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Presiding Bishop’s Health Looms Over Election of Successor

News Analysis

By Kirk Petersen

Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry was quickly sent home from the hospital after his most recent surgery, and his medical team reportedly is pleased with the progress of his recovery. “Please know that I’m doing well, following the doctor’s orders,” Curry said in his annual Christmas video message, which was released December 18.

But Curry’s repeated medical challenges have caused widespread anxiety, and have raised questions about his ability to serve out his term. It also has brought to light some ambiguities in the canons that govern election of a successor in the case of an unexpected vacancy.

If he were in a lesser role, Curry’s health issues would be strictly a personal matter. But the presiding bishop is the spiritual and the administrative leader of 1.4 million Episcopalians. He also is primate of one of the most prominent of the 42 autonomous provinces of the global Anglican Communion.

Curry, who is 70, is in the final year of his nine-year term. As the gears of church governance grind toward the election of a successor, the church should understand the potential effect of health issues on the transition to a new presiding bishop.

The Extent of the Medical Challenges

During his tenure, Curry has been hospitalized at least six times — including four times in 2023.

  • He has had emergency brain surgery twice to relieve swelling from subdural hematomas: once shortly after taking office in 2015, and again in December 2023. A subdural hematoma is a pooling of blood putting pressure on the brain, usually caused by a head injury. Severe cases can be fatal.
  • Curry has had two organs surgically removed: a cancerous prostate gland in 2018, and a noncancerous adrenal gland and attached mass in September 2023, a problem discovered during a previous hospitalization in August.
  • In May 2023, he was hospitalized briefly for internal bleeding, and while there he experienced two episodes of irregular heartbeat. He was being monitored for atrial fibrillation, a potentially serious heart condition that can lead to strokes.

The hospitalizations have put a crimp in Curry’s extremely active travel schedule. Two multi-day governance events in Latin America were moved online to avoid the need for travel: A House of Bishops meeting planned for the Dominican Republic in September, and an Executive Council meeting planned for Panama in October. Curry also missed a June Executive Council meeting in Providence, Rhode Island.

Even in online meetings, Curry’s participation has been limited. He made opening remarks on the first day of October’s four-day Executive Council meeting, and adjourned the meeting with a prayer on the final day. In between, the plenary sessions were led by President of the House of Deputies Julia Ayala Harris, the vice chair of the council.

The presiding bishop normally serves as chief consecrator when a new bishop is installed in office. Curry has missed five consecrations this year, for the diocesan or coadjutor bishops of Central Florida, New Jersey, West Texas, Maryland, and the bishop suffragan of the armed forces and federal ministries.

Curry’s most recent hospitalization occurred when he fell and hit his head December 3 in Syracuse, New York, after attending an event for the Diocese of Central New York. This was his third non-local trip after spending several days in intensive care for his September 20 adrenalectomy. He previously attended events in New York City on November 8 and in the Minneapolis area on November 10-11.

Rather than seeking treatment locally after his Syracuse accident, Curry flew to Raleigh, North Carolina, where he underwent surgery for a subdural hematoma at a hospital near his home. There are no direct commercial flights between the two cities, and Curry changed planes at LaGuardia Airport in New York, according to Public Affairs Officer Amanda Skofstad.

Air travel with a head injury generally is not advisable. “Airplane rides significantly aggravate concussion symptoms because flying in a pressurized cabin reduces oxygen saturation levels,” according to Medical Air Service, an air ambulance provider. “A low oxygen level is harmful to a healing brain and worsens symptoms in people who have recently suffered a concussion.”

There is a major medical university in Syracuse, and TLC asked why Curry was not treated there, especially in light of his prior history of brain injury and heart issues. “Our protocol in medical situations is to take direction from staff members’ emergency contacts, and we followed that protocol in this instance,” Skofstad said by email. “The desire was for Bishop Curry to be examined by his Raleigh-based medical team.”

According to the Cleveland Clinic, surgical treatment for a brain bleed can involve simply drilling a hole in the skull to drain blood and relieve pressure, or a more serious craniectomy or craniotomy, both of which involve removing a section of skull to treat the source of the brain bleed.

