The Right Rev. Michael Curry, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, was officiating the ordination of a young priest at a Raleigh parish when he spotted a name tag on a church member who was part of the service.
When the service ended, Curry led the ceremony’s participants out. The second the door shut behind them, Curry whipped around to Blake Strayhorn, who heads Durham’s Habitat for Humanity, pointed at the nametag and said, “My mom was a Strayhorn. We’re cousins!”
The complexities of family trees with Southern roots make it possible that Curry, who is black, and Strayhorn, who is white, share some common lineage, and Strayhorn hopes they do. But even if they don’t, Curry’s claim fits the broader theme that has defined his 15 years as bishop: All people are brothers and sisters in the human family of God.
Curry’s church family could be about to grow exponentially. He is one of four nominees to the position of Presiding Bishop for the Episcopal Church in the United States. The governing body of the church will meet in Salt Lake City starting Thursday and will vote to select a new Presiding Bishop on Saturday. If elected, Curry would serve a nine-year term as chief pastor to the church’s 2.1 million members spread across 17 countries and 109 dioceses.
Curry and other diocesan officials declined comment for this story, saying the time leading up to the election should be a period of prayer and discernment.
But Curry has had plenty to say since being named the 11th Bishop of the N.C. Diocese in 2000, taking over as the primate – or chief bishop – for the largest of the state’s three Episcopal dioceses. He is outspoken on social issues, including some over which members of the Episcopal Church in North Carolina and around the world are deeply divided.
An approachable man and a charismatic preacher, he also uses Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo and the diocese’s website to advocate for social justice and racial and gender equality, and to encourage congregations undertaking that work. He spoke at a Moral Monday gathering in 2013 to protest what he saw as regressive policies enacted by the N.C. General Assembly.
And though he can’t dictate how the N.C. Diocese spends its money, committees that do determine spending often support projects and programs Curry likes.
Born March 13, 1953 in Chicago, Curry received a master of divinity degree in 1978 from Yale University Divinity School and became an ordained priest that same year at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem. He stayed there four years – as the deacon-in-charge, then as rector – before leaving to be a rector at churches in Ohio and later Baltimore.
In all three parishes, Curry was extensively involved in what the church calls “crisis control ministry,” and he helped establish summer day camps for children, preaching missions, networks of family day care providers and educational centers. He brokered the investment of millions of dollars into inner-city neighborhoods, the church says. In Baltimore, he helped guide parishioners through a $2.5 million restoration of the historic St. James church building after it was hit by lightning and nearly destroyed.
Teaching love over and over
As bishop, Curry’s role is not to be deeply involved in any one of his diocese’s 112 congregations or its nine campus ministries, but to perform canonical duties such as confirmations and ordinations and to guide the diocese’s 48,000 members on matters of policy and conscience.
Curry does both by visiting churches on a rotating basis, leading the worship service at a different one most Sundays of the year.
His visits are a highlight for congregations, who look forward to them for weeks.
About 100 worshipers turned out for Curry’s recent visit to St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church on Six Forks Road in Raleigh, nearly filling its Gothic Revival sanctuary that dates to 1959, when this neighborhood was new. Thirteen people who were there to be confirmed filled a front pew as Curry was introduced.
“It’s a joy to be with you,” Curry said, and a broad smile suggested he meant it. Whether he is briefed by diocese staff or does the research on his own, Curry is familiar with the missions of individual churches in his charge. He thanked the congregation of St. Timothy’s for its school and its involvement in North Raleigh Ministries, which provides emergency financial and food aid in the area around North Hills.
Then he launched into a sermon based on Mark 3:20-35, in which Jesus is being thronged by crowds of people, among them those who hope to experience a miracle of healing and those who hope to catch Jesus breaking a law. At the end of the passage, Jesus’ mother and brothers ask for a word with him, and he responds by saying that his true family are those who do the will of God.
Curry had preached the same sermon at St. Timothy’s during an earlier service that morning, and has done variations of it many times, including at the 2012 General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Indianapolis and in a book he published in 2013, “Crazy Christians: A Call to Follow Jesus.”
While he sometimes speaks from the pulpit, Curry often chooses, as he did that day, to deliver his message from the center aisle of the sanctuary, constantly pacing forward and back, his flowing bishop’s robe brushing the ends of the pews as he raised and lowered his arms for emphasis.
He cradled an iPad in his left arm for a while, then set it down without opening the case. He spoke without notes. He bellowed. He whispered.
“In the Scripture, Jesus says, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations,’” Curry told the congregation. That means, he said, to teach others all the crazy things Jesus taught, including to love people who are different from themselves.
“Teach Democrats to love Republicans,” Curry said. “Teach Republicans to love Democrats. Teach those who watch Fox News – help me, now – to love those who watch MSNBC.”
After the service, Curry joined the congregation for refreshments and to hear the children of St. Timothy’s Vacation Bible School, which was winding up that day, perform a couple of the songs they had learned. One parishioner after another came over to speak to him, and he looked each in the eye, asked them questions about their jobs, their families, the places they had lived. In the course of an hour, he talked with people about music, books, food, travel. He hugged people, he shook hands. He took pictures and posted them to Facebook.
