Former Buffalonian now leads Episcopal Church
Former Buffalonian becomes the church's first African-American presiding bishop. Bishop Curry is the son of the late Reverend Kenneth B. Curry, Rector of the historic St. Philip's Episcopal Church, Buffalo from 1957 to 1971.
WASHINGTON – The service that installed Michael Bruce Curry, who has some roots in Buffalo, as presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church on Sunday would have been unrecognizable to Episcopalians of the past century. And congregants say that’s a good thing.
The church’s first African-American presiding bishop was instated in a ceremony led by female bishops, openly gay priests and even a rabbi. After a spirited opening by a gospel choir, Episcopal leaders filed into the National Cathedral in Washington to the sound of guitars guiding a Spanish hymn and a Native American drumming prelude.
“Don’t worry. Be happy! God has not given up on the world, and God is not finished with the Episcopal Church yet,” Curry said.
Curry faces the daunting task of revitalizing a splintered denomination that has lost more than a quarter of its members in the past decade.
His sermon to the more than 2,500 people in the cathedral was “classic Michael Curry,” his friends said. He needled, he reflected, he reassured.
“Racial reconciliation is just the beginning for the hard and holy work of real reconciliation that realizes justice but really across all the borders and boundaries that divide the human family of God,” he said.
For today’s Episcopal Church, the historically buttoned-up spiritual home of U.S. presidents and the nation’s elite, which is still 86 percent white, inclusion means survival.
“Today is a spectacular day because the election of an African-American bishop opens a new horizon that really just gives us so much hope for the future of the church,” the Rev. Gladys Diaz of New York said in Spanish, adding that it could even be a Hispanic bishop next time.
An emotive man whose sermons often resemble the energetic oratory of a Southern preacher, his voice often dropping to a dramatic whisper before a booming exclamation, Curry may seem an eccentric choice to lead the church’s 1.8 million Episcopalians.
“Some people say that he doesn’t sound very Episcopalian, but no person does,” said the Rev. Sandye Wilson, a friend of Curry’s who is the rector of St. Andrew and Holy Communion Episcopal Church in South Orange, N.J. “Preaching style is as wide and varied as people and experiences in the church.
“He emphasizes being authentic, and having others find authenticity in their own voices,” she said.
Born in Chicago, he later attended Buffalo Public Schools. After the death of his mother when he was in middle school, Curry was raised by his Baptist grandmother, the daughter of North Carolina sharecroppers and the granddaughter of slaves. After graduating from Yale Divinity School in 1978, he was ordained as a deacon at St. Paul’s Cathedral in downtown Buffalo.
He started his career as a rector in Winston-Salem, N.C., and went on to lead parishes in Lincoln Heights, Ohio, and Baltimore, where he guided the church restoration after a devastating fire and was active in brokering millions of dollars of investment in inner-city neighborhoods. He was bishop of North Carolina for 15 years before being elected as presiding bishop this summer.
In recent years the church has moved toward increasingly progressive positions, including sanctioning gay marriage and female ordination. Curry is replacing Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, the first woman to hold that office.
But the consecration of openly gay bishop Gene Robinson in 2003 was a breaking point for more conservative members of the church. Six dioceses have since left the Episcopal Church, including South Carolina, which withdrew in 2012 over the church’s liberal doctrines to become its own autonomous Anglican diocese. Others aligned themselves with the more conservative dioceses in Africa and South America.
Under Schori the church also became involved in costly legal battles against the separatists. She took a firm stance on the ownership of church properties occupied by congregations that had split, which cost the church about $42 million in court expenses.
Curry’s fans and colleagues say his background and experience make him the ideal candidate to lead the church through this time of upheaval.
“He was very much a product of coming of age during the civil rights movement, and his passion for inclusion is very much rooted in his experience as an African-American man who has experienced exclusion,” said Rev. Lisa Fischbeck, vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill, N.C.
As bishop of North Carolina, Curry focused on establishing missionary branches to reach out to lapsed churchgoers.
“He’s certainly been successful here in North Carolina where the church has grown, establishing missionary dioceses to reach out to those who aren’t in the church or have left it because they felt excluded or judged,” said Fischbeck, whose parish is one of the new missionary posts.
North Carolinians attending the ceremony said they felt a bittersweet mix of pride and wistfulness watching him become the leader of the entire church.
“It’s a mixed bag really, but I guess the happiness outweighs the sadness because we get to share him with everyone now,” said Delois Ward, 78, from Raleigh.
Curry will serve a nine-year term at church headquarters in New York City.
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