Profiles in Faith: Bishop Michael B. Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church
The name of the outspoken 68-year-old son of a Black Presbyterian priest became an international household word in 2019 after his passionate sermon in St. George’s Chapel of Windsor Castle at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
The son of a civil rights activist, Curry, the first African American to be elected primate of the Episcopal Church in America, traces his roots through maternal and paternal grandfathers who were both Baptist ministers to ancestors who toiled as slaves and sharecroppers in the fields of Alabama and North Carolina.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
Q. Your father was also an Episcopal priest, but before that he was a Baptist. Why did he become an Episcopalian?
A. He was dating my mother, who was an Episcopalian, and he went to church with her at some point. When it came time for communion, in the Episcopal Church people drink out of the same cup. They were one of the only Black couples sitting in the congregation, and this was in the late ‘40s, in southern Ohio, which then really was still the South. Watching that, he said that it just hit him that any church where people of different races drink from the same cup knows something about the Gospel, and that he wants to be a part of that.
Q. In your career as a priest, as a bishop, have you experienced racism within the church?
A. When I was in seminary, the expectation at the time was that if you were a Black priest or seminarian, you were going to be serving in Black churches,” he said. “There was a Black church world and a White church world. That was the given-ness of racism, not that anybody said anything.
Q. So here you are, the first Black presiding bishop of a predominantly White denomination. How big a deal is that?
A. For who? (Laughs.) I’m aware of that, but it doesn’t influence me day-to-day. But if you ask what are the driving passions and convictions of Michael Curry? I have a fundamental, Christianized, free disposition for working to create a church and a world where there is room for everybody.
Q. Have you always stood where you stand now on equality for gay people?
A. When I think about it, it was more an evolution from not really thinking about the life of gay and lesbian people, to be honest, to becoming very aware. I was ordained in 1978. I think the first general convention resolution [on homosexuality] was about in 1979. But I was in seminary with people who were gay. We all knew. It was just kind of, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ During the AIDS crisis, I was at St. James Baltimore. I began to see the interconnections between what I was perceiving as patterns of exclusion across a lot of different lines — race, gender, class.
When I was a little boy, this was during the civil rights struggle, I remember my father, who was involved in the movement in Buffalo, I remember hearing him say, ‘God didn’t make my children to be second-class citizens in this country. God didn’t make anybody to be a second-class citizen. Of this country, or the human family.’ I believe it because I believe that’s what the Scripture teaches. And that is clearly what Jesus teaches. He says, ‘Come unto me all of you.’ He didn’t limit love. The Dude, he got it.
Q. One of the most visible roles you have is to represent the Episcopal Church in the global Anglican Communion. At a meeting in January, you tried to make the connection between the exclusion and bigotry experienced by Black people and the exclusion of gay people, telling primates of other Anglican provinces, many of whom are from Africa and have rejected the Episcopal Church’s decision to bless gay marriages, ‘I stand before you as your brother, as a descendant of African slaves.’ What impact did that have on them?
A. What I was attempting to do was to describe the deep pain for L.G.B.T. folk who’ve had to live with not being accepted by the church of Jesus Christ. And sometimes by families and loved ones, and by society. I wanted my brothers to know that our actions would bring them real pain. I said, anytime anybody is excluded, it hurts. I can tell you in all honesty my brothers listened. They did listen.
“By the time I went to college, I knew that I wanted to do something that had a positive impact on the lives of people and on society. I considered public service, having worked on Bobby Kennedy’s political campaigns as a kid, licking envelopes and knocking on doors. But my dad was a priest, and his father was a Baptist preacher — that was in my blood. My daddy took me to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak once when I was about five years old. I shouldn’t say I actually heard him: He was the last preacher out of a whole bunch of them up there talking, and I fell asleep. But one day I read Dr. King for a course. It was different from hearing him, or hearing about him, and it made me realize that there was the potential to do real social good from within the Christian religious tradition.”
“Anybody assuming a new leadership position with more demands and larger responsibility would have to be a fool not to go through moments of self-doubt. I still have those moments when I wonder whether someone made a mistake when they chose me, or whether I’m really supposed to be doing this. But I’ve never had a doubt about the reason I do what I do. My mission is to help people to find their way to a loving, liberating and life-giving relationship with God, and with each other as children of God, and ultimately with the whole of creation. The clearer I am about that, and the more consistently I return to it, the more my doubts diminish, whether they be about the church and the world or my own abilities. If you’re clear on your cause, you can navigate anything else thrown at you. Years ago, I had a conversation with an older African American gentleman who was shining my shoes. His wife had died, and he was raising his son, who was pretty smart and had just been accepted to a prestigious university. I remember him saying, ‘I get tired of shining shoes. It’s hard work, and you’re bent over all day long. But I’ll shine shoes till Jesus comes if it’ll get my boy through college.’
“It’s really interesting — one wouldn’t expect that growing up as a Black kid and the Episcopal tradition, the Anglican way, would actually have a crossover, but they do. As a kid growing up, I remember my grandmother and Aunt Lillian, in particular, would often say on different occasions, for different reasons, ‘Never let any man drag you so low as to hate him.’ Now, I didn’t know as a kid that they were actually — and I’m not sure they knew, either — they were actually quoting Booker T. Washington, who said that. But I grew up in a context where people really did believe that the kind of love that Jesus of Nazareth taught is the kind of love that can change personal life and social life. They really did believe that. And it was just ingrained in me.
“Well, that’s deeply rooted in the Anglican or Episcopal way of Christianity, that the love of God is the motive for everything God does. I mean, God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. It’s just all over the place. That’s not unique to Anglicanism or Episcopalians, but it’s deeply rooted in there. And so both my growing up as a Black kid and as an Episcopalian way of being Christian, centered on the way of love as the key to life itself.”
“There’s power in love. Don’t underestimate it. Don’t even over-sentimentalize it. There’s power, power in love. If you don’t believe me, think about a time when you first fell in love. The whole world seemed to center around you and your beloved. Well, there’s power, power in love, not just in its romantic forms, but any form, any shape of love.
“There’s a certain sense in which when you are loved and you know it, when someone cares for you and you know it, when you love and you show it, it actually feels right. There’s something right about it. And there’s a reason for it. The reason has to do with the source. We were made by a power of love and our lives were meant and are meant to be lived in that love. That’s why we are here. Ultimately the source of love is God himself. The source of all of our lives.
“If you don’t believe me, well, there were some old slaves in America’s antebellum South who explained the dynamic power of love and why it has the power, they explained it this way, they sang a spiritual, even in the midst of their captivity, something that can make things right, to make the wounded whole.
“‘There is a balm in Gilead to heal the soul. They said if you cannot preach like Peter and you cannot pray like Paul, you just tell the love of Jesus how he died to save us all. Oh, that’s the balm in Gilead.’
“He didn’t die for anything he could get out of it. Jesus did not get an honorary doctorate for dying. He didn’t — he wasn’t getting anything out of it. He gave up his life. He sacrificed his life for the good of others, for the good of the other, for the well-being of the world, for us.
“That’s what love is. Love is not selfish and self-centered. Love can be sacrificial, and in so doing, becomes redemptive. And that way of unselfish sacrificial redemptive love, changes lives and it can change this world.”
“LGBTQ folk have been put down by the church for so long, and so their struggle and pain — it’s real. It’s deep. I’ve not experienced that, so I can’t speak from that place. But I can say that I know what it is to be put down. What applied for us, I came to realize, must apply to others — that if we’re equal in the eyes of God, we should be equal in the eyes of the law. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all people are — all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.’ Those words were true. They were right. What the Founders didn’t realize was they didn’t just apply to them. They applied to the Indigenous people. They applied to the Africans enslaved. They applied to their wives and daughters — that they apply to us all.”
“Being a Christian is not essentially about joining a church or being a nice person, but about following in the footsteps of Jesus, taking his teachings seriously, letting his Spirit take the lead in our lives, and in so doing helping to change the world from our nightmare into God’s dream.”
THE STORIES OTHERS TELL
Dear Bishop Curry,
As you prepare to begin serving as Presiding Bishop, I send warm congratulations. Since our nation’s earliest days, faith communities across our country have shown us how a willingness to believe and a dedication to care for others can enrich our lives. Your leadership over the years has reflected your powerful vision for a more inclusive tomorrow. Guided by your commitment to a future of greater compassion and opportunity, I trust you will continue to use your gifts to bring people of all faiths and backgrounds together to realize the America we know is possible. Again, congratulations. I wish you all the best.
“I think what we saw in that is that preaching is not a past art,” said Archbishop Welby, “that the use of language to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ just blew the place open. It was fantastic. And you could see people just caught up in it, and excited by it!”
The New York Times on Rev. Curry’s sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle
“Michael Bruce Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, delivered a searing, soaring 13-minute speech, imploring Christians to put love at the center of their spiritual and political lives. Until that moment, the ceremony had been quite staid, stuffy even, with only the mention of ‘sexual union’ to keep us on our toes.
“‘We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love,’ he said. ‘And when we discover that we will be able to make of this old world a new world.’
“With its repetition and emphasis, his sermon drew upon the devices of Black ecclesiastical tradition. It was a striking contrast with the one delivered by Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, at the royal wedding in 2011.”
Josephine Robbins, a longtime friend of the Curry family, recalled a story when the future bishop was 10 years old and living on Hamlin Road in Buffalo. “In the attic, he had set up a chapel, and all the little chairs they could find, and his sister Sharon’s dolls were the congregation, and he would go up and celebrate Mass whenever he chose,” she said.
“When young Michael and his friends talked about their futures, Michael would say he was going to be presiding bishop, Robbins said. “This was all in jest. His father always tried to discourage him from becoming a priest. He said, ‘You want to have a profession that will allow you to take care of your family. You don’t want to be a priest.’”
“Bishop Curry said he didn’t decide on a clergy career until he saw how Martin Luther King Jr. was able to merge faith with social action. ‘I knew I wanted to do something that had some social significance,’ he said.”
