Closer to Jesus of Nazareth: Q&A with Bishop Michael Curry

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Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry speaks at the church's 79th General Convention in 2018. Photo: Asher Imtiaz/The Living Church

Bishop Michael Curry is the 27th and current presiding bishop of the U.S.-based Episcopal Church. Curry garnered international attention in 2018, when he preached at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. His animated sermon even inspired an homage by Kenan Thompson on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update.”

The bishop sat down for an interview with the Anglican Journal during the meeting of General Synod in Vancouver to speak about the health of the church, cross-border church relationships and his post-royal wedding fame. The interview has been edited for length.

What are your impressions of General Synod?

The General Synod really is a gathering of deeply faithful people who are committed to this church—to the Anglican Church of Canada, no question about that. But the commitment is deeper than that. It’s a commitment to Jesus of Nazareth and his way, trying to live that way and to follow him, and live into his way of love and way of life—for real, not for a Disney-fied version of Christianity.

It’s a real blessing to be around folk like that. And obviously to see old friends and people I’ve known and worked with over the years—that’s the family reunion side of it. But to be with a deeply faithful community of people who are struggling with hard issues—not easy issues, not stuff that’s easily fixed. Often not things that have quick answers. But they’re not quitting.

That’s what the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada really is, a community of deeply faithful people gathering around their Lord and trying to follow him—in Canada, in the world, in the 21st century.

Speaking of the 21st century—there’s such a concern right now about the decline of people coming to church, the decline of finances. What are your thoughts on that?

Photo: The Episcopal Church

I can tell you what I’ve started to realize for us in the States, which I think parallels. The church has always—Christians, I’m not using ‘church’ as an institution, necessarily—the church has always been strongest the closer it has been to Jesus of Nazareth and his actual teachings and his spirit. It has tended to be weakest, frankly, the more aligned it is with the status quo in the actual society.

We are coming out of a period of too much alignment, or comfort, with the cultural world around, and the establishment, the status quo. I’m not putting that down, I’m just saying we have been very comfortable.

I grew up in that church, and the church of that world helped me to be a Christian, so I’m not putting that down. But what helped me to be a Christian was not that alignment; what helped me to be a Christian was, they taught me about Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings, how to live out of his spirit, his way, his risen life. Live into him. That’s what did it. And we are strongest the closer we get to that.

I like to refer to that as the Jesus movement, which is the origin of Christianity, which has taken various forms over the centuries. And that movement has been an underground minority movement. When it started with Jesus and the earliest days of the church, it was composed of poor people, women, slaves and then a few rich people—I’ll tell you, it was a strange mix of people. It was an underground kind of movement, and it was incredibly strong.

And then over time it became the religion of the empire. It became the religion of civilization, at least in the West, and to some extent in the East. And it crowned emperors. It became the establishment.

And is that what you mean when you say ‘aligned with the status quo’?

Yeah, that’s what I’m getting at. It has become state religion, state church. My point is, we’ve been this way before. What’s going on in Canada and in the United States, in the Western world—the Jesus movement has been this way before, and the cultural changes and the structural reality and the size of our numbers has not stopped the movement.

The movement can’t be stopped, because it’s following the risen Christ, and he’s alive. Pilate couldn’t stop him. The Roman army couldn’t stop him. And the secularization of the Western world won’t, either. So, we may be smaller, we may have less money. That doesn’t matter. Jesus wasn’t wealthy.

If we are about preserving ourselves as an institution, and our institutional structures, then we are at the mercy of the cultural forces around us. If we are about following the risen Christ, this Jesus of Nazareth, and making our witness in the world, then we will figure out how to navigate with maybe less money or fewer people. We will figure out how to navigate if we have more money and more people. That won’t matter. What will matter is the closer we are to this Jesus of Nazareth, and following his actual teachings—not just the idea of it, but his real teachings.

I think that movement, that closeness, people gathering around this Jesus, is what he’s talking about in Matthew 16, when he says, “Thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” That’s the movement—not being an institution. He wasn’t talking about institution, he was talking about people gathering around him and following his way.

There are some institutional realities that are important, and there are some things that we do that take institutional embodiment, so this isn’t anti-institutional. But when our consciousness of being Christian is dependent on our institutional forms, then we’ve missed the point. We’ve substituted the outward form for the inward reality—and it’s the inward reality that endured.

There’s a collect that prays that we “hold fast to things eternal, even as we pass through things temporary.” That is what we must do.

Hold fast to that which is eternal, and we can handle whatever is temporary.

How do you see—and how would you like to see—the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church working together?

Oh, what a good question. I think we can continue a lot of the work we’ve been doing. I mean, the four-way relationship between the two Lutheran churches, Canada and the U.S., and the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church—that relationship, just that, has borne real fruit.

And then just sort of the—not informal, but just various relationships. I remember a couple of years ago, the bishops who were both on the borders of the two countries—I know the Detroit/Windsor gang, and the Ontario/New York—they were gathering together pretty regularly, and I know that spun off some other work, some other relationships.

And then we share some ministries. The program for training the new bishops, we do that together. Things like that need to continue and deepen. I think they will.

