SALT LAKE CITY, UT: New Black Presiding Bishop Dodges Bullets on his New Role at Press Conference
No significant change of direction seen for the Episcopal Church despite talk of "evangelism" and "discipleship"
By David W. Virtue in Salt Lake City
June 28, 2015
"Are you an evangelical?" asked a reporter to the newly elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.
"I am a follower of Jesus," replied Bishop Michael Curry, 62, the Episcopal Church's newly elected first black Presiding Bishop, who was overwhelmingly chosen by 121 bishops on the first ballot in a landslide vote by the church's 174 bishops. He will be the 27th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.
Now he had to face the media. So who is Bishop Michael Curry? He says he is a preacher; most who have heard him would confirm that is true. Some use the term charismatic to describe his style but not necessarily his content. He preaches in the old style cadence of black preachers but his education is solidly white - a BA from Hobart and William Smith College, MDiv from the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. He has also studied at the College of Preachers, Princeton Theological Seminary, Wake Forest University, the Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary's Seminary, and the Institute of Christian Jewish Studies. He has lived for the most part in a white man's world.
As a black Presiding bishop in a church that is almost 90 percent white, it will be hard to push the anti-racism card unless those pushing it are themselves racist seeking absolution for being white.
His performance as bishop of North Carolina has not been stellar. He took office in 2000. In 2003 the year figures were first recorded there were 48,957 baptized members. It has risen by 2.1% to 50,009 in 2013. Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) -- the true health of a diocese, the figures are not so good; the diocese has seen significant decline from 16,765 in 2003 to 14,729 in 2013 a drop of 12.1%.
The state itself has grown to a point that it is nearly 10 million today (9.94 million in 2014) up from 8.63 million in 2005. His diocese has not reflected the growth of the state.
THE BISHOP AND HOMOSEXUALITY
In 2004 the Diocese of North Carolina suffered a severe budget crisis. It faced a shortfall of over $1 million caused largely, critics say, because of the policies Curry had chosen to pursue and the way he had chosen to implement them. It was the year after Bishop Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, was elected Bishop of New Hampshire. Curry openly and publicly embraced that ecclesiastical action.
In November 26, 2003, 12 orthodox priests in his diocese wrote Curry, laying out their concerns, distress, and sadness for his support of the ordination of Robinson and his vote to acknowledge the blessing of same sex unions as a part of the common life of the church. They expressed their gravest concern.
"We believe you are in serious error, and that your leadership of this diocese and the broader church is sorely hindered by your acceptance of beliefs contrary to the Word of God, and by teaching these beliefs to your flock."
The 12 twelve priests said that the teaching of Scripture and the Universal Church was clear -- that the union of a man and a woman in marriage is the will of God for sexual expression.
They blasted his interpretation of the Old Testament moral codes and said his move to exempt the moral law of the Old Testament along with the ceremonial and temporal laws was wrong.
"The creation account, the Holiness Code, and the Lord Jesus speak with one voice. Our Anglican forebears acted wisely in giving us article 7. Analysis of the pertinent texts shows conclusively that the Old Testament moral laws are valid for Christian believers."
They ripped the bishop concluding their letter by writing, "To say that Jesus loves everybody, including homosexuals---is true! Homosexual orientation is never condemned in scripture. It is the practice of non-marital sex that Jesus proscribes. Here is where we come to one of your major mistakes. We are not free to make Jesus into someone who would bless whatever relationships we chose ---just so long as we feel love. Jesus teaches us over and over that our loves are disordered. He showed us that we must not trust ourselves. Fallen humans need to be taught a new life where we love what God loves and hate what God hates."
In public statements, Curry has said that the New Testament texts regarding homosexual expression should be dismissed because those texts are about abusive relationships.
The 12 priests rebutted this saying, "You should have known better. Plato (in the 5th century BC), Philo and Josephus (both writing in the first century AD) and many others wrote clear and detailed records describing loving, lifelong same sex relationships. The Mediterranean world of late antiquity was a pagan world where same sex relationships were celebrated and common. This is why Paul, the cosmopolitan, well-traveled Jew, takes on the issue of homosexual practice- most famously in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans. The horizontal example of human depravity is homosexual activity, a practice so unnatural and so unhealthy as to be obvious.
"We are most concerned for the homosexual community, believing you have given them warrant to practice a form of sexual expression that the scripture describes as sin."
Curry's view on homosexuality is also at odds with the vast majority of black pastors in America.
Recently 34,000 black clergy said, after the Presbyterian Church USA endorsed gay marriage, "Don't equate your sin with our skin."
Homosexuality for Curry is no longer the white man's burden. It will be his to bear with pride as he leads a church whose establishment credentials he will wear with pride and a gay button of approval on his lapel. He will try and break the Law of Non-contradiction by affirming the gospel (however he defines that) and approve gay marriage at the same time.
CURRY AND THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH
The Union of Black Episcopalians, President Annette Buchanan approved the election of course saying, "We are overwhelmed, excited...we never thought in our lifetime that we'd live to see a black president of the United States and a black presiding bishop. Presiding Bishop-elect Michael Curry is a longtime UBE member."
In many respects, the Episcopal Church has followed the bell curve of society and American liberalism, embracing (some times ahead of the curve) but knowing always that it did not want to be out of sync with the culture. Limousine liberalism made famous by the later Paul Moore Bishop of New York, whose own bi-sexuality (documented by his daughter) became the touchstone of high minded social activism and sexual perversity, easily morphed into a president making famous his own dalliance with a Jewish woman and a semen stained dress. The Episcopal Church and the State had finally merged its sexualities to the relief of some and escape by others.
On first appearances, Curry seems humble and genuine, exuding an air of deprecating humor as he talks meaningfully of the need for more evangelism and discipleship. Those are conservative buzzwords, but they can mean something quite different to the ears of Episcopalians who eschew traditional understandings of evangelism as "happy clappy", "fundamentalist" or even homophobic. There is no talk of conversion, it is all about inclusion. The sinners' prayer is not to be found on the lips of clergy and bishops in the Episcopal Church. God forbid.
Evangelism means being open to absolutely everybody...gays, straights and now, because the numbers are slipping, even allowing unbaptized persons' access to Holy Communion, a violation of canon law (1.17.7). But these are desperate times for clergy and bishops as parishes and dioceses wither. There is a wink-wink to what is euphemistically called "open table."
Curry believes in the Church being inclusive for all, especially African-Americans and Africans of the diaspora. "Inclusive" is also the language of gay and liberal agit-prop. In truth, inclusion has not made churches grow. If you don't really believe in conversion, the future is indeed bleak.
Echoing an old spiritual, Curry said during a video that "our hand must be on the Gospel plow." Noble words, but what do they mean in an Episcopal context? 98% of episcopal bishops do not believe in traditional understandings of the word "gospel". Good News means to include not convert, because to truly convert means to "separate out" from those who do not believe. There is no such animal in the mind of an Episcopal priest or bishop.
Knowing the fear of the Lord we persuade men, wrote St. Paul. Episcopal priests will keep the doors open and the lights on like a Motel 6 commercial in the hopes that someone might stumble through the red doors and stay. For genuine conversion, one might have to attend an AA meeting where one acknowledges one's shortcomings, publicly confess, and make amends to those you have wronged and restart the process of confession. (One hopes that Gene Robinson and Heather Cook have found such "conversion" helpful, if not entirely biblically salvific).
"We are followers of Jesus -- Jesus of Nazareth -- and the truth is we've got a message to proclaim, a life to live and something to share and offer the world," said Curry. "There's a lot of suffering in this world. There's a lot of heartache, there's a lot of nightmare. We are people who believe that God has a dream and a vision for this world, and that Jesus has shown us how to follow him in the direction of that and how to help this world live into God's dream and vision for us now."