Skofstad declined to provide specifics about Curry’s surgery, “but it is worth noting Bishop Curry is not experiencing the kinds of post-op challenges he did after his first subdural hematoma. He seems and sounds his normal self,” she wrote. No visual remnant of surgery could be seen in the Christmas video.

“Also, while we originally stated that the fall in Syracuse resulted in the subdural hematoma, Bishop Curry now thinks it is likelier that the hematoma caused the fall, and that the originating incident was bumping his head getting into his car three weeks ago,” she wrote.

The delayed onset of symptoms would be consistent with his first subdural hematoma eight years earlier. At that time, Episcopal News Service reported that injury apparently was caused by a fall on November 1, 2015, on the morning of his installation as presiding bishop, which occurred in Washington, D.C. Curry said he did not realize the injury was serious until December 6 while he was preaching in Williamsburg, Virginia, “when I couldn’t remember anything — everything was gone — but, being a preacher, I kept talking.”

Curry addressed a meeting of the Diocese of Central New York on December 2, hours before falling and injuring his head | Facebook photo

Curry has appeared cheerful and energetic between hospitalizations, both online and in person, but he reportedly requires rest after even a brief event. Clergy and diocesan officials in Central New York declined to discuss his appearance at a church in Utica, but Facebook photos from the event display the full wattage of his trademarked grin.

Skofstad declined a request for an interview with Curry for this article. She said he will follow medical advice about when to resume work, and his travel schedule has been cleared until at least January 26, when Executive Council plans to meet in Louisville, Kentucky.

The Scope of the Job

The multifaceted duties of the presiding bishop fall into three major categories: ecclesiastical leadership, governance, and administration.

Ecclesiastically, Curry is the chief pastor and primate of the Episcopal Church, and in that capacity shall “speak God’s words to the Church and to the world,” according to Canon I.2.4(a). Curry did this most memorably at the 2018 wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, in an energetic sermon reportedly viewed by 1.9 billion people.

He is president of the House of Bishops, which is half of the bicameral legislature of the General Convention. Although other bishops do not “report” to him in a formal corporate sense, he has broad authority to limit the ministry of bishops accused of misconduct, and has exercised that authority on multiple occasions.

In terms of ongoing governance, Curry chairs the 40-member Executive Council — essentially the board of directors, the governing authority of the church between the triennial meetings of the General Convention.

Administratively, he is chief executive officer of the Domestic & Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS), the archaic name for the corporate entity that manages the operations of the Episcopal Church. DFMS is based in New York City at 815 Second Avenue, near the United Nations, but many employees work remotely. Curry works primarily from his home in North Carolina.

The Church Center has approximately 150 full-time equivalent employees, and oversees an annual budget of about $52 million. Curry’s salary for 2022 was $318,893.

The job almost seems designed for racking up frequent-flyer miles. For starters, over the course of a nine-year term, the presiding bishop is required by canon to visit every diocese of the church. Depending on how you define the term, there are about 110 dioceses, primarily in the United States, but also in more than a dozen other countries, from Latin America to Europe to Taiwan.

“With about 10 months remaining in his nine-year term, Bishop Curry has visited all but three dioceses: Venezuela, Tennessee, and Wyoming,” Skofstad said. “We anticipate he will be able to visit Tennessee and Wyoming before his term is over.” Venezuela is on a U.S. State Department “do not travel” list because of civil unrest and kidnapping concerns.

The House of Bishops typically meets twice a year, and the Executive Council three times a year. These multiday meetings are held in locations throughout the church. Curry also frequently has traveled internationally, as a primate in the global Anglican Communion and for other events.

Curry’s nine-year term ends November 1, 2024. His successor will be elected by the House of Bishops at the General Convention in Louisville, Kentucky, on or about June 26. Later the same day, the House of Deputies will hold an up-or-down ratification vote.

The Protocol in the Event of a Vacancy

If a presiding bishop resigns or the office otherwise becomes vacant before the end of his or her nine-year term, the canons set forth directions for electing a successor, and for filling the various leadership roles until a successor is elected.

