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Aug 13, 2015 | Lynette Wilson

WE HAVE WORK TO DO

Presiding Bishop-elect Says

 

Ed. note: Lynette Wilson spoke with the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry immediately following his unprecedented election on the first ballot as the next presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, June 27, during the Church’s General Convention in Salt Lake City. Currently bishop of North Carolina, Curry was elected to the office for a nine-year term, which begins with his investiture in Washington National Cathedral, November 1, 2015. He was elected by the House of Bishops and confirmed overwhelmingly by the House of Deputies (800-12). The son of an Episcopal priest, Bishop Curry is known for his enthusiastic preaching and focus on evangelism and he will be the first African-American to serve as presiding bishop. He succeeds the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman elected to the position.

 LW: What do you consider your role as presiding bishop-to-be, and how will your experience and background inform your work as presiding bishop?

MBC: Part of [the] role is to name a vision and a direction for this moment … I happen to believe that this is a moment for the Church to reclaim its share in the Jesus Movement. I believe that we are baptized into the Jesus Movement, into the way of Jesus. That’s part of the role of both inspiration and inspiring the operation of the Church going into the world.

I’ll never forget a conversation I had some years ago in a Starbucks. I was standing behind a Mennonite pastor, who’s now a good friend, but who had been deployed to downtown Raleigh to create a Christian community—a church—on the streets. We got in a conversation because I had a collar on, and he realized I was clergy. He said, “In a time like this where people don’t automatically go to the church just ‘cause mama and grandpa did,’ the church can no longer wait for its congregation to come to it. The church must go where the congregation is.” I believe that part of a presiding bishop’s role in this mission moment is to help the church to go where the congregation is, to bear witness to the good news of Jesus, to live it, to witness to it, and to do it. That’s inspiration, but it’s also inspiring the operation as well.

 

LW: What do you consider to be the biggest challenges the Church faces right now? And how do you anticipate facing those challenges?

MBC: We’re living through a period of, not only racial tensions, but political polarizations, and the truth is, part of the work of the Church in the world may be to help us find common ground [and in which] people of different views and perspectives can actually work together for the common good. I really like to say it—how we can work together to help God realize God’s dream and us not be stuck in our nightmare?

 

LW: What does it mean to you, considering the state of race relations in our nation, in our Church to be the first African-American bishop of a predominantly white, Anglo, mainline denomination?

MBC: In many respects this is a sign of hope of a church that really is growing into the fullness of what God intends for all of us. Bishop Katharine’s election nine years ago—I was there. I remember being in that room and feeling like I actually had lived through a kind of Pentecost. There really was a sense of the Spirit of God being present with us, and God was doing something with all of us, not just with Bishop Katharine. God was, the Spirit was being poured out, and men and women were hearing the good news. I had that same feeling Saturday—that God was doing something among us and opening us up to be the full people of God. And so the first is supposed to be a beginning, not an end. And that means that the Spirit is being poured out to open us up, to open ourselves up to this world, kind of like that image of the statue of Jesus with the outstretched arms. That’s who we’re called to be, and I see my election, Bishop Katharine’s election, and all that we’re doing and being as opening the arms of the body of Christ.

 

LW: In the aftermath of Ferguson, how do you see the Episcopal Church being a leader in this nationwide conversation about racial reconciliation?

MBC: I think we have to be part of a national conversation. We’ve been pretty good about racial reconciliation in the church and doing intentional training [but] we’ve got more to do. To be very honest, the conversation between people of different ethnicities and races has not happened in our nation. And to some extent, Charleston and Ferguson and Trayvon and New York and on and on—to some extent, has begun a conversation. But I’m not sure it actually happens in the lunchrooms and in the workplaces. Dr. King once said that 11 o’clock is the most segregated hour on a Sunday morning. It may well be true that, after the workday ends, our culture resegregates. Everybody goes back to their tribes, and the truth is we’ve got to figure out a way for the tribes to come together and be in conversation with each other.

Part of the dilemma is we don’t know each other, and I really do believe the Church can help to facilitate the kind of relationships where people of different backgrounds and stripes and types can actually get to know each other, where we can have the conversation about how we can all find a better way. We’ve got to have that conversation. I so admire Congressman John Lewis in the House of Representatives because he is a constant voice. We’ve got to find a better way, and it’s not about being a Republican or a Democrat or a liberal or conservative. We’ve got to find a better way because we’re all in this together. If the church can foster that kind of conversation and then foster the kind of decision-making that really does seek to make this a better nation and a better world, I daresay we will have had made our contribution to God’s work of reconciliation in this world.

 

LW: What have you identified as priorities for your administration as you assume leadership of the Church, and what is your leadership style?

