By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Before Michael Curry ever felt God calling him to preach the gospel, he was listening — and learning that faith without works is dead. He heard it in the hymns and Bible verses, and old North Carolina stories that his grandmother laid on the grandchildren while she cooked dinner. He overheard it when Buffalo-area clergy gathered in his family’s living room to plan civil rights actions in the early 1960s. He heard it when he exited a movie theater in 1960 with his ordained father after a showing of Exodus. Kenneth Curry paused for a word with his seven-year-old son.
“He said, ‘I want you to remember this,’” Bishop Curry recalled in his Raleigh office a few weeks before his consecration on Nov. 1 as the Episcopal Church’s 27th presiding bishop. “‘The Lord didn’t make anybody to be under anybody’s foot. He made everybody to be free.’ That was formative.”
What the young Curry heard in those exchanges and others like them robustly shaped his vocation, which is centered on following Jesus, making disciples, and leaving the world a better place as the faithful make their way to heaven.
“It’s about a better world now and the best world over yonder,” Curry said. “It’s about both. It’s about transforming this earth so that thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
It’s an ethos molded half a century ago in his upbringing in Buffalo at St. Philip’s Church, an Anglo-Catholic congregation in which families of African-Americans and immigrants from the Caribbean grew in faith together. On Saturdays, the children would play all day in the church yard. Then on Sundays they would vest to bring the scent of holiness to their community. Two brothers carried the incense boat and thurible. Curry at age five carried the spoon.
From this milieu came the defining themes of Curry’s ministry, honed in three local parishes before maturing during his North Carolina episcopacy, which began in 2000. “God’s Dream,” a favorite Curry term to denote a vision for a more just world, has been in his lexicon since he first heard it used in the 1990s. (The late lay theologian Verna Dozier laid the foundation in The Dream of God: A Call to Return [Cowley, 1991]). His frequent exhortation to “Go to Galilee” emerged in North Carolina as shorthand for embodying the gospel in the world. But the underlying concept had been with him for decades: a disciple’s transformed life begets joyful witness, public acts of justice, and potentially contagious faith.
As Curry prepares to lead two million Episcopalians, his reputation precedes him as one of the great preachers of the Anglican Communion. Less known is what has happened to his habit of listening and being formed by what he hears. Much now hangs in the balance as various bodies, from local congregations to overseas provinces, hope the new presiding bishop will listen to them in concert with Scripture, tradition, and reason.
A close look at Curry’s North Carolina tenure shows he has been listening with discretion. He has amplified voices that reflect his justice-heavy interpretation of the diocese’s mission. Dissenters and critics do not have the same kind of diocesan platforms to be heard far and wide. But Curry has listened to them, too, away from the limelight and fanfare. What he has done with those insights depends on whom you ask, but they agree he has been eager to hear.
“He wants to make sure that the larger church looks and sees what’s being done and is inspired by particular things that inspire him,” said the Rev. Brooks Graebner, rector of St. Matthew’s in Hillsborough. “He has an amazing eagerness to engage.”
Statistics show a diocese that has changed under Bishop Curry. North Carolina was one of just four U.S. dioceses to increase membership between 2003 and 2013. (Others suffered net losses as the Episcopal Church declined 17.4 percent.) North Carolina’s average pledge jumped from $1,700 in 2000 to $2,800 in 2014. The diocesan budget swelled 41 percent to $4.6 million.
The bigger budget covers salaries for a staff that has grown more than 50 percent since Curry arrived. Today’s staff of 25 includes six regional canons and youth ministers, who provide direct support to congregations. Hearing from congregations persuaded Curry to create regional positions, he said, and provide more ministry support. But some clergy reportedly feel they no longer have a direct line to the bishop.
“You’re going to get two sides on that,” said the Rev. Robert Sawyer, rector of Church of the Good Shepherd, which stands a few steps from diocesan headquarters in downtown Raleigh. “The other side would be: did we create another level of bureaucracy between the clergy and the bishop? I think there may be some folks who felt that way.”
That Curry listens to his handlers is readily apparent. When he spoke with The Living Church, two North Carolina employees were in the room for every word, as was Neva Rae Fox, the Episcopal Church’s Officer for Public Affairs, who flew in from New York to monitor the interview. The Rev. Michael Hunn, Canon to the Ordinary for Program and Pastoral Ministry, and Christine McTaggart, communications director, encouraged Curry with nods for certain of his responses and occasionally interjected with clarifications or policy specifics.
Still, it’s clear Curry is in charge and likes to keep the diocese mission-focused and singing the same tune. For instance, diocesan communications received a makeover. The Rev. Ted Malone, who edited the diocesan newspaper and clergy newsletter when Curry arrived, said he felt obliged to speak for everybody in the diocese, including conservatives, in his columns. He published letters for and against programs that Curry proposed. But none of that went over well once Curry was in charge.
