The Episcopal Church elected its first African-American presiding bishop, choosing Bishop Michael Curry of Raleigh during the denomination’s national assembly Saturday.
Curry was elected in a vote by bishops at the Episcopal General Convention, the top legislative body of the church. Curry won in a landslide, earning 121 votes. The other three candidates had 21 votes or fewer. The decision was affirmed on a vote of 800-12 by the House of Deputies, the voting body of clergy and lay participants at the meeting.
Curry will succeed Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who will complete her nine-year term Nov. 1. She was the first female presiding bishop and the first woman to lead an Anglican national church. The New York-based Episcopal Church is the U.S. body of the Anglican Communion, an 80 million member worldwide fellowship of churches with roots in the Church of England.
“We’ve got a society where there are challenges before us. We know that. And there are crises all around us. And the church has challenges before us,” Curry said during brief comments as he was introduced to the assembly. “We are part of the Jesus movement, and nothing can stop the movement of God’s love in this world.”
Curry paused between speeches at the convention to send warm wishes back home.
“Tell everybody in North Carolina, ‘Hey,’” he said during a phone interview with The News & Observer.
He didn’t even realize he had been elected, until the bishop next to him leaned over and pointed it out, Curry said.
“I think I was kind of stunned for a moment,” he said.
While he will not step into the role until this fall, the top priority he shared with the convention earlier this week, Curry said, is “evangelism and forming real followers of Jesus, and then witnessing in the world ... in ways that really lift up the power of love,” he said.
“It’s exciting for people of faith to go back to their roots,” he said. “Jesus said, ‘Follow me,’ so we are going to try to do that in ways that are meaningful for this time. It’s an exciting time, this is a wonderful church and good people. I’m just looking forward to serving.”
As bishop of the Raleigh-based Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, Curry is the leader of Charlotte’s Episcopal churches. They include St. Peter’s in uptown, Christ Episcopal on Providence Road, St. Martin’s in the Elizabeth neighborhood, Holy Comforter on Park Road and St. John’s on Carmel Road.
Curry will remain in the North Carolina post for a few more months.
He will be installed as presiding bishop for the denomination on Nov. 1 at the National Cathedral in Washington.
‘This is beautiful’
Curry’s election is “fantastic” news, said Blake Strayhorn, chief executive officer of Habitat for Humanity in Durham.
Strayhorn met Curry after watching him officiate a priest’s ordination in Raleigh.
“I think he’s got a real ability to connect with whoever he’s talking to and really be present in the moment, and I’m very proud of him,” he said. “I think his message of acceptance of all walks of life, all people, will be something that he will take to the broader church, and I think it’s really good for the church.”
The men, in honor of another bishop, have partnered this year to lead a new Habitat project: Hospitality House. The community will be invited to help build the house in honor of Bishop Robert C. Johnson, the 10th bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina and a founder of Durham’s Habitat group, he said.
The Rev. Lisa Fischbeck, of The Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill, was at the convention for the vote.
“It’s just been amazing,” she said during a phone interview with The N&O. “People crying and people so happy, and the sense that this is who people wanted to have be the presiding bishop.”
Fischbeck said she shrieked upon hearing the news even though the attendees had been asked to hold their applause. Curry is the right person for the job, she said.
“It’s sort of stunning and thrilling and sad all at the same time,” she said. “In terms of our church and our world, he is the right guy for this time, so really seeing that and believing that, it really helps balance the sadness” of losing his constant presence in North Carolina.
Norberto “Bert” Jones, 65, of Newark, N.J., joyously hugged friends after the results were announced, marveling at being alive to see a black U.S. president and black Episcopal presiding bishop.
“This is beautiful,” said Jones, a lay deputy and African-American. “God works awesome wonders man. We’re getting to that point of understanding that it’s not about color and culture, but what you bring to the table.”
Curry was elected as the nation is grappling with the aftermath of last week’s massacre of nine congregants at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., and amid the Black Lives Matter movement over the deaths of black men in police shootings and in police custody.
The Episcopal Church has been trying to confront its own history of racism. The church has asked dioceses to research their links to slavery and the history of racism. Many early Episcopalians were slaveholders whose donations were used to build churches, cathedrals and schools. In 2008, Jefferts Schori held a national service of repentance to apologize for the church’s complicity with slavery, segregation and racism.
A life of faith and service
Curry, 62, has been bishop of North Carolina since 2000, leading a diocese of 48,000 church members, 112 congregations and a network of ministries. He will now lead a nearly 1.9 million-member denomination known for its history as the faith home of many of the Founding Fathers and U.S. presidents.
A Chicago native who has two daughters with his wife, Sharon, Curry grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., and graduated from Hobart College and Yale Divinity School. He was ordained as a priest in Winston-Salem, leading parishes there and in Ohio. He then served for 12 years at St. James Church in Baltimore, which was established in 1824 as the third black Episcopal congregation in the U.S.
Curry is known for his emphasis on evangelism, public service and social justice.
Author of “Crazy Christians: A Call to Follow Jesus,” he has said he prays “for a church passionately committed to making disciples.”
“At a deep level, I am suggesting a churchwide spiritual revival of the Christian faith in the Episcopal way of being disciples of Jesus,” Curry said in the church materials introducing the candidates.
Challenges in the church
Curry takes charge at a time when fewer Americans are formally affiliating with a particular religious group, contributing to steady membership declines in the Episcopal Church and other liberal Protestant groups, as well as some conservative churches.
Membership in the Episcopal Church has dropped by 18 percent over the past decade. Next week, the General Convention will consider restructuring church bodies and redirecting spending to more effectively reach out to the public.
Curry supports gay rights, speaking against North Carolina’s 2012 constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage, which is now invalid, and allowing same-sex church weddings in the N.C. diocese. The denomination has emerged from a period of turmoil after the 2003 election of Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion. Many Episcopal conservatives left or distanced themselves from the national church after his election.
Next week, the convention will vote on eliminating gender-specific language from church laws on marriage so religious weddings can also be performed for same-sex couples. Clergy could decline to perform the ceremonies. Right now, each bishop decides whether his or her priests may conduct marriages for same-sex couples.
A group of folks in Chapel Hill live streamed the conference and were texting back and forth Saturday with Curry and others in Salt Lake City, said Rev. Tambria Lee, of Chapel of the Cross.
Lee has known Curry since they served as priests together in the Maryland diocese and worked more closely with him in the past five years. It’s been fun waiting for events to unfold, she said.
Curry has maintained a prayerful attitude, she said, saying that if he is called to serve, then he is ready to step into the presiding bishop’s role. What you see is what you get with him, she said.
“I think one of the things that he brings to the job is a passion for God and no ambivalence about sharing that, but sharing it in a way that honors who all people are,” she said. “It’s as if he sees the image of God in every person, and that’s his first reaction to people.”
She expects him to embrace some of the Church’s more difficult challenges, including an increasingly secular society that either does not know God or has an understanding “crafted basically by the Religious Right and Fox News.”
“Michael will bring your heart and your mind to the table,” she said “but he’ll also bring a passion and a heart for justice and those on the margins and those that society has really pushed to the edge in a way that makes it almost impossible for them to get back.”
AP writer Rachel Zoll reported from New York.