MBC: I don’t really start until November 1, but I can tell you what Michael Curry is about—what I’ve been about in North Carolina and what I’m about as a bishop and as a follower of Jesus. I really do believe that the Church’s life—that our life together as the body of Christ in the world—is going to be found as we reclaim our share in the Jesus Movement. Now, somebody may ask, “What’s this Jesus Movement thing about? What’s that got to do with anything?” Well, the truth is, if we’re doing it on our own, if this is our own program, it’s not going to work. If this is God’s mission, if this is the Jesus Movement, and if we are following in his footsteps, living His teachings, living in His Spirit—if we’re really doing that, then it’s not ours alone. In fact, it’s not ours primarily; and therefore, we can engage all of the challenges that are before us. All of the difficulties we face, we can surmount them, and we can move forward because we’re not moving on our own power. We are moving and living on the power of God’s love, and nothing can stop God’s love. If you don’t believe me, ask Pontius Pilate.

And so, my conviction is that we are partners. We can commit ourselves to being part of the Jesus Movement, and there are three things I do see for us as a church. The Jesus Movement is about evangelism. It is about forming followers, disciples of Jesus, and it is about making witness through personal service and public prophecy. That’s what I see as the key to the Jesus Movement in our time. Now, we’ll have to flesh that out, I know that. And that will take time. I’ve quoted Archbishop Tutu—I don’t know the original source—but he was talking about God’s mission in the world, and he said that “By himself, God won’t. By ourselves, we can’t. But together with God, we can.” That’s why we much claim our share in the movement of Jesus.

 

LW: What is your vision for the Church and what principles inform your views about how the presiding bishop’s senior leadership team should be assembled?

MBC: I’ve been around long enough to know you’ve got to go in and you’ve got to listen and learn. I’m clear about the mission, but listen and learn. You get to learn about the people who are there, how the place operates, how the system works, and then slowly you begin to piece it together, not just by yourself, but you bring together people who can help us all figure out how we move forward. The truth is, nobody does this by themselves. The truth is Michael Curry doesn’t operate by himself. He can make a decision, and he can lead, but we do this together.

 

LW: You were a member of the task force for reimagining the Episcopal Church. Can you speak more about how the church can become one that is more deeply rooted in, and spends more of its treasure on mission?

MBC: We’re in the midst of general convention now, so I don’t know what the exact outcome of the specific recommendations … [but] the mission must determine the operation, not the other way around. That’s why this Jesus Movement—evangelism, discipleship, and witness—if that is the mission for us at this mission moment, then we must create organization and operation that actually make that happen … Right now, in this mission moment, what is the operation, what is the structure, what is the organization that will serve the Jesus Movement?

 

LW: What do you want the average person in the pew to know about you?

MBC: You mean besides I’m a nice guy? Well, I hope the average person in the pew knows me to be—I hope I’m decent and kind and strong and loving and fallible and sinful. I hope they know me as a follower of Jesus. I grew up in this Church. My dad was a priest. I was fortunate to grow up in the Episcopal Church but to have a dyed-in-the-wool, rock-ribbed Baptist grandma. And I grew up in a family where our faith was real. It was just part of the world we lived in. I know that’s a different era. I know that, but I came to know something about Jesus of Nazareth in this church, and I believe in that Jesus, and I believe in this church. This is a good church. We’ve got challenges ahead of us, but like my grandma used to say, we’ve got a good God, too, and I think as Bishop Barbara Harris likes to say often, the God behind you is greater than any problem ahead of you, and I believe that. And so I kind of hope people will know that about me—that I believe that the God behind us is greater than any problem ahead of us.

 

LW: As a primate of the Anglican Communion, given the difficult relations over the last few years, how do you see those relationships shaping up going forward?

MBC: I will participate fully. As the Archbishop of Canterbury gathers us in various ways or as we work together in various ways, I look forward to being a part of that. The Anglican Communion is as much relationship as it is structure and organization. It is a network of relationships that have historical roots [as well as] missional roots. What really binds us together is that we are followers of Jesus and the Anglican Way, and those relationships—that primal relationship holds us together. Of course, we’re struggling. But I really do believe that we can continue to work together in partnerships that help to serve God’s mission in this world by joining together so that children don’t go to bed hungry, so that people have water, so that education is available to children, and so that women can support their families. We’ve got some work to do. I really believe we’ve got some Jesus work to do.

In Matthew 25, in that [judgment] parable, Jesus assembles assembles all the nations before him, and to the righteous ones he says, “Come and enter the fullness of the kingdom, for I was hungry and you fed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was alone and you visited me.” … You can almost hear them beginning to wonder, “Well, we’re glad to be going to Heaven, but when did we see you hungry? I don’t actually remember seeing you, Lord, hungry or naked or alone.” And what does Jesus say? “Whenever you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you’ve done it to me.” That’s what Jesus said, and that’s where we have common ground—to do it to the least, the lost, the last, the lonely, the left out. This world is crying for us, and it needs us, and the Anglican Communion is one way that God uses us together to really make this a better world. So I’m ready to go to work. I’m ready to go to work.

 

Wilson is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.

 

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