A LIFE IN BRIEF
Michael Curry traces his maternal and paternal ancestry to slaves and sharecroppers in the South. His grandparents were part of the Great Migration that saw some six million African Americans move from the rural South to the big cities of the Northeast, Midwest and West between 1916 and 1970. His family settled near Chicago.
He comes from a long line of preachers. His grandfather and great-grandfather were Baptist ministers. His father became an Episcopalian when he and his Episcopalian wife attended Mass at a church in Southern Ohio and he was struck by their being permitted to drink from the same chalice as the white congregation.
Curry was born in 1953 in the predominantly Black village of Maywood, Illinois, to the west of Chicago. Curry’s mother died when he was young and he was raised by his father, who moved to Buffalo, New York, and his grandmother whom he memorialized in his autobiographical book Songs My Grandma Sang. Curry graduated with honors from Hobart University in New York and earned his Master of Divinity from Yale Divinity School in association with Berkeley Divinity School. In 1978 he was ordained a deacon at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Buffalo.
He began his ministry as deacon-in-charge at St. Stephen’s, Winston-Salem, N.C., in 1978 and was rector from 1979 to 1982. He then served as rector at St. Simon of Cyrene, Lincoln Heights, Ohio, from 1982 to 1988. In 1988 he became rector of St. James’, Baltimore, Md., and he was elected as Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina in February 2000.
As Bishop in the Diocese of North Carolina, Curry instituted a network of canons, deacons and youth ministry professionals. He refocused the Diocese on The Episcopal Church’s Millennium Development Goals through a $400,000 campaign to buy malaria nets that saved over 100,000 lives.
Presiding Bishop Curry has served on the boards of a large number of organizations, including the Task Force for Reimagining The Episcopal Church (TREC) and as Chair and now Honorary Chair of Episcopal Relief & Development. He was a member of the Commission on Ministry in each of the three dioceses where he has served.
He has furthered his education with continued study 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 has received honorary degrees from Episcopal Divinity School, Sewanee: The University of the South, Virginia Theological Seminary, and Yale University.
According to his official biography on the website of the Episcopal Church, Rev. Curry’s ministry has been marked by social activism, reconciliation, and his advocacy for immigrants and marriage equality.
He founded ecumenical summer day camps for children, preaching missions, and the Absalom Jones Episcopal Center for Racial Healing. He advocated for the creation of networks of family daycare providers and educational centers and the raising of millions of dollars of investment in inner-city neighborhoods.
In August 2020, Presiding Bishop Curry joined leaders of other denominations in signing a friend of the court brief in support of the City of Philadelphia in Fulton v. Philadelphia, now before the United States Supreme Court, affirming the commitment of the Episcopal Church to equal protection of the law and the protection of LGBTQ individuals.
ACHIEVEMENTS WE’LL REMEMBER
Bishop Michael Curry has received honorary degrees from Episcopal Divinity School, Sewanee: The University of the South, Virginia Theological Seminary, and Yale University.
He is the author of five books including his autobiographical Songs my Grandma Sang.
Bishop Curry was appointed a serving brother of the Order of St. John by Queen Elizabeth II on July 25, 2015.
In November 2015, he was installed as the first African American primate of the Episcopal Church.
On May 19, 2018, he delivered a sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
On September 1, 2018, Bishop Curry served as the officiant for the state funeral of Senator John McCain.
On December 5, 2018, he presided over the funeral service for President George H.W. Bush.
THE RELIGION HE LEADS
Following the American Revolution, American members of the Anglican Church broke away from the Church of England and formed the Episcopal Church, based on the same theology but no longer under the direct control of the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Episcopal Church is part of the Anglican Communion, which describes itself as “Protestant yet Catholic,” and “deeply grounded in the Early Church and the traditions and beliefs which have grown with Christianity from its beginnings, just like the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches.”
In 2019, the Episcopal Church had some 1.7 million baptized members, representing 1.2 percent of the adult population of the United States.
The Church opposes the death penalty, has been a stalwart proponent of civil rights, and in 2015, the General Convention passed resolutions permitting the blessing of same-sex marriages.
MORE PROFILES IN FAITH:
Talib M. Shareef, Imam of Masjid Muhammad (Sept. 24, 2021)
Rabbi David Nathan Saperstein (September 5, 2021)
Neville Callam, Baptist World Alliance (August 23, 2021)
Patriarch Bartholomew Bridges East-West Christian Divide (August 12, 2021)
Wilton Cardinal Gregory: First African American Cardinal (July 21, 2021)
Hindu Guru Mata Amritanandamayi (July 8, 2021)
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (July 1, 2021)
Pope Francis (June 23, 2021)
Archbishop Desmond Tutu (June 16, 2021)
Episcopal Bishop Michael B. Curry (June 9, 2021)
Thich Nhat Hanh, Father of Engaged Buddhism (June 2, 2021)
Ayatollah Al-Sayyid Ali Al-Huseinni Al-Sistani (May 26, 2021)
Justin Welby, the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury (May 19, 2021)