By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
The Episcopal Church has elected Michael Curry, a charismatic African-American bishop from North Carolina, to serve as presiding bishop for the next nine years.
Bishop Curry was elected by an overwhelming majority of his fellow bishops gathered in Salt Lake City for the church’s triennial General Convention. The choice took only a single ballot in the House of Bishops. Curry received 121 out of 154 votes cast.
Applause went up in the House of Deputies when the vote tally was announced. The House of Deputies confirmed his election by a vote of 800 to 12.
“The House of Deputies has confirmed the Rt. Rev. Michael Bruce Curry as the 27th presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church,” said the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies. Deputies gave a sustained round of applause.
Curry was one of four bishops on the slate of nominees. His peers chose him over three colleagues: Bishop Thomas Breidenthal of Southern Ohio, Bishop Ian Douglas of Connecticut, and Bishop Dabney Smith of Southwest Florida.
The election took the House of Bishops less than two hours to complete.
Cheers went up as Curry entered the House of Deputies. Smiling and nodding as he made eye contact with well-wishers, he walked alongside Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori to the front of the House. Deputies lined the walkway to wave in his direction and take pictures. He exchanged hugs at the podium, then spoke for about three minutes.
He noted the future will not be easy.
“We’ve got a society where there are challenges before us, we know that,” Curry said. “And there are crises all around us. And the church has challenges before us.”
He offered hope and confidence that no hurdles will be too high to surmount.
“We’ve got a God,” Curry said. “And there really is a Jesus. And we are part of the Jesus movement. And nothing can stop the movement of God’s love in this world.”
“At a deep level I am suggesting a church-wide spiritual revival of the Christian faith in the Episcopal way of being disciples of Jesus,” Curry wrote in explaining his candidacy. “While not the only player in this, I believe a significant role of the Presiding Bishop is to provide leadership, inspiration and encouragement for that revival.”
The election comes at a pivotal time for the Episcopal Church, which is considering a number of restructuring proposals as well as a new definition of marriage in its canons. A House of Deputies report on the state of the church makes clear that the presiding bishop-elect will oversee a church adjusting to many new realities.
“We recognized change as the predominant reality of the state of the Episcopal Church,” says the report. “We have changed, are changing, and will continue to change. We’re different. We’re smaller. We’re less well-to-do. We’re older. Our clergy are deployed differently and do ministry through roles that are changing.”
Curry’s election comes on the heels of the nine-year term of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman to hold the position. She oversaw a tumultuous period in the life the church, one in which hundreds of congregations left the Episcopal Church amid controversies related to homosexuality and the authority of Scripture.
Curry brings an approachable, passionate style that Episcopalians hope will galvanize efforts revitalize the church.
“He isn’t afraid to talk about faith,” said Kevin Eckstrom, spokesman for the National Cathedral and former editor of Religion News Service. “He talks about it in a very personal sort of way. He doesn’t talk about theology or canons or these fancy words that Episcopalians like to throw around. He talks about it like a real person.”
How much authority and responsibility the new presiding bishop will have is a matter of debate at General Convention. A committee is considering a recommendation to establish an executive director to oversee employees who currently report to the presiding bishop.
The move would make the presiding bishop less of a manager. But some at a hearing this week worried the position would be diminished to that of a chaplain for the denomination. The Legislative Committee on Governance and Structure could recommend such a change for the House of Deputies and House of Bishops to consider next week.
Bishop Jefferts Schori will serve until Bishop Curry is installed in a service at Washington National Cathedral Nov. 1.
Photo of Bishop Michael Curry by Asher Imtiaz