Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is the spiritual leader of The Episcopal Church (TEC), a U.S.-based province of the Anglican Communion, which counts an active membership of 1.8 million.
The first African-American to hold the position, Curry has been active in anti-racism and social justice work throughout his ministry, which began when he was ordained a priest in 1978 and continued with his consecration as bishop of North Carolina in 2000.
Elected presiding bishop in 2015, Curry was installed in the months following the church’s ground-breaking decision to allow same-sex marriage, and it fell to him to navigate the fallout of that decision at the meeting of the primates of the Anglican Communion in January 2016.
A passionate and charismatic orator, since his installation Curry has frequently challenged the church to see itself not as an institution, but as the “Jesus Movement.”
The Anglican Journal sat down with Curry at the Anglican Church of Canada’s 41st General Synod, where he was an invited guest.
In the one year since you were elected, and the eight months since you formally took office, what have you learned about being presiding bishop?
I learned early on…that every position I’ve had in the church has really been different. I was a [parish]priest for 25, 26 years… I was the diocesan bishop for 15 years. As a parish priest, I saw my congregation every week.. I had constant, regular contact, and so there was a depth of relationship that evolved in my parishes.
As a bishop diocesan, I had to stop and ask: Who is my congregation?…I had a congregation that was dispersed…The same work was being done in terms of sharing the gospel of Jesus and trying to help the community and body in the real way of discipleship and actually living in the world and making a difference, but it was a different calling…to be an instrument of the gospel, of personally being a follower of Jesus…But also of really trying to help the church to become a community that really does reflect the life of Jesus Christ in everything we do.
Now I have to do that in a variety of…ways. Social media…help[s]. I made use of social media a lot when I was a diocesan bishop, and we are working on how to do that even more as a presiding bishop.
When I was a bishop diocesan, I used to post every Sunday. I’d post on Facebook and sometimes I would tweet it out, a picture of the congregation where I had been visiting, the confirmation class, or whatever it was they did…It was a…way of helping connect the diocese. People in the diocese, in the large cities, were actually getting to see churches and people in small and rural communities, and vice versa.. it was a way of connecting the body of Christ.
So now, [the challenge is] figuring out how do you do that on a much larger scale…The Episcopal Church is all over the place. We’re in 16 countries now, very much multi-lingual.
Social media is the new Roman highway and postal system, and we’re all…learning how can this be a new vehicle for the gospel, to spread the good news of Jesus.
America right now is deeply divided…the rhetoric is hotter than it has been. Do you think the church has a role in building bridges between people?
The church—followers of Jesus—are in the bridge-building business by being followers of Jesus. God built a bridge between divinity and humanity in Jesus.
Reconciliation isn’t just singing Kumbaya and everyone being nice. Reconciliation is about the hard work of working through our differences, maybe acknowledging them and not changing them, necessarily. Working through our differences honestly and with integrity, and sometimes repenting of where our differences or my differences or yours has actually hurt relationship and not helped the human family.
And there are a lot of times when that reconciliation requires repentance before it can happen, and maybe its repentance by most of us…The Jesus way is not to always have the answer, but to have a way to get to that answer. And sometimes that means I hold the perspective that I hold as my best approximation of my understanding of where God might be leading us…It is equally important for me to stand there and be clear about where I am, and to honour respect and cherish you as my brother, and to respect and honour the position that might be different than mine.
It seems to me that the following of the Jesus way is to be able to be clear and yet humble at the same time, and yet equally clear that there must be room and space for you, because you may have a dimension of understanding that I don’t have, and to be honest enough to say, “I could be wrong, you could be right, or there could be something in between us.” I mean, the point is that none of us is God. That’s the real point, and if you’re in the reconciliation business, then we all kind of got to fess up, “OK, I’m not God, but I’ve got a perspective, and I pray it’s godly.”
In North Carolina, where I was the bishop…a few years ago now, the state legislature enacted various pieces of legislation that had dramatically negative and harmful effects on the poor. And there was a whole lot to it.. everything from various forms of voter suppression, rejecting Medicaid supplements which helped provide health insurance for people who wouldn’t get it otherwise, rejecting what was referred to as Obamacare—rejected the funding. Just all sorts of things that were going to hurt the most vulnerable among us, and a number of us had to say something, had to try to work with the legislature to do that.
In some of the writings that I did together with our other Episcopal bishops, and ecumenically in responding to this, we were very clear that we were working on the principle—and none of us have all the answers—but the principle we used there was the principle of Jesus in the Sermon on the mount, Where Matthew says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
That’s not just a cute little saying—that is a statement of how we do policy.
A few weeks ago, someone asked me the same kind of question. I said, “You know what, Jesus gave us a clear, unadulterated unambiguous commandment: ‘Love God, and love your neighbour.’ ” Now, a whole lot of stuff in the Scripture you can debate, but that is not debatable. So when you vote, I’m not going tell anybody how to vote—you’ve got to figure that out, that’s between you, God and your conscience. Y’all got to wrestle with that, and that’s a principle that we’ve all got to honour, and I think that’s important.
I’ve found over the years that that particular principle has helped me to really ask the hard question: does this look like love of neighbour? Does this really promote the greatest good for the greatest number? Does this really promote a culture and a society that really does love each other?
Jesus doesn’t allow us the option of self-righteousness, whether we’re on the right or the left, because if you get self-righteous, it’s all about you and it ain’t got nothing to do with God.
The Episcopal Church—like the Anglican Church of Canada—has a long history of being on the side of power. Do you think the church will need to change in order to meet that Jesus Movement vision?
In the U.S., people used to say that the United States is a Christian nation. It’s not true anymore. I don’t know if it was really true when they used to say it. And that’s certainly true in the Western world, where Christianity is not the only religious tradition that people practice.
So there’s a sense in which there’s a detachment, I think, of Christianity or the Christian religion from governmental structures, but also [from] the cultural and social structures. I think it’s fair to say that we do live in a post-Christian era, and I do not bemoan that, actually.
My maternal grandparents hail from North Carolina, and even when I was a little boy and we would visit there…There’s a joke that everybody in the South is basically a Baptist, really—you may be a Methodist Baptist or a Catholic Baptist or an Episcopal Baptist or a Jewish Baptist or a Muslim Baptist, but this is the cultural order. But everybody in the South even when I was a little kid pretended they were a Christian and went to church, for the most part.
Today in North Carolina, where I was bishop for 15 years before I became presiding bishop, the social demography…the people of North Carolina has changed profoundly. Whereas it was once basically blacks and whites, it is now black, white, Latino, Filipino—you look at the religious landscape and it is all over the map.
And in the South, as everywhere else, the fastest-growing religious population is those who claim no religious affiliation…I don’t bemoan that, because I think the detachment of the Christian religion from the culture in which we are living, the end of the age of Christendom, is an opportunity for the church of the Acts of the Apostles, the church of the New Testament. The earliest church that was closest to Jesus of Nazareth. The church at its earliest energy, at its core, that church can now emerge, [unencumbered] by the institutional arrangements that were part of the age of Christendom, and that’s an opportunity for some real religion. That’s what I’m talking about when I talk about the Jesus Movement.
This was a movement before it ever became an institution. And I’m not putting institutions down—they can serve the movement. But the movement ain’t supposed to serve the institutions. Something’s wrong when that starts to happen. And I think we’re in a time where we’re going to find it is time to get real. The days of cultural Christianity are over, and thank God. Because now we get on with the work of really following Jesus, really being his disciples and the community of his disciples in the world, and I think we will find our soul.
You know, the church of the Acts of the Apostles, they did pretty well. And I think we can do it again.
In your address you talked about race and violence that seem to be so much a part of life in America right now. When things like this happen, what keeps you going?
