[Episcopal News Service – Washington, D.C.] During hours between the Oct. 31 Vigil Celebration, hosted by the Union of Black Episcopalians, and the time when Diocese of North Carolina Bishop Michael Curry is formally installed as presiding bishop and primate on Nov. 1, he and The Episcopal Church are being held in a traditional African-American prayer watch.
The prayers began during UBE’s rollicking and moving three-hour Eucharist at the D.C. Armory and will be continued hourly by members of the National UBE Weekly Prayer Fellowship and volunteers from the Washington National Cathedral’s Prayer and Pilgrimage Center. They will be praying for the church, its mission and its lay and ordained leadership.
At midnight Nov. 1, Curry, 62, officially will become the first person of color to hold the position of presiding bishop and primate. He will be The Episcopal Church’s 27th presiding bishop and its primate.
The Holy Eucharist and installation begins at Washington National Cathedral at noon EST (daylight saving time ends at 2 a.m. Nov. 1) on what is All Saints Sunday. More information is here.
“It is delightful to note today that the church is not following the world,” said the Rev. Canon Sandye Wilson during her sermon. “Tonight our clocks in the United States are turned back as our church moves forward.”
UBE President Annette Buchanan put the historic nature of the weekend in perspective, noting that “in the beginning as black Episcopalians we outnumbered white Episcopalians in the South because we were slaves in The Episcopal Church.”
“To go from the slave to the head of the house is very interesting,” Buchanan said during her welcome.
The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, told the congregation that she gives thanks for both the ministry of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori during the past nine years and for Curry’s ministry to come as presiding bishop. “Buckle up; we’re going to have a heck of a ride for the next nine years,” she said.
Jefferts Schori said it was a “great joy and privilege to come, to arrive at this weekend of transition. I give enormous thanks for the election of Michael Curry as the next presiding bishop.”
“He is going to lead this church farther out into the world, deeper into the community and closer to the reign of God,” she said during the service. “Thanks be to God.”
Curry called the day blessed “not because of Michael Curry but a blessed day for this church we love, this God we serve and I can’t tell you what a blessing it has been to be a bishop while Katharine Jefferts Schori has been our presiding bishop.”
And, calling Jennings “my new best friend,” Curry said he looked forward to “more blessings” in their work together.
“We are God’s people and we are blessed to follow in the way of Jesus and to serve him in this world,” Curry told the congregation. “I look forward to joining with you in following this Jesus and helping to transform this world from our nightmare to God’s dream.”
Early in the service, Jefferts Schori invoked “our faithful ancestors and saints of the household of God … who have challenged our faith, shaped our lives and have brought us to this day.”
In her sermon Wilson, too, called on the ancestors “who have borne the weight of the struggle” and she warned that there was still work to be done.
“These ancestors, without us, will not rest in peace,” she said. “They have done their work, but if we do not do our work, they will never rest in peace.”
Wilson, adviser to UBE’s Buchanan and rector of the Episcopal Church of St. Andrew and Holy Communion in South Orange, New Jersey, also recalled Curry’s insistence that the church live into its membership in what he calls the Jesus Movement. Many people, she said, have challenged her about the meaning of the Jesus Movement.
“Some are concerned that we must be more than social workers in communities. Others worry that the movement takes us away from the ‘institution,’ ” she said.
A movement, Wilson said, exists to change people’s lives and to challenge the status quo.
“It causes revolutions. It upsets people in power. It turns over tables and it turns lives around. As people of The Way, we are part of that movement,” she said. “Institution is what happens to a movement when it grows up. It creates a structure; it has meetings; it funds the structure; it exists to maintain order; it exists to perpetuate itself. It sometimes resists change and it is totally predictable.”
The church has become the institution, Wilson said, but “we are being called to find ourselves forward into the Jesus Movement, so that we exist to change people’s lives; moving, growing, expanding, challenging the status quo, causing revolutions and realizing that at the heart of every revolution is human kindness; turning tables and turning lives around.”
At the offertory, Curry received a number of gifts, including shells to remind him of the pilgrim’s journey, water to remind him of baptism and a miter as a reminder of the work of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and even now. He also received vestments from the Liberian Episcopalians in the U.S., the ethnic missioners of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society and from the Diocese of North Carolina where he had served for 15 years as bishop when he was elected as presiding bishop. The Episcopal Bishops of African Descent promised him a book of photos from the weekend. He also received gifts from the Episcopal Church of St. Simon of Cyrene in Lincoln Heights, Ohio, where he served as rector from 1982 to 1988.