“When you’re in front him, you get the sense that you have his complete attention,” said Sarah Hollar, rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Huntersville. “He’s not thinking of where he needs to be next, or about the next point he wants to make. He’s listening. That ability to be present to people is one of his great strengths. I think that is one of his spiritual gifts.”
Advocate for people on the margins
Curry is especially interested in what parishioners are doing to extend what churches call “radical hospitality,” which Curry suggests is one way the Episcopal Church can survive when its weekly church attendance is dropping and some congregations are withdrawing from the church over issues such as the acceptance of gays as clergy members. Curry, who spoke publicly against North Carolina’s Amendment One, which outlawed gay marriage, says the church must try to bring in people who don’t look like the existing congregation, and must also go out and take the Gospel to people where they live.
In weekly videos posted on the dioceses’s website, Curry often highlights such outreach efforts by individuals or congregations, including a new ministry in East Charlotte that serves the needs of a refugee community; a Latino preschool that will open in Alamance County this fall; and the work of a Greensboro parish that helped a Montagnard man bring his wife and children to the United States from Vietnam.
“This bishop is a tireless advocate for people on the margins,” said Adam Shoemaker, rector of Church of the Holy Comforter in Burlington, the parish with the new Latino preschool. Shoemaker appreciates Curry’s support for the preschool, which Shoemaker said will serve as a bridge between the white middle class and the non-white lower-income populations of Burlington.
If elected, Curry would become the first African-American Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and one of its most progressive. Taking the post would mean leaving Raleigh; the Presiding Bishop is seated at the National Cathedral in Washington.
“If he goes, we will be very proud,” said Hollar, the rector at St. Mark’s in Huntersville. “And if he stays, we will rejoice in that, too.”
About the Episcopal Church election
The Right Rev. Michael B. Curry is one of three bishops nominated to replace Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman to hold the position.
The Presiding Bishop leads the church’s 2.1 million members in 17 countries and 109 dioceses for nine years. The term starts Nov. 1.
The other nominees are the Right Rev. Thomas Breidenthal of Southern Ohio, the Right Rev. Ian Douglas of Connecticut and the Right Rev. Dabney Smith of Southwest Florida. Other candidates may be nominated from the floor of the church’s general convention in Salt Lake City this week.
All of the nominees will be given the opportunity to address the convention on Wednesday, June 24.
The election will be Saturday, June 27, at St. Mark’s Cathedral, after prayer and reflection.
According to the Episcopal News Service, once the election has taken place, the chosen bishop’s name will be referred to the House of Deputies legislative committee on the Confirmation of the Presiding Bishop. The legislative committee will make a recommendation to the House of Deputies whether to confirm the election or not confirm, and the House of Deputies will immediately vote on the recommendation. A delegation of deputies then notifies the House of Bishops.
The Presiding Bishop-elect will preach at the convention’s closing Eucharist on July 3.
About the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry
Born: March 13, 1953, in Chicago.
Education: Graduated from Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y., in 1975; Master of Divinity degree from Yale University Divinity School, 1978.
Career: Ordained to the priesthood December, 1978, at St. Stephen’s, Winston-Salem, where he began ministry as the deacon-in-charge. Rector at the church from 1979-1982; rector of St. Simon of Cyrene, Lincoln Heights, Ohio, 1982-1988; rector of St. James in Baltimore, Md., 1988-2000. Elected 11th Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina on Feb. 11, 2000, and consecrated on June 17, 2000, in Duke Chapel, Duke University.
Family: His wife is Sharon and they have two daughters, Elizabeth and Rachel.
On Twitter: @BishopCurry
In his words
The following is an excerpt of a sermon Bishop Curry gave in 2014 at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Raleigh:
“If you go back and look at John’s Gospel, it’s interesting that Jesus’s conversations about love cluster at the Last Supper. John 3:16: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him should not perish....’ Everybody knows that; at least if they’re Rite I Episcopalians, they know that one! And these present of his body, they know that.
“That’s probably the one exception to the love theme in John that is early in the Gospel. The rest of the passages about Love in John’s Gospel cluster in chapters 13-17, which is John’s Last Supper. It is at the Last Supper that Jesus says, ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.’ It is at the Last Supper that he takes a towel and a basin of water and washes their feet. ‘I’m giving you an example of what love looks like.’
“This is not easy stuff. This is not a Hallmark greeting card. This is tough stuff I’m talking about. At the Last Supper he says, ‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.’
“At the Last Supper he says – as Judas is about to slither out of the room to betray him – love.
“Peter will deny that he even knows him – love. And most of them who would abandon him, save a few faithful ones – love.
“As he’s tried on trumped-up charges in the middle of the night – love.
“As human tribunals dare to try the Lord – love.
“As soldiers take him and mock him and spit on him and torture him – love.
“As they nailed those hands that only healed to a blood-stained cross – love.
“When he cried his last, and looked in his mama’s eyes, and then said, ‘It is finished’ – Love.
“Sunday morning. The Earth is starting to shake. (Like the song “Shake, Rattle and Roll!”) Nobody’s quite sure what, but something’s going on: something seismic. Something deep within the hall of reality is being disturbed and shaken and rent asunder, it’s LOVE! Cracking open the tomb! LOVE! Giving life anew again! LOVE! Simon, do you love me? LOVE has the power that can set you free! LOVE can heal you! LOVE can reconcile you! LOVE can liberate you! Love can show you the way with integrity.”