Taking the Church to the Congregation

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Presiding Bishop-elect Michael Curry wants the Episcopal Church to reclaim its share of “the Jesus movement.”

 

By now, you’ve likely heard the big news: the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, the Bishop of North Carolina and friend to Trinity Episcopal, was elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. He replaces outgoing Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts-Schori, and will be inaugurated into his position during a special service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. on All Saints Day this November.

The statistics of Bishop Curry’s election are worth retelling: he is the first African-American Presiding Bishop; he was elected on the first ballot—the first time ever in the church’s history; he received nearly 70 percent of the vote from the House of Bishops, and the House of Deputies approved his election by a vote of 800 to 12.

Such overwhelming figures seem to indicate that Bishop Curry was a clear favorite in the slate of four nominees, which also included the bishops of southwest Florida, southern Ohio, and Connecticut. And, if you’ve ever heard Bishop Curry deliver a message, you know that the Episcopal Church has just adamantly and enthusiastically elected a fiery preacher.

Bishop Curry already seems more than ready to get started.

“We are baptized into the Jesus movement, into the way of Jesus,” Curry said in an interview with the Episcopal News Service. “In a time like this, when people don’t automatically go to church just because Mama and Grand-pop did, the church can no longer wait for its congregation to come to it. The church must go where the congregation is.”

Curry labels this period of the Episcopal Church its “mission moment,” and believes that part of the Presiding Bishop’s role is to push the church out of its doors and into the world.

 

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A native of Chicago, Illinois, born March 13, 1953, Curry attended public schools in Buffalo, New York, and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1975 from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, in Geneva, New York, and a Master of Divinity degree in 1978 from the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. He has also studied at the College of Preachers, Princeton Theological Seminary, Wake Forest University, the Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary’s Seminary, and the Institute of Christian Jewish Studies.

He was ordained to the diaconate in June 1978 at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buffalo, New York, and to the priesthood in December 1978, at St. Stephen’s, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He began his ministry as deacon-in-charge at St. Stephen’s, and was rector there 1979-1982. He next accepted a call to serve as the rector of St. Simon of Cyrene, Lincoln Heights, Ohio, where he served 1982-1988. In 1988, he became rector of St. James’, Baltimore, Maryland, where he served until his election as bishop of North Carolina in 2000.

In his three parish ministries, Curry was active in the founding of ecumenical summer day camps for children, the creation of networks of family day care providers and educational centers, and the brokering of millions of dollars of investment in inner city neighborhoods. He also sat on the commission on ministry in each of the three dioceses in which he has served.

As North Carolina’s bishop, he led a congregation of some 48,000 Episcopalians. Known for his emphasis on evangelism, public service, social justice and equality, Curry’s work in North Carolina has exceeded the walls of the church.

Curry instituted a network of canons, deacons and youth ministry professionals dedicated to supporting the ministry that already happens in local congregations and refocused the diocese on The Episcopal Church’s dedication to the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals through a $400,000 campaign to buy malaria nets that saved thousands of lives.

 

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Echoing an old spiritual, Curry said during a video interview after his nomination was announced on May 1 that “our hand must be on the Gospel plow.”

“We are followers of Jesus – Jesus of Nazareth – and the truth is we’ve got a message to proclaim, a life to live and something to share and offer the world,” he said. “There’s a lot of suffering in this world. There’s a lot of heartache, there’s a lot of nightmare. We are people who believe that God has a dream and a vision for this world, and that Jesus has shown us how to follow him in the direction of that and how to help this world live into God’s dream and vision for us now.

“Our work is actually the work of participating in the Jesus movement, which seeks to realize God’s dream and seeks to accomplish God’s mission in this world,” Curry said.

The church must help form disciples who will live like Jesus, Curry said. Such formation must become a priority so that the church is not just creating members, but disciples of Jesus “who actually live out and struggle to live out the teachings of Jesus in their lives, and make a tangible difference” in the world. If such churchwide formation combined with Episcopalians’ individual commitments to imitate Jesus, “we would transform this world,” Curry said.

“After formation, there’s evangelism and I know sometimes folks are afraid of that word, but I’m not talking about evangelism like other folk do it,” he said. “I am talking about the kind of evangelism that is as much listening as it is sharing.” Being present with another person and listening to that person is a “transforming possibility” of invitation and welcome.

Episcopalians must also be willing to “witness in the social sphere, witness in the public sphere, through personal service that helps somebody along the way … prophesying deliverance … [and] being a voice for those who have no voice,” Curry said.

To do this, Episcopalians need to partner with Anglicans around the world along with people of other faith traditions, according to Curry.

And “we need to create organizational structures that serve the mission, that help the institution and the church become a vessel of the Jesus movement,” he concluded.

 

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Bishop Curry will enter his role as primate of the Episcopal Church at an important time. The church’s 1.8 million members represent a decline of roughly 10 percent over the last decade. And, as Bishop Curry referenced earlier, now is a time in which our contemporaries are largely choosing not to go to church—a decision reflected in declining membership and Sunday attendance across the Protestant landscape.

Still, Curry has hope.  “This is a good and wonderful church and we are good and wonderful people and I thank God to be one of the baptized among you,” Curry said following his election, adding, “My heart is really full.”

“We’ve got a society where there are challenges before us and there are crises all around us. And the church has challenges before it,” he said. “We got a God and there really is a Jesus, and we are part of the Jesus Movement. Nothing can stop the movement of God’s love in this world” —with reporting from the Episcopal New Network

 

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