“There were viewpoints going out from Diocesan House that differed from the bishop’s viewpoint, and he didn’t like that,” Malone said. “The bishop and I had a sort of come-to-Jesus conversation. He said, ‘Ted, what I want is a publicist, not a journalist.’ I understood that distinction and felt I could not work with someone who, it seemed to me, wanted to stifle freedom of inquiry.” Malone left his communications post in 2003 and now serves as rector of Trinity Church in Scotland Neck.
Curry disputes ever having told Malone he wanted a publicist, not a journalist. But he makes no apologies for his communications philosophy of using church resources to trumpet the mission and leave no space for detractors or naysayers.
“Let me tell you, you don’t stifle debate among Episcopalians in this diocese; they freely discuss and debate everything,” Curry said, adding that social media today provides them with plenty of outlets. “What I do as bishop, how I spend and allocate my time, our communications, our canons, youth ministries — everything works to help the work of forming people as followers of Jesus.”
The communications makeover was part of a wider effort to encourage community outreach and public witness. Congregations that “got it” could find themselves featured in diocesan communications or shaping initiatives, even if they were small and had never before felt important to a bishop.
Case in point: St. Andrew’s Church in tiny Haw River, where a guns-and-pawn shop welcomes visitors to town. Curry asks congregations, “What are you doing for your community?” In direct response, this mission church of 90 stopped grumbling about the Hispanic trailer park next door and started serving its residents. Parents now grow vegetables rent-free on church land, side by side with church members who have learned corn-raising tips from their neighbors. Residents send their children to the church after school hours, when volunteers help with reading and math.
“I shared with [the diocese] what we were doing with the gardens and the idea of planting a seed, and they really picked up on that,” said Dick Ling, a layman who is active in outreach at St. Andrew’s. He said Curry invited him to be part of the Galilee Commission, which encouraged all 125 congregations to make the “Go to Galilee” vision their own and run with it.
The Commission on Ministry reflected Curry’s priorities as well. In the early 2000s, he made waves in the Bible Belt by supporting a path for noncelibate gays and lesbians to seek ordination. At the time, many in the Diocese of North Carolina opposed such ordinations, but their views were not reflected on the 16-member Commission on Ministry, said Graebner, who chaired the commission from 2002 to 2006.
“I don’t remember anyone being profoundly uncomfortable with gay and lesbian candidates,” he said. Malone said that theologically conservative candidates for ordination were finding it difficult to navigate through the Commission on Ministry. They were not allowed to attend Nashotah House Theological Seminary or Trinity School for Ministry, he said. “The basic theological tone of the diocesan clergy has shifted noticeably to the left,” Malone said. “Bishop Curry has weeded out his clergy foes and systematically acted to prevent the creation of potential new ones.”
Curry said the Commission on Ministry reflected a wider diversity of theological views and included advocates for traditional sexual ethics. But Graebner said that came after the battles that followed the 2003 consecration of the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.
In the House of Bishops, Curry cast his vote for Robinson. The effects of Robinson’s election reverberated immediately from North Carolina’s western foothills to the eastern plains. Parishioners who felt betrayed left by the hundreds. Others proudly shared their bishop’s stance, yet they still grieved the rift and prayed for a limit to the fallout.
“After the consecration of Gene Robinson, some stark differences among us emerged,” Curry preached in a sermon (“Down with Walls of Division and Up with the Dream of God”) during the diocese’s Annual Convention in 2004. “We have had to be intentional about encouraging holy and respectful conversations as we wrestle with concerns where there are deep differences among us.”
For all the pain and turmoil, however, North Carolina suffered no exodus of congregations on the order of what happened in South Carolina and elsewhere. Only one congregation withdrew in protest. (Still, the Anglican Church in North America lists seven congregations within the borders of Curry’s diocese, two of them in Raleigh.)
How North Carolina minimized fallout is a matter of debate. Malone said Curry convened deacons and clergy from mission congregations and told them their vestries were “forbidden” to discuss leaving the Episcopal Church. But Curry denies having used a carrot-and-stick approach to keep rankled congregations in the fold.
“Even in great conflict, as much as possible, stay connected and in relationship,” Curry said. “I’m not going to presume to be infallible. Integrity requires me to say, ‘This is what I believe and where I stand,’ but I also have to stand in a place that makes space for you to stand in your integrity. And somehow out of that relationship we may find a way.”
Curry is not alone in his assessment of why and how his diocese stayed together through that trying time. Theologically conservative congregations explored prospects of aligning with other Anglican provinces, yet they stayed with the Episcopal Church for various reasons. Among the factors were the respect and genuine care they say Curry has shown them.
Take St. Timothy’s, a congregation of 740 with a bustling school in an upscale retail district of North Raleigh, where spas and boutiques abound. The parish has never been featured in diocesan media during Curry’s tenure, even though it’s an exemplar of diversity with about one-third of parishioners tracing their roots to Africa or the Caribbean. Nor does it take cues from what Curry teaches on sexual ethics. St. Timothy’s leaders teach that noncelibate gays and lesbians should not be ordained. Every time the Episcopal Church takes a new step in affirming same-sex relationships, James says, the congregation loses some members.
