Episcopal Church’s First Black Leader, a Gay Marriage Backer, Focuses on Race
When Michael B. Curry was installed in November as the 27th presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, he spoke of racial reconciliation and finding new ways to spread the teachings of Jesus. His appointment as the first African-American leader of a predominantly white Protestant church that has long been associated with the American elite elevated the voice of a preacher who had focused his ministry on racial justice, an issue that is now playing out in the presidential campaign.
Bishop Curry’s nine-year tenure began just months after the Episcopal Church decided to bless same-sex marriages, and in January he defended that decision in a meeting with archbishops of the Anglican Communion, many of them from Africa, who vehemently oppose gay marriage.
Bishop Curry, 63, who recently recovered from surgery related to a head injury, was interviewed this month at the Episcopal Church’s headquarters in New York, sitting in a rocking chair he brought with him from North Carolina, where he served as bishop for 15 years. This interview has been condensed and edited.
Q. Your father was also an Episcopal priest, but before that he was a Baptist. Why did he become an Episcopalian?
A. He was dating my mother, who was an Episcopalian, and he went to church with her at some point. When it came time for communion, in the Episcopal Church people drink out of the same cup. They were one of the only black couples sitting in the congregation, and this was in the late ’40s, in southern Ohio, which then really was still the South. Watching that, he said that it just hit him that any church where people of different races drink from the same cup knows something about the Gospel, and that he wants to be a part of that.
Q. In your career as a priest, as a bishop, have you experienced racism within the church?
A. When I was in seminary, the expectation at the time was that if you were a black priest or seminarian, you were going to be serving in black churches. There was a black church world and a white church world. That was the given-ness of racism, not that anybody said anything.
Q. So here you are, the first black presiding bishop of a predominantly white denomination. How big a deal is that?
A. For who? (Laughs.) I’m aware of that, but it doesn’t influence me day to day. But if you ask what are the driving passions and convictions of Michael Curry? I have a fundamental, Christianized, free disposition for working to create a church and a world where there is room for everybody.
Q. At the last General Convention, in which you were elected, the church decided to make racial reconciliation a top priority. You’re on a small committee charged with figuring out concrete steps. What are the plans?
A. Rather than creating just another program, we said we have got to go deeper. Because laws can change behavior, and must change behavior, but laws don’t change hearts. We’ve got to be about the work of changing and transforming hearts. And that happens by deepening real sustained relationships, and listening to and telling and sharing of our life stories.
Q. One of the most visible roles you have is to represent the Episcopal Church in the global Anglican Communion. At a meeting in January, you tried to make the connection between the exclusion and bigotry experienced by black people and the exclusion of gay people, telling primates of other Anglican provinces, many of whom are from Africa and have rejected the Episcopal Church’s decision to bless gay marriages, “I stand before you as your brother, as a descendant of African slaves.” What impact did that have on them?
A. What I was attempting to do was to describe the deep pain for L.G.B.T. folk who’ve had to live with not being accepted by the church of Jesus Christ. And sometimes by families and loved ones, and by society. I wanted my brothers to know that our actions would bring them real pain. I said, anytime anybody is excluded, it hurts. I can tell you in all honesty my brothers listened. They did listen.
Q. The primates still voted overwhelmingly to sanction the Episcopal Church.
A. I knew that was coming. But I wanted them to know, and I meant that sincerely, that this love of God is big enough to embrace all of us, and even embrace us in our disagreements. Love is big stuff, and it can save us all.
Q. Over the years, I have heard from many Episcopal leaders and laypeople the notion that those who are opposed to gay marriage and gay equality will eventually come around. That they will eventually realize they are on the wrong side of history.
A. I don’t want to say that. I respect their differences, and their different perspectives.
Q. Is it that you do not want to say that, or you do not believe that?
A. It’s that, I don’t know. What I believe about human equality and dignity is grounded in what I believe about the love of God and that love is not coercive. So I have to respect my brothers and sisters who differ on this question, enough not to be coercive.
Q. Do you, as a church leader, as an African-American, feel compelled to say anything about the presidential primaries in which the Republican front-runner hesitated to disavow the support of the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke?
A. It’s not appropriate, and I’m not sure it’s even legal, to make a partisan pronouncement on any candidates. But to articulate the values on which we stand. Love, at least as Jesus articulated it, has to do with seeking the good and the welfare of others before one’s own enlightened self-interest. Our politics must reflect that.
Q. Have you always stood where you stand now on equality for gay people?
A. When I think about it, it was more an evolution from not really thinking about the life of gay and lesbian people, to be honest, to becoming very aware. I was ordained in 1978. I think the first general convention resolution [on homosexuality] was about in 1979. But I was in seminary with people who were gay. We all knew. It was just kind of, don’t ask, don’t tell. During the AIDS crisis, I was at St. James Baltimore. I began to see the interconnections between what I was perceiving as patterns of exclusion across a lot of different lines — race, gender, class.
When I was a little boy, this was during the civil rights struggle, I remember my father, who was involved in the movement in Buffalo, I remember hearing him say, God didn’t make my children to be second-class citizens in this country. God didn’t make anybody to be a second-class citizen. Of this country, or the human family. I believe it because I believe that’s what the Scripture teaches. And that is clearly what Jesus teaches. He says, come unto me all of you. He didn’t limit love. The dude, he got it.
(A version of this article appears in print on March 19, 2016, on page A11 of the New York edition with the headline: A White Church, a Black Leader, a Focus on Justice)
In the wake of the Meeting of Anglican Primates in Canterbury recently at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, ++Justin Welby; the Primate of the Episcopal Church in the United States (TEC), Bishop Michael B. Curry, the first black TEC Primate, gave this interview – partly to clarify his and TEC’s position on the situation of his Church’s treatment of homosexuality – a major point of difference within provinces of the world-wide Anglican Communion.
Despite the final decision of the Primates’ Meeting to apply special sanctions to prevent TEC from taking part in any decision-making process in the Communion’s polity-making so-called ‘Instruments of Unity’, TEC’s Primate has been described as courteous in his response, while still electing to send representatives to the next meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC16) to take place in Lusaka, Africa, later this year. This response has been endorsed by the Chair of the ACC, an African Bishop from Nigeria, who has declared the intention of the Primates’ Meeting to exercise jurisdiction on the matter of exclusion of any provincial representation to be invalid.
One has only to read the response to questions put to Bishop Curry in this interview to see the integrity with which he equates the problem of racial segregation with that of attempts to sideline people on their gender or sexual-orientation basis by the Church.
No doubt, as the descendant, himself, of black slaves exported from Africa to America; Bishop Michael was able to make himself understood at the recent Primates’ Meeting in Canterbury, as a fighter for freedom from slavery and oppression in whatever arena this is currently imposed by the Church. It could well be that, if ever African Church leaders are to be able to understand the need for emancipation for women and LGBTQI people in their local Churches, the role of Bishop Michael Curry will have been seen to inform and enlighten them on this important issue for the future integrity of the Anglican Communion.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand