine to us. I’m not trying to be something that we aren’t, but being authentic; and to engage and live a kind of evangelism that I believe is as much listening to the faith story and journey of others as it is sharing our own.
“The kind of evangelism that emerges out of a genuine and authentic human relationship and then letting God take it from there. That’s the kind of evangelism, or way of evangelism, that is not coercion, that is really open to the Holy Spirit, taking a leading someone into a deeper relationship with God without us trying to control that – to be supportive but not trying to control.”
When he was the Bishop of North Carolina, he adopted an approach developed by the Diocese of Texas: Sharing our Faith, in which a small group of Christians would get together over supper and play a card game designed to break people’s fear of telling their faith story. The cards featured a series of questions designed to elicit a response.
“For example, one question might be ‘was there a person who was significant in your life journey who actually was a saint for you? Tell that story’”, Bishop Curry said. “My guess is every one of us has somebody who was significant. And in the telling of that story, I’m actually telling who I am.
“I’m not pretending to be somebody else. It’s my story. How God has been in my life. And, being in a group, I actually have to listen to other people’s stories – so in the process you are actually practising what we are inviting people to do in their own lives out in the world.
“I can tell you, I was sitting with a Vestry after we had done this one year and instead of the Vestry – you know, I’ve been a bishop a long time – and instead of the Vestry wanting to sit down and talk about the roof and the boiler, they wanted to tell me their stories.
“And I will never forget one woman in particular who worked in administration in a community college and realised that just her listening to the stories of her students and staff and, when invited, sharing her own. Not uninvited, but when invited. She didn’t realise she was actually engaged in evangelism. And the Holy Spirit can take it from there. That’s one of the simple ways but I think it is deeply profound.”
As the Presiding Bishop was keen on people telling their stories of faith, it seemed rude not to ask him to share his own. How did he become a Christian and end up as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America?
“When I was a little boy my father was a priest and so I wanted to be a priest like Daddy, you know,” he says. But, he joked, “Presiding Bishop wasn’t on my radar screen early on at all!”
Michael Curry was born on 13 March 1953 in Chicago and baptised two months later in the Church of St Simon of Cyrene in Maywood, Illinois. Most of his extended family are Baptists. Some are Pentecostal Holiness and there are “a few sprinkling of Episcopalians.”
He was raised “in a context where the Christian faith was the air we breathed,” he said. “It was who we were.
“Most of our activities were centred in and around the Church. And I grew up around people who prayed, who read and studied the Bible. It was a family where religious faith and Jesus were just a part of the world we lived and the air we breathed.
“I can remember at family reunions everything was discussed from boxing and football and basketball to the Bible. It was just a part of life. That was a blessing to have grown up in that environment.”
When he was at college, a friend went through “some real tragedy in his life”; and helping him through that became “a turning point” for him. He had a dream and realised that “it was time for me to . . . own the faith that had been given to me and to claim it.”
He went to see the campus chaplain “like Nicodemus – at night, when nobody was looking” and started a conversation that led to him “reclaiming or re-affirming my faith in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour.”
His family had moved from Chicago to Buffalo, New York, where his father led an almost all-black Anglo-Catholic parish. It was, Michael Curry said, “the old inner-city Catholic model of priesthood – real incarnational spirituality” where his father was involved in community life and the civil rights movement.
“I grew up with a conviction – it was just something I accepted – that, as Daddy used to say, you’re not put here just to consume the oxygen. That we are actually here to contribute, to make a difference, and for a long time I looked at how I was going to do that.”
Curry had an interest in politics and he helped out on the campaign trail with Bobby Kennedy. He had considered running for political office, but “after that journey in college, I really realised that maybe a way to make an impact on society and the world was the actual Gospel that I had learned as a child. And maybe being a priest was a way to do that.”
He was one of seven or eight people from his generation of young people at the church in Buffalo to become a priest.
Having earned a Master of Divinity degree from Yale University Divinity School in 1978, Curry furthered his education at the College of Preachers, Princeton Theological Seminary, Wake Forest University, the Ecumenical Institute at St Mary's Seminary, and the Institute of Christian Jewish Studies.
He was ordained a deacon in June 1978, and a priest later that year. He began his ordained ministry at St Stephen's, Winston-Salem, North Carolina; first as deacon-in-charge and then as rector. In 1982 he moved to St Simon of Cyrene, Lincoln Height, Ohio; before being appointed Rector of St James', Baltimore in Maryland in 1988.
In 2000 he was elected as the 11th bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina, where he served before being elected Presiding Bishop and Primate this summer. He was installed into his new role on 1 November at the National Cathedral in Washington DC.
Throughout his ministry, Curry has been active in issues of social justice, speaking out on immigration policy and marriage equality. During his parochial ministry, he founded ecumenical summer day camps for children, and preaching missions; he created networks of family day care providers and educational centres, and he brokered millions of dollars of investment in inner city neighbourhoods.
He also developed the Absalom Jones initiative, named after the first African American priest in the Episcopal Church, this provides scholarships for African American students preparing for ordination in the Episcopal Church.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry in a scene from his video message to the Episcopal Church
“I’m here to tell you that I’ve been a priest and I’ve been a bishop a pretty long time,” he said. “And it is not always easy. It’s not easy. We follow a Lord who carried a cross.
“But the truth is I wouldn’t change it for anything,” he said in reference to the title of a book by civil rights activist Maya Angelou, “Wouldn't take nothing for my journey now”. “I love this God of ours, I love this Church and I really believe that we can help to make this world a better place, and following Jesus can help us do that.”
The fight for racial justice has been a key component of Michael Curry’s ministry; and he says that while the American civil rights movement from the 1940s to the 1960s helped to “dismantle the structures of Jim Crow segregation, of apartheid” and build up new structures “of a truly egalitarian nature, a truly multi-cultural, a truly multi-ethnic, society where all are equal in the eyes of the law and where human beings can relate to each other as human beings, not simply as members of one race or ethnicity or religious tradition or sexual orientation,” there was still much to do to bring about true race equality.
“The reality is, now we face institutional structures coming out of that racial past that have led to entrenched poverty; where you have disproportionately high numbers of people in communities of colour where . . . the poverty resides. Disproportionately so.
“It is not that anybody is trying to do it now, but the vestiges – we are still stuck with some of that. And we do still have some attitudes that have to be worked at; and relationships that need to be rebuilt; and wrongs that need to be righted as well.
“So we’ve got a lot of work to do. I think there is a desire in the US context by many to move forward in positive ways; and I know that there is a commitment in the Episcopal Church to that.”
Quoting US Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the Presiding Bishop said: “We all came over here in different ships, but we are all in the same boat now.
“And the truth is we are in the same boat, we have got to figure out how to live together or, as Dr King once said, we must learn to live together as brothers and sisters or perish together as fools.
“The choice is ours: chaos or community. And I believe Jesus has shown us the way to community.”
Michael Curry on the steps of Washington National Cathedral after he was installed as the Episcopal Church's 27th Presiding Bishop and Primate. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg / ENS