What will be interesting is the relationship between our two peoples—I mean, the actual people in the pews, so to speak. Not just clergy, not just bishops. I think some of that happens where there’s geographical proximity. I grew up in Buffalo, New York. In the church I grew up in, it seems to me there were often Canadian priests who were serving there, over the years.

While visiting pipeline protesters at Oceti Sakowin Camp, North Dakota, in 2016, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry meets with then-South Dakota Bishop John Tarrant (centre) and Linda Simon, Episcopalian and member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

I remember, about three years ago, I think it was, when we were involved in Standing Rock, with the Sioux Nation, because of a pipeline drilling through Sioux land. I went to Standing Rock at the request of the church there, because there are some Episcopal churches on the reservation.

At that same time, Archbishop Fred [Hiltz] had written a letter of prayerful support for the Sioux Nation, and when they asked me to address the gathering, the campsite, I excerpted that letter and said, “Our brothers and sisters in Canada stand with you, there is a great host around you.”

You know, I think of some of the relationships over the years with Indigenous peoples—I mean, the borders between our two countries are pretty artificial. Tribal connections are not really related to those actual borders. There may be, as the years go on, ways that we can help each other in ministries in Indigenous communities. I can imagine the possibilities.

What about praying for America and for the Episcopal Church—

Yes! Please pray for America.

For Canadians watching American politics right now, it feels pretty tense.

Yeah. Yeah. We need your prayers.

There is—it’s in the States, and I don’t know if it’s here, but it’s in the States and it’s in other parts of the world—there is a spirit that seems to be loose, of anger and of deep division. And of paranoia toward the other. It’s not everybody—it’s not even the majority. But you don’t need the majority to make a mess.

And so we really need your prayers. And I’m sure you need ours, for different reasons. One of the things about the Anglican Communion, for all of our struggles—and they’re real—but it does pull us out of our parochial, particularly national, configurations, and call us to higher ground. And that higher ground does not know our national borders.

That’s the one thing about authentic, genuine love: it’s unselfish. It’s self-sacrificial. It seeks the good and the welfare of the other, not just the welfare of the self. That kind of love knows no borders. It knows no race, it knows no social class, it knows no sexual orientation. I mean, you can go through the list. That kind of love breaks down every barrier or difference that can divide—as well as just differences that are beautiful. It knows no boundaries.

And I think that’s why the hymn writer said, “In Christ, there is no east nor west.” That’s the message we proclaim. I have a feeling that’s a message this temporary world needs.

Over the years, every once in a while, I’ve gotten a note from someone here in Canada, just saying, “You were prayed for in Eucharist today.” Sometimes the cathedrals will do that kind of thing. It’s just so sweet, and nice—it really is! And moving, on some levels, to know that somebody who doesn’t even know you face-to-face is praying for you.

Prayer is powerful stuff. And the thing is, we don’t always know how—we know God’s got something to do with it. We know that much!

You preached at the royal wedding—have you found that people recognize you?

Yeah, periodically. Yeah. I was surprised! I didn’t expect that.

I mean, I’m not Denzel Washington. So it’s not that. But yeah—it does happen on airplanes, and I’m on airplanes a lot. On the flight I was on a couple weeks ago, going to California from New York, mid-flight, one of the flight attendants brought me a paper napkin. She just handed it to me and kept on going.

I looked at the napkin, and it said, “Can we take a picture with you if you get a chance?”

I said, I’m going to frame that napkin. It was priceless. So at some point I went up, and the flight attendants all came out and we took a selfie right there in the little cabin.

That does happen. The nice thing is, it has opened up conversations with people—conversations about real stuff.

Do you have any advice for, or anything you want to say about, our new primate?

Oh wow. Well, I’ve known her for a number of years. We were together years ago on the faculty of the College for Bishops’ Living Our Vows program, and now we’ve been working together on the primacy task force. So I’ve known Linda over the years, from those experiences.

She’s deeply wise, and she’s a healer. She might not say that of herself, but she really is. She can gently but clearly bring people together.

I don’t have any great wisdom for her, except be who you were called.

When I first became a bishop, an older bishop, who’s gone off to glory now, took my wife and me out to dinner. We were in North Carolina; this was 20 years ago. He said to me: ask yourself, what was it about you—and he said, this doesn’t have to do with vanity, now—what was it about you that the people, the clergy and the laity, saw that they responded to? And more importantly, that they saw as being the kind of leader-partner that was needed at this moment?

When I was a nominee for presiding bishop, any one of the four of us could have been presiding bishop. We each had different sets of gifts—so, which set of gifts was needed for this particular moment, that might not be needed for another moment? My bishop said, “Live into who you are.”

You know how people say, “Be who you are”? That can be a little cheesy. But actually, who you authentically are—that’s not your personality. That’s what spiritual gifts, particular characteristics you have that are needed for this particular moment. Live those gifts. Be that. And you’ll do your little bit for the reign of God’s love in this world. That’s all we all do—we do our little bit.

She’ll be wonderful.

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Joelle Kidd
Joelle Kidd joined the Anglican Journal in 2017 as staff writer. She has worked as an editor and writer for the Winnipeg-based Fanfare Magazine Group and as freelance copy editor for Naida Communications.

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