What’s the background of the Episcopal Church’s new leader?

What’s the background of the Episcopal Church’s new leader? November 17, 2015

AN EPISCOPALIAN ASKS:

Can you tell us something more about the presiding bishop of our [Episcopal] Church? I’ve heard only upbeat things about him from people who have met and heard him. Will he be a Marco Rubio — a very effective speaker who can connect with people?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Perhaps so. Here’s some information about the personable Michael Bruce Curry, 62, who was installed this month as the new presiding bishop of America’s troubled Episcopal Church. Some U.S. denominations lack such a solo head while the Episcopalians grant their chief unusually centralized power and, moreover, his term runs till 2024.

The questioner’s pitch for Republican Rubio brings to mind Hillary Clinton’s 2016 hope to become the nation’s first woman president following its first African-American president. The Episcopalians have done the opposite. Curry, the first African-American to head this rather elite and overwhelmingly white church, succeeds its first female presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori.

Jefferts Schori was a surprise choice in 2006 because she never led a prominent parish or diocese. She spent only five years as bishop of Nevada (currently with 5,444 souls). By contrast, Curry has 15 years of seasoning as bishop of the Raleigh-based North Carolina diocese, the nation’s sixth largest with 50,218 active members.

Rather like Barack Obama’s notable keynote speech to the Democrats’ 2004 convention that helped win the 2008 nomination, Curry delivered a rousing sermon at the church’s 2012 convention and was elected presiding bishop at the next one. His landslide victory among fellow bishops last June came on the first ballot for the first time in Episcopal history.

The Curry era will follow years of U.S. tumult that has also eroded unity in the international Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch. Curry’s first big challenge is a January 2016 summit meeting of world Anglican leaders. In dispute: Biblical authority and interpretation, including traditional sexual morals. The rising liberal leverage in the U.S. church culminated in approval for partnered same-sex bishops, priests, and lay members.

Since consecration of the first openly gay bishop in 2003, Episcopal statistics have been sliding steadily as individuals, congregations, and five dioceses departed. The most recent report, for 2014, shows a one-year membership drop of 2.7 percent, to 1,817,004. The annual loss in average Sunday attendance is worse, down 3.7 percent to 600,411. Prior to endorsement of the gay bishop the average attendance was 846,640 and membership was 2,320,221. (Longer term, membership was 3,285,826 back in 1970 when the U.S. population was half as large.) Jefferts Schori led a bare-knuckles legal drive to retain assets of the departing congregations, which one conservative attorney claims has cost the church an estimated $40 million.

Curry’s November installation sermon sought to boost morale: “It is an understatement to say that these are not, and will not be, easy times for people of faith,” he admitted. But “God is not finished with the Episcopal Church yet,” an assertion he repeated several times. Curry proposed that Bobby McFerrin’s tune may paraphrase a message from Jesus himself: “Don’t worry. Be happy!”

In the climax of the sermon, Curry recalled that his father Kenneth was studying to be a Baptist pastor until he attended his first Episcopal Communion service with his fiancee, who had become Episcopalian through reading the C.S. Lewis classic “Mere Christianity.” In that era of segregation, Kenneth was so moved by seeing her receive the wine from a common chalice alongside whites that he converted to the Episcopal Church.

As a priest during Michael’s boyhood, Kenneth led a black Episcopal parish in Buffalo, New York, where he was an activist who helped rally a boycott of segregated city schools. Michael graduated from Hobart College, earned a divinity degree at Yale, did post-graduate study elsewhere, and has received honorary degrees from four Episcopal seminaries. Before joining the hierarchy he led parishes in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Lincoln Heights, Ohio; and Baltimore, where he mounted a $2.5 rebuilding campaign after a fire.

The most informative and candid assessment of Curry’s track record as a bishop comes, not surprisingly, in a magazine that’s independent of church headquarters, The Living Church, and from a veteran religion writer, G. Jeffrey MacDonald: www.livingchurch.org/go-galilee

Curry was one of the early bishops who favored priests with same-sex partners, a stand many North Carolinians opposed. Nor did Curry shy away from controversy otherwise, emulating his father with what MacDonald calls a “justice-heavy interpretation” of the church’s mission. Yet, remarkably, his diocese was one of only four that increased memberships in the difficult decade after elevation of the gay bishop (which Curry favored) and few congregations have quit. After a dip, the diocesan budget has grown 41 percent.

One critic told MacDonald the bishop’s team has fended off conservative clergy candidates. However, McDonald thinks the bishop limited walkouts by showing “respect and genuine care” toward traditionalists who disagreed with him. He also mollified dissenters by insisting that the new gay priests live as celibates if unmarried, just like heterosexuals, and he has not pressured conservative parishes to perform same-sex ceremonies.

There’s some hope for healing at the national level, judging from a Curry remark to Religion News Service: “I really do believe that when Jesus said ‘go make disciples of all nations,’ ‘all’ really meant all. That means traditionalists and progressives.”


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