As Episcopal Church leader, Curry will need to address decline in church members

The Episcopal Church has been facing up to its history by asking dioceses and churches to research and report on their connections to slavery and racism. And the church has wrestled as well with the issue of gay priests. The church’s dialogue, sometimes painful, has been rather brave.

Now to the Episcopal Church’s illustrious if sometimes troubled history, add a new and glorious chapter, for the church and for North Carolina.

On Saturday, meeting in Salt Lake City, the church elected Bishop Michael Curry of Raleigh as its presiding bishop, the first African-American so elected.

Curry, who won the vote in a landslide, was modest in his remarks and charming, all the things those who know him say he is. He did say, in a phone interview with The News & Observer, “Tell everybody in North Carolina, ‘Hey.’ ”

Rev. Tambria Lee of Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill said of Curry: “Michael will bring your heart and your mind to the table, 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.”

Indeed, Curry has been intensely involved in Habitat for Humanity, a Christian outreach ministry that builds houses for families.

Curry’s election also comes in the wake of the Charleston, S.C., shooting tragedy at a historic African-American church.

A progressive leader, Curry emphasizes God’s importance in leading people to goodness. “We are part,” he said in brief remarks, “of the Jesus movement, and nothing can stop the movement of God’s love in the world.”

But he clearly believes the church, and the people in it, can help God in practical ways, evidenced by his work with Habitat and his interest and passion for social justice.

Curry, 62, is a native of Chicago, married and has two daughters. He has risen steadily and quietly in the church, beginning with his ordination in Winston-Salem after graduation from Yale Divinity School. He was praised for his character by those who know him and for the potential for leadership he brings to the church’s top position.

Blake Strayhorn, who heads Habitat in Durham, said of Curry: “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’ve very proud of him. 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.”

One aspect of Curry’s outreach is his public support for gay rights, including same-sex marriage. Curry was one religious leader who spoke out against North Carolina’s 2012 constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. That amendment now has been rendered invalid by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last week acknowledging the constitutionality of gay marriage.

Membership in the Episcopal Church has declined over the past decade, and it’s not alone in that trend. Liberal Protestant churches in some areas have found less interest on the part of younger people in regular church membership.

More denominations are seeking ways to reach out to younger people of different backgrounds. Episcopal leaders have backed gay rights in the ministry and other liberal causes, which has caused uproar among traditional conservative members. Curry succeeds a woman in his post, the first woman in the position. One task he faces is to reach out to evangelicals and others who have left the Episcopal church for more conservative ones and to stem the 18 percent drop in membership over the last decade.