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Six months in, new Episcopal church leader reflects on church challenges

May 17, 2016 at 6:25 PM EST
Last November, the Most Reverend Michael Curry became presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, one of the oldest Christian denominations in the U.S. Curry’s ascension comes at a time of crisis and change, and the church, like most mainline Protestant congregations, is facing declining membership. Judy Woodruff talks to Curry about how he plans to tackle these challenges.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: The Most Reverend Michael Curry became presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church last November, becoming the head of one of the United States’ oldest denominations at a time of conflict and change.

The church, like most mainline Protestant denominations, has been facing declines in membership for decades.

Judy Woodruff sat down with Bishop Curry to learn how he is leading a church facing these challenges.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bishop Michael Curry, thank you for talking to us.

THE MOST REVEREND MICHAEL CURRY, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And congratulations on your position.

THE MOST REVEREND MICHAEL CURRY: Thank you for that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you first, how would you describe the place that the Episcopal Church occupies in the broad religious profile that we have the United States now?

THE MOST REVEREND MICHAEL CURRY: The Episcopal Church probably represents a moderate voice, a centrist voice in the religious landscape.

We’re a tradition that has historically been able to live with differences. And I think now we’re seeing the live that out in some new ways that — to be a church that really can embrace diverse, not only theological traditions or liturgical and worship styles and approaches, but people of all stripes and types.

And that’s — I think that’s the Episcopal Church and the Anglican way at its best.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re now six months into this position. How has the fact that you are the first black presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States, a descendant of slaves, how has that affected what you have been able to do so far?

THE MOST REVEREND MICHAEL CURRY: Certainly, that has affected, only in the sense that it is a first. Beyond that, I have a funny feeling I was probably elected for a variety of reasons.

I suspect that my election was a moment of hope that we could begin to help the Episcopal Church and Episcopalians begin to focus outward in some new ways, outward in ways that actually share the message of Jesus of Nazareth, which is fundamentally a message of love of God and love of neighbor.

And that’s a game-changer, in and of itself, the various forms and ways we’re divided between each other, whether it is racial or socioeconomic or political or religious or tribal or national or on and on and on, helping this church to become instruments of God’s work of reconciliation in this world.

That really does have something to do with helping the world stop living a nightmare and start living something closer to God’s dream. And that’s worth doing. And I have a feeling that’s why I got elected.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You have spoken a great deal and preached about social justice in its many different forms.

How does that fit into what you see as maybe this developing, evolving vision and mission of the Episcopal Church?

THE MOST REVEREND MICHAEL CURRY: Scholars, sometimes, when they look at the origins of Christianity, they often use the phrase the Jesus movement as a way of describing what Jesus of Nazareth actually was doing in the earliest days in Palestine, that the Jesus movement in the first and second and third centuries was a movement of people who gathered around the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

And their gathering around and committing themselves to that way of life that Jesus talked about became transformative for themselves and for the world. And, as a result, the earliest Christian communities were communities where both slave and free coexisted and lived together, where men and women, where Jew and Greek or Gentile coexisted and lived together.

That was the earliest Christian movement. And I’m committed to helping the Episcopal Church become a Jesus movement today that helps the society live into a vision.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What’s the practical effect of that? I mean, how would people’s lives change as a result of that, ideally?

THE MOST REVEREND MICHAEL CURRY: I think dramatically.

Imagine if just Episcopalians were practically living their daily lives as reflections of the way Jesus of Nazareth lived his, loving in the same way that Jesus did and does, giving in the same way, forgiving, doing justice, caring, living compassionate lives.

I have a funny feeling Episcopalians could be transformative both in our interpersonal relationships and in our social and political relationships. What would happen if Christians just acted like Christians? It would change our politics. It would change our social order. It could change our global community.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think our politics needs changing?

THE MOST REVEREND MICHAEL CURRY: Regardless of which side of the aisle you’re on — this isn’t a partisan statement — imagine our politics if we began to engage one another not from the perspective of my unenlightened self-interest, but from the perspective of our interests, the common good, the common weal.

Imagine our global politics. Imagine our economic relationships. It’s world-changing. And I happen to believe that the way of Jesus of Nazareth — I’m not talking about everybody having to become an Episcopalian, although that would be nice — but that’s not what I’m really talking about.

I’m talking about a way of living that is deeply grounded in the kind of love that is not a greeting card for Valentine’s Day, but that is a way of living in this world and engaging it.

Finally, Isaiah got caught up like in the spirit, like a Episcopalian in a Baptist church, got caught up in the spirit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They say that Sunday morning is the most segregated time and place in American life, in church service in this country. Should that change?

THE MOST REVEREND MICHAEL CURRY: I think the church can create space for authentic ethnic congregations that minister to a particular need, especially at a particular time.

But it must also move into inhabiting or creating space for congregations where people of different races and ethnic backgrounds and socioeconomic classes actually come together, because, ultimately, I mean, I do pray for the day when those of us who have the same commitment to follow the way of Jesus of Nazareth can actually find that that is our primal commitment, and that, in Christ, there is no hindrances.

In Christ, there is east nor west, in him, no south nor north.

We are going to get there. And I pray for that day and have worked for that day, but I know that, between here and there, we have to approximate it as best we can.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We have learned just recently that Pope Francis is saying that he is open to the idea of a commission to study permitting women to become deacons in the Catholic Church.

What would you say is the experience of the Episcopal Church that might inform what the Catholics may be thinking about?

THE MOST REVEREND MICHAEL CURRY: When we finally get to the point of saying, who has God called to be a bishop or a priest or a deacon, and we’re going to follow that leading, what we have found over time is, guess what? A priest is a priest. A deacon is a deacon. A bishop is a bishop.

They may be black, white, red, yellow or brown. They may be a Republican or a Democrat. They may be a man or a woman. They may be gay or straight, bisexual, transgender. They may be a whole host of things, but they’re a priest. They’re a bishop. They’re a deacon.

That’s been our experience for not everyone, but for most of us. And the church has been enriched when all voices are there, when we’re all there together. We got a better shot of making it together than we do when we’re all apart.

So, I — you know, my Catholic brothers and sisters, you have to make your decision as God leads you. This is how we have made ours, and we have been blessed.

God has not given up on this world. We dare not give up on it either. And God is not finished with this church. God has work for us to do.

THE MOST REVEREND MICHAEL CURRY: We have a better Episcopal Church. I have been in the Episcopal Church my whole life. We are a better Episcopal Church because we really are trying to welcome all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, thank you very much.

THE MOST REVEREND MICHAEL CURRY: Thank you. God bless you.

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