At the start of his All Saints Sunday installation Eucharist in Washington National Cathedral, Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry declared his bona fides to the church.
After knocking on the west doors in the traditional manner at noon as the sun broke through the clouds and being admitted to the cathedral by the Very Rev. Gary Hall, the cathedral’s dean, and Diocese of Washington Bishop Mariann Budde, Curry was asked to “tell us who you are.”
“I am Michael Bruce Curry, a child of God, baptized in St. Simon of Cyrene Church, Maywood, Illinois, on May 3, 1953, and since that time I have sought to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ,” he replied.
“Michael, Bishop in the Church of God, we have anticipated your arrival with great joy,” 26th Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told him.
“In the Name of Christ, we greet you,” she added, and the greeting was echoed by the more than 2,500 people in attendance.
Curry, the former bishop of North Carolina, promised to be a “faithful shepherd and pastor” and, when asked by Jefferts Schori if they would support Curry in his ministry, those attending roared in reply, “We will.”
With that and all the liturgical celebration that followed, The Episcopal Church made history as it welcomed its first person of color as presiding bishop and primate.
“God has not given up on God’s world,” Curry told the congregation and the thousands of people watching the service’s live webcast. “And God is not finished with The Episcopal Church yet. God has work for us to do.”
Curry had officially become the 27th presiding bishop and The Episcopal Church’s chief pastor and primate at midnight. During the three-hour service, he was seated in the cathedral (Washington National Cathedral has been the presiding bishop’s seat since 1941). Jefferts Schori then gave him the primatial staff that she had carried for the past nine years and then warmly embraced him as the congregation loudly applauded and shouted its approval.
Music for the service ranged from Anglican chant to drumming and singing by the Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians of Maryland, who led the 155 bishops of The Episcopal Church into the service. The Cedarville Band also played before the Gospel was read in Lakota by the Rev. Brandon Mauai, a deacon from North Dakota and member of the Executive Council. Jamey Graves and Sandra Montes soloed on Wade in the Water after participants had renewed their baptismal covenant and Curry, Jefferts Schori and others asperged the congregation. By the time they reached the altar, the congregation was on its feet singing along.
The St. Thomas Gospel Choir from the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia had the congregation clapping and swaying. And when the Cathedral Choir of Men and Girls sang an arrangement of The Battle Hymn of the Republic as the offertory anthem, congregation members stood and joined in the final chorus, many of them with tears in their eyes.
Special prayers were said during the service by representatives of the Anglican Communion, ecumenical and interreligious communities, including the Most Rev. Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada; Mohamed Elsanousi, Islamic Society of North America; Rabbi Steve Gutow, Jewish Council for Public Affairs; and the Rev. Elizabeth Miller, president of the Provincial Elders’ Conference of the Moravian Church.
After Anita Parrott George, another Executive Council member, read the Old Testament reading (Isaiah 11:1-9) in English, Fernanda Sarahi read the New Testament selection (Revelation 21:1-6a) in Spanish. And at the beginning of the Great Thanksgiving, Curry said the sursum corda (lift up your hearts) in Spanish.
Curry’s approximately 37-minute animated sermon drew applause, laughter and shouts of approval from the congregation. He swept his arms wide over the crowd at times, raised his hands and shouted, lowered his voice and brought his hands close together at other times to make his points.
The presiding bishop continued his call for the church and its members to join the Jesus Movement, tracing the evidence of the movement through biblical and societal history. “What was true in the first century and true in the 19th century is equally and more profound in this new 21st century,” he said.
Jesus himself continued a movement begun by John the Baptist and took it to a new level, Curry said. “John was part of the movement born out of prophets like Amos and Isaiah and Jeremiah. And prophetic movement was rooted in Moses, who went up to the mountaintop,” he said. “Jesus crystalized and catalyzed the movement that was serving God’s mission in this world. God has a passionate dream for this world.”
The dream involves change, the presiding bishop said. “The Way of Jesus will always turn our worlds and the world upside down, which is really turning it right side up!”
“At home and in the church, do unto others as you would have them do to you. That will turn things upside down,” Curry said. “In the boardrooms of the corporate world, in the classrooms of the academic world, in the factories, on the streets, in the halls of legislatures and councils of government, in the courts of the land, in the councils of the nations, wherever human beings are, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Curry returned again and again in his sermon to evangelism and reconciliation, especially racial reconciliation, calling it “some of the most difficult work possible.”
“But don’t worry,” he said. “We can do it. The Holy Spirit has done this work before in The Episcopal Church. And it can be done again for a new day.”
He called for an evangelism that is “genuine and authentic to us as Episcopalians, not a way that imitates or judges anyone else” and that is “about helping others find their way to a relationship with God without our trying to control the outcome.” Such evangelism, he said, ought to involve both sharing the faith that is in us and listening to and learning from others’ experiences.
Curry said that racial reconciliation is “just the beginning for the hard and holy work of real reconciliation that realizes justice across all the borders and boundaries that divide the human family of God.”
The presiding bishop acknowledged that such work is “difficult work, but we can do it. It’s about listening and sharing. It’s about God.”
And, Curry said, “in this work of reconciliation we can join hands with others.”
“It is as the Jesus Movement, following Jesus’ way, that we join hands with brothers and sisters of different Christian communities, with brothers and sisters of other faith and religious traditions, and with brothers and sisters who may be atheist or agnostic or just on a journey, but who long for a better world where children do not starve and where there is, as the old spiritual says, ‘plenty good room for all of God’s children,’ ” Curry said.
At the beginning of his sermon, the new presiding bishop took a few moments for “personal privilege.” He first told the church that he looks forward to working with the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings in her role as president of the House of Deputies, saying, “We’ve been working with each other a bit over the summer and I look forward to working together with her in the years to come.”
He then thanked Richard Schori, Jefferts Schori’s husband, and then turned to the 26th presiding bishop herself. “In a time when there is often debate and genuine consternation as to whether or not courageous, effective leadership is even possible, we can say to the world that we have had a leader and her name is Katharine Jefferts Schori,” Curry said to applause and a standing ovation from the congregation.
Elected at General Convention
The House of Bishops elected Curry June 27 during General Convention on the first ballot. It was a landslide; he received 121 votes of a total 174 cast. The number of votes needed for election was 89. It was the first time the bishops had elected a presiding bishop on the first ballot.
Diocese of Southwest Florida Bishop Dabney Smith, Diocese of Southern Ohio Bishop Thomas Breidenthal and Diocese of Connecticut Bishop Ian Douglas were the other nominees. Curry’s election was confirmed an hour later by the House of Deputies, as outlined in the church’s canons, by a vote of 800 to 12.
It’s the second time in a row that the church will make history with its installation of a presiding bishop. In 2006, current Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori became the first woman elected presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church. She was also the first female among the primates, or ordained leaders, of the Anglican Communion’s 38 provinces, a distinction she still holds. Jefferts Schori had been elected June 18, 2006 during the 75th meeting of General Convention.
The roles of the presiding bishop
The presiding bishop is chief pastor and primate of the church, chair of the Executive Council, and president of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. The canonical outline of the presiding bishop’s election and term can be found in Title I Section 2 of the church’s Canons.
According to Title I Section 2, the presiding bishop as chief pastor and primate is “charged with responsibility for leadership in initiating and developing the policy and strategy in the church and speaking for the church as to the policies, strategies and programs authorized by the General Convention.”
The presiding bishop also “speaks God’s word to the church and world as the representative of this Church and its episcopate in its corporate capacity,” represents The Episcopal Church to the Anglican Communion, serves as chief consecrator of bishops, and leads the House of Bishops. He or she also holds a significant role in the discipline and changes in status of bishops, according to Title I Section 2.
Also, the presiding bishop exercises a significant role in the governance of the church by making appointments to various governing bodies, making decisions with the president of the House of Deputies, serving as a member of every churchwide committee and commission, and serving as chair and president of key church governing boards. He or she is the chair and chief executive officer of the Executive Council, which is the board of directors for the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, according to Canon I.4, and oversees the execution of the programs and policies adopted by the General Convention and carried out by the Society.
The staff of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society report to the presiding bishop, who is the Society’s president, either directly or through a group of senior staff and officers who, according to canon, report and are accountable directly to the presiding bishop. (The office of the General Convention, by canon, maintains a separate reporting structure.)
In its “Call to Discernment and Profile,” the joint nominating committee said the 27th presiding bishop would need to be “comfortable in the midst of ambiguity and able to lead the church in the rich, temporal space between the ‘now,’ and the ‘yet to come.’ ” The person discerned and elected by the church would need to “delight” in the diversity of a “multi-national, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-generational church.” And, because “our polity has many components and complexities,” the 27th presiding bishop will need the “skills and wisdom for leading complex and democratic systems through a time of significant change.”
Originally, the office of presiding bishop was filled automatically by the most senior bishop in the House of Bishops, measured by date of consecration, beginning with the presidency of William White at the first session of the 1789 General Convention. That process changed in 1925 when the church elected the Rt. Rev. John Gardner Murray as the 16th presiding bishop. An interactive timeline about the presiding bishops is here.
Presiding Bishop-elect Curry’s past ministry
Born in Chicago, Illinois, on March 13, 1953, Curry attended public schools in Buffalo, New York, and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1975 from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, in Geneva, New York, and a Master of Divinity degree in 1978 from the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. He has also studied at Princeton Theological Seminary, Wake Forest University, the Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary’s Seminary, and the Institute of Christian Jewish Studies.
He was ordained to the diaconate in June 1978 at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buffalo, New York, and to the priesthood in December 1978 at St. Stephen’s, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He began his ministry as deacon-in-charge at St. Stephen’s, and was rector there 1979-1982. He next accepted a call to serve as the rector of St. Simon of Cyrene, Lincoln Heights, Ohio, where he served 1982-1988. In 1988, he became rector of St. James’, Baltimore, Maryland, where he served until his election as bishop.
In his three parish ministries, Curry was active in the founding of ecumenical summer day camps for children, the creation of networks of family day-care providers and educational centers, and the brokering of millions of dollars of investment in inner city neighborhoods. He also sat on the commission on ministry in each of the three dioceses in which he has served.
During his time as bishop of North Carolina, Curry instituted a network of canons, deacons and youth ministry professionals dedicated to supporting the ministry that already happens in local congregations and refocused the diocese on The Episcopal Church’s dedication to the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals through a $400,000 campaign to buy malaria nets that saved thousands of lives.
Throughout his ministry, Curry has also been active in issues of social justice, speaking out on immigration policy and marriage equality.
He serves on the boards of many organizations and has a national preaching and teaching ministry. He has been featured on The Protestant Hour and North Carolina Public Radio’s The State of Things, as well as on The Huffington Post website. In addition, Curry is a frequent speaker at conferences around the country. He has received honorary degrees from Sewanee: The University of the South, Virginia Theological Seminary, Yale, and, most recently, Episcopal Divinity School. He served on the Taskforce for Re-imagining the Episcopal Church and recently was named chair of Episcopal Relief & Development’s board of directors.
His most recent book, Songs My Grandma Sang, was published in June 2015. His book of sermons, Crazy Christians, came out in August 2013.
Curry and his wife, Sharon, have two adult daughters, Rachel and Elizabeth.