There is a deep sadness. There’s a deep sadness for such pain and horror to be inflicted on the children of God. Everybody is somebody’s child…It doesn’t matter whether they are black or white or whether they wear a blue or green uniform…When violence takes life, no matter who they are, there is somebody at home weeping. And there is something in all of us, even if we didn’t know them, that weeps inside. And probably trembles, like it says in the Bible, in the Apocalypse, when Jesus trembles at what seems to be coming upon the world.
I’m not saying they are new, but we’re seeing [acts of violence] because of cell phones…there is more of an awareness. But I do think we are wrestling with a spiritual disease that has allowed spiritual violence that is within to now be expressed in physical violence that comes out…Changing laws isn’t enough. We have to change hearts…that can change the climate…and the spirit of a culture…that can be a negative harmful and hurtful speech…attitudes that are destructive of human relationships and human beings.
That’s huge work.
I have to admit the side of Michael Curry that moves beyond deep lament and doesn’t give up, because you can’t get rid of it, but there’s a side of me that says we’ve got work to do…I really do believe that Jesus Christ changes lives. If I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t be here… Change of heart is very much what I think Jesus was getting at when he said to Nicodemus, “You must be born again to see the kingdom.”
So the more I lament, the more I’m ready to go preach and go live and go help the church be the church and do our work.
How should the Canadian church work through the aftermath of the marriage canon vote?
Whatever you do, do it in the name of love…Whatever the specific legislative outcome, who knows what that is going to look like, but the way of loving—and I’m talking about God’s loving, not some secular idea—will lead us to the place we are all meant to be. I know that I find myself probably heading or closer to being in the right direction when I can say,”This is the best approximation of love that I can find at this moment.”
Two of the things Jesus talked about in John 13-17, in his last discourse at the Last Supper, he talked about love over and over again. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” He didn’t say that you agree with one another. He didn’t even really say if you like one another, but that you love one another.
And you know the other thing he talks about? The Spirit. He says, “There are many more things I could tell you, but you cannot handle them now, but when the Spirit of truth comes he will lead you into all truth.”
“I will not leave you comfortless, but I will send my Holy Spirit upon you to lead you.”
There is some intimate relationship between the love of God and the Spirit of God, and the Spirit of Jesus that can lead us into the deeper truths of God. I don’t know how that works, except I know that it does. And whether it is any of our churches or traditions, when we have complex decisions that we have got to make, when we do it in…the discipleship of the way of love, trusting and open to the Spirit to lead us and guide us, I believe we will find our way in time. It is sort of like the Shaker hymn: “We will turn, turn, turn”… eventually if the Spirit is leading, we will turn around right.
Where do you see the relationship between TEC and Cuba going in the near future?
In our last General Convention last year, the church in Cuba had a resolution inviting the General Convention of TEC to explore the possibility of reuniting. So our convention established a task force of really good folk who have both ties, understanding and experience of the church in the United States and the church in Cuba. That task force has just preliminarily started its work. And Bishop Griselda [Delgado del Carpio] and others from the church of Cuba will be in that conversation, as will some people from Canada…be in that conversation.
That task force has been asked to really do the kind of real discernment that looks at all of what this could look like, how do we do this—we’ve been separated, not because any of us wanted it, but because of the politics of our nations. And so how do we do this, and what could this look like?
But looking at not only the practical, how-to kind of questions, but what are the cultural questions that Cuba is looking at and addressing. We’ve been separated for 50 years, so there are cultural and societal questions…How do we navigate that and get to know each other again in some deeper ways?
And then there is some deeper spiritual discernment that really does move in the direction of, well, none of us really knows for sure if we’ve done all the practical homework trying to understand all the nuts and bolts…Do we have a sense of that voice calling us to be reunited?…I have no idea what that is, but ultimately, what does God’s dream look like for the Episcopal Church of Cuba and The Episcopal Church.
And if we love each other, trust the Spirit, do our homework and say our prayers, we’ll find our way.
We really are in deep discernment. We’re not playing games. There are a lot of questions. It is hard work.