But the parish also feels at home in the Episcopal Church, James says, and does not want to leave. Leaders and members appreciate that Curry has never pressured them to stop using the 1928 Prayer Book or to perform same-sex blessings. On one occasion, the parish withheld a portion of its asking in protest of developments in the Episcopal Church and asked Curry to come discuss their reasons with the vestry.
“Well, he did, and the meeting went very well,” James said. “It was an open and honest exchange. It was a positive meeting. He assured the whole vestry that, when he was bishop, there would always be room at the table for the people of St. Timothy’s.”
What’s more, St. Timothy’s cherishes that when Bishop Curry is on vacation, he and his wife, Sharon, routinely slip in, unannounced and with no fanfare, to worship at the parish.
“St. Timothy’s reminds me of the church I grew up in, it really does,” Curry said. “And I love Father James. He always gives you a good sermon, a good word.”
James is not the only priest who has forged a relationship with the bishop by spending time together when he’s not in his miter or purple shirt. Others have too, and it has built trust.
Sawyer for a time used to work out with Curry at a gym. Curry knows fitness gives him stamina for ministry, Sawyer said, and he stayed faithful to their routines as workout partners. When Sawyer needed surgery, Curry came to the operating room and prayed with him before the anesthesia kicked in. Knowing each other as people has helped overcome differences.
On political issues, “he is a liberal and I’m a conservative, but we get along very well,” Sawyer said.
The Rev. Miriam Saxon, vicar of St. Andrew’s in Haw River, traveled with Curry on a mission trip to Botswana, where she saw his playful side. In airports, he would frequently stop and talk to people he did not know. On a flight, he pulled a blanket over his head to hide from something a flight attendant was spraying, and everyone burst out laughing. He led a retreat in Botswana, preaching four sermons in a day, and was thoroughly energized by the experience.
“What I learned on that trip is he’s the same all the time,” Saxon said. “There’s not an off switch. There’s not a public Michael Curry and a private Michael Curry. There’s just Michael Curry.”
Curry also has shown his playful side when visiting Church of the Advocate, a mission planted in Chapel Hill in 2003. He’s rung the bell and shot video of the congregation on his smartphone.
“When he comes here, he just seems to be having so much fun,” said the Rev. Lisa Fischbeck, vicar. “He’s always the last one to leave.”
Graebner has more than once received a springtime call from Curry’s office. It’s always the same request: to schedule a day of personal retreat and reflection for the bishop at St. Matthew’s, where graves from the 19th century tightly hug the walkways and trees create a shady serenity. Graebner always says yes and delights in the honor of hosting Curry when he’s recharging.
This habit of tending relationships has helped Curry weather tense times. Critics howled, for instance, when the diocese sold a beloved camp and conference center outside Greensboro, where scores had come to faith in their youth. Curry had already spearheaded the sale of diocesan headquarters for $3.8 million, a move that left the diocese renting and then buying office space in downtown Raleigh. Together the two sales freed up a $7.9 million cash infusion, which helped as pledges dried up in the wake of Robinson’s consecration and the diocesan budget shrank by 10 percent. But many grieved the loss of iconic real estate and wished it had not been necessary.
Still, Curry saw the sales through and took the heat head-on. He says he attended every public forum on the conference center decision and heard all the concerns that critics raised. He had a responsibility to attend and listen, he said. The people of the diocese were not shy to take him up on it.
Today, observers say, the Diocese of North Carolina has a different makeup than when Curry first took up his crozier in Raleigh. It’s more theologically and politically liberal now, Malone said, and less agitated because pugnacious conservatives have left for other churches. Large, urban congregations have largely bounced back from post-Robinson membership losses, while small rural congregations have not.
But as the dust settles from recent culture wars in the Episcopal Church, Curry has moved to anchor the church back on some of its traditional moorings. Though he has been a cheerleader for Church of the Advocate, he has reigned in its members at times when they flirted with too much innovation. He shot down a request, for instance, to replace traditional “Father” and “Son” language in the Nicene Creed with gender-neutral alternatives. And when using a New Zealand liturgy, the congregation must insert a consecrating prayer, asking that the elements “may be the Sacrament of the Body of Christ and his Blood of the New Covenant.” Curry insisted on it.
What’s more, Curry has reinstituted a sexual morality standard that now applies equally to all candidates for ordination. Gone are the days when same-sex couples could cohabitate while one person studied for the ministry because, at the time, they were not allowed to marry. Now they must either marry or live apart.
“We want to know that people are living the Great Commandment: that they really are loving God and loving their neighbor and living in loving, healthy, responsible ways in their lives,” Curry said. “And that’s true for everybody.”
Correction: Because of an editing error, TLC used incorrect language for Bishop Michael Curry’s installation Nov. 1 as presiding bishop. Bishop Curry was consecrated to the episcopate in June 2000.