The constitution that establishes the office of presiding bishop says these processes also get triggered if the presiding bishop “by reason of infirmity shall become disabled” — and that’s where things get tricky. The canons are silent regarding how to determine if a disability is severe enough to require the election of a successor. The presiding bishop could make that determination himself or herself, but there is no apparent process for declaring that a presiding bishop is disabled if the presiding bishop is unable or unwilling to make the declaration.

When asked how such a decision would be made, Skofstad responded in writing: “Bishop Curry has asked the chancellor to the presiding bishop and the chief legal officer to undertake a full study of the Constitution and Canons on this question and to consult with all relevant parties.” She also said Curry intends to serve out his term. The chancellor and chief legal officer are Mary Kostel and Kent Anker, respectively.

Setting aside the possibility of a canonical crisis regarding disability, if the office becomes vacant, the constitution says the vice president of the House of Bishops must “immediately” call for a new election, unless the next triennial General Convention is less than three months away. The vice president currently is Mary Gray-Reeves, 61, the former Bishop of El Camino Real in California, who now serves as managing director of the College of Bishops. Gray-Reeves presided over the online House of Bishops meeting in September in Curry’s absence.

But while the new election must be called for immediately, it could not take place immediately. First, the 20-member Joint Nominating Committee for the Election of a Presiding Bishop would have to name a slate of at least three candidates.

That committee has been hard at work for months, interviewing and vetting potential candidates, because of the upcoming scheduled election. In the normal course of events, the committee plans to release its slate of candidates sometime in the spring of 2024 — and it presumably could do so more quickly if need be.

But regardless of whether it is a normal presiding bishop election or held because of a vacancy, announcement of the slate would be followed by a period of unspecified duration when additional candidates could be nominated by petition.

After the petition process, the House of Bishops would elect a new presiding bishop from among the candidates. In a special election to fill a vacancy, the House of Deputies would play no role. The candidate elected by the HoB would instead be identified to the standing committees of all the dioceses, a majority of which would need to ratify the choice.

It is not clear from the canons whether the winner of a special election would fill out the remainder of the incumbent’s term, or if the special election would start the clock on a new nine-year term. The answer has very different implications depending on how early in a presiding bishop’s term the vacancy occurs.

The Remaining Months of Service

Skofstad provided TLC a copy of a message, still in effect, that Curry sent to DFMS staff before his September surgery. The message noted that the chiefs and canons meet regularly to discuss day-to-day operations, convened by Acting Chief Operating Officer Jane Cisluycis.

“Should any day-to-day operations issues arise in that group that would ordinarily require my attention, I authorize Jane to resolve them,” the message said. “Any issues beyond day-to-day operations — such as those involving the substantive aspect of the Church’s program, significant changes in direction in any department, or personnel decisions that I would normally be involved in — should be held until my return.”

As for his ecclesiastical and governance roles, he will continue to be backstopped by Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves in the House of Bishops, and Ayala Harris in the Executive Council.

After the January Executive Council meeting, a major milepost in Curry’s remaining term will be the Anglican Communion Primates Meeting, scheduled for Rome, Italy, April 29 to May 2. The meeting is likely to take up proposals for significant structural changes to the Anglican Communion, which were commissioned by the Anglican Consultative Council last February after some provinces made moves toward disassociating with the Archbishop of Canterbury in the wake of the Church of England’s permission for blessing same-sex relationships.

And then comes the 81st General Convention, which is nominally scheduled for June 23 to June 28 in Louisville, Kentucky, but actually gets under way a couple of days earlier. General Convention is a marathon that tests the endurance of all involved, with legislative sessions that can start at 7 a.m. and end at 9 p.m.

If all goes according to plan, the 27th presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church will learn the name of his successor on a highly energetic day, and begin a four-month process of handing over the reins of leadership. The 28th presiding bishop will then be installed on November 1.

A previous version of this article misstated the date of Curry’s December 3 fall, and referred imprecisely to the status of Mary Gray-Reeves. She is not retired, but rather resigned as Bishop of El Camino Real, and now serves as managing director of the College of Bishops. The article has been corrected. 

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