Living the Dream

Michael B. Curry ’75, the newly installed Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, and the first African American to hold the position, shares his vision for the dream the world can be.

by Andrew Wickenden ’09

When he marched this summer across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., the site of 1965’s “Bloody Sunday,” where hundreds of civil rights marchers were beaten and tear-gassed by local and state police, the Most Reverend Michael B. Curry ’75 was struck in particular by the metaphorical significance of the bridge itself.

The bridge, he says, is where the division between the protesters and the rights they sought – between black and white – was manifest, but it also “linked the two sides once separated. In the same way, the church must be a bridge, as all religious traditions must ultimately do if they’re authentic.”

Born in Chicago, Ill., Curry recalls growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., “around a Christian clergy passionate about living out their teachings in society.” Curry’s father, the late Rev. Kenneth S. Curry, served as rector of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Buffalo, and while studying religion at the Colleges, the younger Curry was already “committed to doing something with my life that would have a positive effect on our society,” he says.

That active, dynamic sense of service, he adds, “was formed in me early on, but at the Colleges I got the chance to reflect on that.”

It was while studying the theological writings of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that “it became clear to me that becoming an ordained minister of the Gospel would be a way that I could participate in the transformation of unjust social structures and be an instrument of change,” Curry explains. “Dr. King brought together a clear passion for the teachings and life of Jesus of Nazareth, living that life and teachings, embodying it, and then helping individuals in social order to be more aligned to those teachings and the foundational principle of love.”

Curry went on to earn his Master of Divinity degree in 1978 from Yale University Divinity School and was ordained as a deacon in 1978 at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Buffalo, and as a priest later that year at St. Stephen’s Church, in Winston-Salem, N.C. After serving as rector in Ohio and Maryland, in 2000 he was elected as the 11th bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. From 1988 to 1992, he served as a member of the HWS Board of Trustees.

A liturgy marking the beginning of Curry’s ministry as presiding
bishop and primate was celebrated Nov. 1, 2015, at Washington
National Cathedral.

On June 27, 2015, the Episcopal House of Bishops elected Curry to a nine-year term as the 27th Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, and the House of Deputies confirmed the election. When he took office on Nov. 1, Curry became the first African American in the church’s top leadership office. With his “high-energy, evangelical” style of ministry, as the Washington Post noted upon his installation, Curry “is expected to bring a Pope Francis-like energy to the job.”

As Curry assumes his new responsibilities leading one of the largest Christian communities in the world, “the most challenging and most hopeful aspects are wrapped up into one,” he says. “One of the greatest challenges before the church is before us as a global human community. Specifically, it goes back to something Dr. King said: we must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools. What that means is that the critical issue for us to figure out is how to move beyond mere coexistence and learn together as a human community.”

As the Washington Post reported in October, Curry is a “progressive on social issues and was one of the first bishops to allow same-sex marriages to be performed in North Carolina churches,” which Curry himself sees as part of the church’s mission “to reconcile ourselves with each other and with God.”

Curry envisions “a country and culture that welcomes the stranger, where equal justice and equal opportunity for everyone is the norm, where each and every man, woman and child is a child of God with rights that cannot be taken away.”

This vision for the future reflects the interrelated priorities identified by the General Convention, the church’s governing body. These priorities – “an inclusive, authentic way of evangelism and a commitment to racial reconciliation in our culture and our world,” as Curry explains – have “practical implications of what our churches look like and that they need to look like the world in which we live.”

“Bishop Michael is one of the best embodiments of the Episcopal Church’s enthusiasm for spreading the gospel of hope and reconciliation,” says the Rt. Rev. Bishop Prince G. Singh, the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester and a member of the HWS Board of Trustees. “His election in the Church is historic. It was the first time a presiding bishop was elected at the first ballot — when someone gets elected that early and that overwhelmingly, that’s a pretty significant marker. There is an insatiable joy about him. He’s respected, well regarded, and the kind of leader that we need for the Church.”

“I really believe that Jesus came not to establish an institution but to begin a movement,” Curry says. “It was and is a movement whose purpose is to change the world from the nightmare it often can be into the dream that God intends. That’s what the teachings of Jesus are about, and what this religious enterprise is about. The church today must reclaim and recapture that spirit, because institutional realities follow the movement – not the other way around.”

In leading The Episcopal Church and making concrete the church’s goals of evangelism and reconciliation, Curry hopes to create a “profoundly welcoming, profoundly inclusive, profoundly transformative vision not just of church but of the world, a world where there’s plenty good room for all God’s children.

“We can only do that,” he says, “through a movement grounded in a real and radical love that seeks the good and welfare for the other before the self. That kind of love can change the world, has done it before, and can do it again.”

Crazy Christians

“We need some Christians who are as crazy as the Lord,” Curry said in his 2012 address to the General Convention of The Episcopal Church in Indianapolis. “Crazy enough to love like Jesus, to give like Jesus, to forgive like Jesus, to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God – like Jesus.”

Curry’s 2013 book, Crazy Christians: A Call to Follow Jesus, is a theological piece that expands on his signature wisdom to the church. In it, Curry argues that Christians must strive to be different in their thinking and actions, be confident and willing to do the impossible and prove the world wrong with immense faith and God’s assurance of omnipresence. He calls for the brand of “craziness” embodied by Mary Magdalene, Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Sane, sanitized Christianity is killing us,” he writes. “Comfortable, demure Christianity may have worked once upon a time, but it won’t carry the gospel anymore.”

The way forward, Curry says, is to embrace “what Jesus was pointing us to, and what religious traditions at their best have done: pointing us toward life.”

Michael B. Curry ’75, Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, succeeds outgoing Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman to lead The Episcopal Church and 39th recipient of Hobart and William Smith Colleges’ Elizabeth Blackwell Award. Curry served as a member of the Hobart and William Smith Board of Trustees from 1988 until 1992. He and his wife, Sharon, have two daughters, Rachel and Elizabeth.


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