Retired Central Pennsylvania Bishop Nathan Baxter, UBE’s honorary national chairman, presented Jefferts Schori with a miter made of kente cloth to thank her for her “encouragement of our heritage” and as a “reminder that you also have soul.” And the entire staff of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society thanked Jefferts Schori for their work with her.
(The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society is the legal and canonical name under which The Episcopal Church is incorporated, conducts business and carries out mission.)
Elected at General Convention
The House of Bishops elected Curry June 27 during General Convention on the first ballot. It was a landslide; he received 121 votes of a total 174 cast. The number of votes needed for election was 89. It was the first time the bishops had elected a presiding bishop on the first ballot.
Diocese of Southwest Florida Bishop Dabney Smith, Diocese of Southern Ohio Bishop Thomas Breidenthal and Diocese of Connecticut Bishop Ian Douglas were the other nominees. Curry’s election was confirmed an hour later by the House of Deputies, as outlined in the church’s canons, by a vote of 800 to 12.
It’s the second time in a row that the church will make history with its installation of a presiding bishop. In 2006, current Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori became the first woman elected presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church. She was also the first female among the primates, or ordained leaders, of the Anglican Communion’s 38 provinces, a distinction she still holds. Jefferts Schori had been elected June 18, 2006 during the 75th meeting of General Convention.
The roles of the presiding bishop
The presiding bishop is chief pastor and primate of the church, chair of the Executive Council, and president of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. The canonical outline of the presiding bishop’s election and term can be found in Title I Section 2 of the church’s Canons.
According to Title I Section 2, the presiding bishop as chief pastor and primate is “charged with responsibility for leadership in initiating and developing the policy and strategy in the church and speaking for the church as to the policies, strategies and programs authorized by the General Convention.”
The presiding bishop also “speaks God’s word to the church and world as the representative of this Church and its episcopate in its corporate capacity,” represents The Episcopal Church to the Anglican Communion, serves as chief consecrator of bishops, and leads the House of Bishops. He or she also holds a significant role in the discipline and changes in status of bishops, according to Title I Section 2.
Also, the presiding bishop exercises a significant role in the governance of the church by making appointments to various governing bodies, making decisions with the president of the House of Deputies, serving as a member of every churchwide committee and commission, and serving as chair and president of key church governing boards. He or she is the chair and chief executive officer of the Executive Council, which is the board of directors for the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, according to Canon I.4, and oversees the execution of the programs and policies adopted by the General Convention and carried out by the Society.
The staff of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society report to the presiding bishop, who is the Society’s president, either directly or through a group of senior staff and officers who, according to canon, report and are accountable directly to the presiding bishop. (The office of the General Convention, by canon, maintains a separate reporting structure.)
In its “Call to Discernment and Profile,” the joint nominating committee said the 27th presiding bishop would need to be “comfortable in the midst of ambiguity and able to lead the church in the rich, temporal space between the ‘now,’ and the ‘yet to come.’ ” The person discerned and elected by the church would need to “delight” in the diversity of a “multi-national, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-generational church.” And, because “our polity has many components and complexities,” the 27th presiding bishop will need the “skills and wisdom for leading complex and democratic systems through a time of significant change.”
Originally, the office of presiding bishop was filled automatically by the most senior bishop in the House of Bishops, measured by date of consecration, beginning with the presidency of William White at the first session of the 1789 General Convention. That process changed in 1925 when the church elected the Rt. Rev. John Gardner Murray as the 16th presiding bishop. An interactive timeline about the presiding bishops is here.
Presiding Bishop-elect Curry’s past ministry
Born in Chicago, Illinois, on 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 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.
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.
During his time as bishop of North Carolina, 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.
Throughout his ministry, Curry has also been active in issues of social justice, speaking out on immigration policy and marriage equality.
He serves on the boards of many organizations and has a national preaching and teaching ministry. He has been featured on The Protestant Hour and North Carolina Public Radio’s The State of Things, as well as on The Huffington Post website. In addition, Curry is a frequent speaker at conferences around the country. He has received honorary degrees from Sewanee: The University of the South, Virginia Theological Seminary, Yale, and, most recently, Episcopal Divinity School. He served on the Taskforce for Re-imagining the Episcopal Church and recently was named chair of Episcopal Relief & Development’s board of directors.
His most recent book, Songs My Grandma Sang, was published in June 2015. His book of sermons, Crazy Christians, came out in August 2013.
Curry and his wife, Sharon, have two adult daughters, Rachel and Elizabeth.
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Bishop Michael Curry had been baptized at the Episcopal Church of St. Simon of Cyrene in Lincoln Heights, Ohio. He served as rector there from 1982 to 1988. He was baptized at St. Simon of Cyrene Church, Maywood, Illinois, on May 3, 1953.