By Kirk Petersen
Nearly a year and a half after the Royal Wedding, random people in airports still recognize Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry.
By some estimates, nearly 2 billion people watched Curry’s thundering testament to the power of love at the wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry in May 2018. Even if the actual number was much smaller, there is no doubt it was one of the most widely watched sermons ever delivered.
Now the Episcopal Church has launched an ambitious effort to leverage the charisma of its leader and promote a message of love in a society wracked by bitter divisions. The centerpiece of the initiative is a revival planned for a major New York City venue — eight days before the 2020 presidential election.
“We’re looking at doing a revival in either Madison Square Garden, or the Barclay Center, or Yankee Stadium,” said the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism, reconciliation and stewardship of creation.
Spellers and others reported on the plans at a Sunday evening committee session of the Executive Council, which serves as the governing body of the church between triennial General Conventions. The council meets three times a year, and gathered for four days in Montgomery, Alabama, October 18-21. The council approved the program, dubbed “Sharing the Way of Love,” in its final business meeting.
In addition to the revival, plans call for increasing the production values of the ongoing Way of Love podcast series and the Traveling the Way of Love video series. Staff members have also had preliminary conversations with networks such as Netflix for a possible streaming TV series exploring faith. All of it would be backed by “a top-tier marketing effort,” Spellers said.
The estimated price tag for all of this is $1.3 million, which is quite a bit more than the church can shake loose from nooks and crannies of the budget. Much of the money would be raised by the development office, targeting primarily high-net-worth individuals, and development officers reported strong preliminary interest. The cost and effort would be shared with partners including the the Episcopal dioceses of New York and Long Island; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; and ELCA’s New York Synod.
“To be very blunt, the face of Christianity in the United States is not a face that looks like Jesus and the Way of Love. It’s very often the opposite, in fact,” Curry said. “I also think it would be helpful for a profoundly divided and polarized nation to proclaim that the values and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth are what it means to be Christian.”
“Bishop Curry is still viewed as an extraordinary person of faith that organizations like Netflix and other major broadcasters are looking to and saying, ‘this could be a moral voice in our country right now, in a country that’s really crying out for a moral voice,’ said the Rev. Geof Smith, the chief operating officer. “That’s why, from a communications standpoint, we’re looking at bringing in resources to go beyond simply reaching out to the Episcopal Church — in effect, preaching to the choir — to take this message of evangelism on a much larger scale, and a much larger stage.”
People don’t ordinarily associate the Episcopal Church — “God’s frozen people” — with the idea of a stadium-size religious revival. But Curry is not an ordinary Episcopal leader. Since his election in 2015 evangelism has been one of the three missional pillars of his episcopacy (along with racial reconciliation and care of creation). The church has devoted increasing resources to church planting and other forms of evangelism. A series of revivals began more than two years ago with a March 2017 event in Pittsburgh attended by a few hundred people.
“We’ve done 13 of these [revivals] so far across the Church,” Spellers said. “We’ve learned a lot. About 25,000 people have participated in the revivals. We’ve also run at least 10 evangelist trainings specifically leading up to revivals.”
No one on the council mentioned it, but all were surely aware that the Church could benefit from a higher profile. Year after year, for decades now, the church has annually reported declining membership and worship attendance, on pace with the increasing secularization of American society.
Council members peppered the staff with questions about the initiative for nearly an hour at the end of a long day.
One concern was that coverage of the October 26, 2020 revival could be lost in the pre-election hubbub. Curry acknowledged that possibility, but also expressed hope that the revival could provide a “counter-narrative” that many people would welcome.
To questions about the cost, various staff members emphasized that no part of the program would move forward until the church obtains written commitments of sufficient financial support.
There was a concern that people in the rest of the country would be put off by the fact the revival would be held in New York. Spellers reiterated that previous revivals have been all over the country, and said dioceses in some of the largest urban areas have asked “are you avoiding us?”
Julia Harris, a council member from the Diocese of Oklahoma and a long-time professional for non-profits, said “The time is right for something like this.” Addressing the presiding bishop directly, she said, “We have this moment in the cultural spotlight, because you’re recognizable, like Geof said. You speak on behalf of something that’s attracting people — not just to you, but to God and Jesus.”