There is little doubt he believes the truth of his words, but will he as Presiding Bishop raise up a generation of evangelists who will publicly call on persons to confess Jesus as Lord for their salvation? Would he seek out those professors, say at the evangelical Trinity School for Ministry, who are dedicated to biblical evangelism and get their advice on how to do it? He will have a honeymoon period to make the call.
Invoking the Sixties, Curry said, "Our work is actually the work of participating in the Jesus movement, which seeks to realize God's dream and seeks to accomplish God's mission in this world."
The "Jesus Movement" was a movement in Christianity beginning on the West Coast of the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s that spread primarily throughout North America and Europe, before subsiding by the early 1980s. Is this really what Curry is saying? Another possible interpretation of his words is that the world of New Testament scholarship has adopted the term "Jesus movement" to describe the first generation of followers of Jesus in Palestine. Realizing "God's dream" and "accomplishing God's mission in this world" is the ether or Star Trek language of Jefferts Schori and can be taken to mean almost anything from opening coffee houses in Atlanta to building herb gardens in Honduras.
The church must help form disciples who will live like Jesus, Curry said. Really. Will we now see the bow tie limousine liberals of Sewanee presently indulging in "clit art" experience a sudden spiritual epiphany, dressing down, and bearing their crosses moving to evangelize the great unwashed? Truthfully, it is not going to happen.
The average Episcopalian is now in his or her mid-Sixties. They will all be dead or living in extended life care places on life support systems of their own within a few short years.
Curry gives us a hint at what he calls evangelism. "After formation, there's evangelism and I know sometimes folks are afraid of that word, but I'm not talking about evangelism like other folk do it," he said. "I am talking about the kind of evangelism that is as much listening as it is sharing." Being present with another person and listening to that person is a "transforming possibility" of invitation and welcome.
But where does proclamation of the Good News and the call for repentance and faith come in? He does not say.
When asked by one reporter at the press conference how would he go about healing the divisions within the Episcopal Church between evangelicals, traditionalists, and liberals, Curry delivered the standard mantra -- made famous by Frank Griswold that he would be the PB of all Episcopalians -- echoing Griswold's words in Philadelphia that his door would be open to everyone. It was pure fiction, of course, but everyone bought into it, at least for a time. Griswold relentlessly pursued the cause of homosexuality at every Primatial gathering till the Global South refused any longer to see him or to attend. They never bought into his pluriform truths that they viewed as rubbish.
The other truth is that most of the orthodox have already left TEC (to form the ACNA), including a dozen or so priests from his diocese; only Albany, Springfield, Central Florida, Dallas and Northern Indiana remain. As long as they pose no threat to Curry or the Episcopal Church by threatening to leave, he will stay out of their hair and they will stay out of his. The question must be asked, is he an empty shell mouthing the platitudes of episco-babble or is there something more to him?
I posed two questions to the Presiding Bishop-elect. The first was would he move to end the property litigation that has cost the national church some $40 million dollars or more to date. He quickly looked over his shoulder and looking at Jefferts Schori said he would continue her policies. When I asked him how he planned to heal the rift (broken communion) between TEC and the Global South, he counted by saying that he had several Anglican friends in the Global South, but would not say if they included any archbishops or bishops. "I am committed to the work of reconciliation...agent of God's reconciliation in any way I can. I will do my best." One doubts that will be significant enough to heal the huge divide that now exists between TEC and Primates Eliud Wabukala, (Kenya) Nicholas Okoh (Nigeria) or Stanley Ngathali (Uganda), to name but a few.
Theologically, he can certainly distance himself from Jefferts Schori. Here is a woman who was reluctant to mention Jesus in her feast day messages, could not affirm the bodily resurrection of Jesus, said personal faith was a Western heresy, and avoided using the name of Jesus in an Easter or Christmas message -- multiple times.
Curry can earn brownie points by affirming what she does not believe, the bar is not very high. But the deeper truth is this: for all his talk of "evangelism" and "discipleship" there is not a slipway in Hell that he will turn the Episcopal Ship around. It has almost crossed the River Styx and we all know what awaits its passengers, including those with mitres, on the other side.
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