[Episcopal News Service] It’s never polite to upstage the newlyweds, but when the royal couple invited Presiding Bishop Michael Curry to deliver the sermon at their wedding on May 19, they surely knew that the leader of the Episcopal Church was bound to generate headlines of his own.
“The surprise star of Harry and Meghan’s wedding” is how the Washington Post’s headline described Curry.
“There are some things you come to expect from royal weddings,” the Post said. “One thing you don’t expect: That sermon.”
The Post called Curry’s 14-minute sermon a “barnstorming address.” Canada’s CBC called it the “highlight” of the royal wedding. Vox said Curry “stole the show,” adding that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were “all but upstaged” by Curry’s “fiery sermon.” And the U.K. Guardian commentary asserted that Curry’s “royal wedding sermon will go down in history as a moment when the enduring seat of colonialism was brought before the Lord, and questioned in its own house.”
The New York Times described it as a “searing, soaring” sermon about the power of love. “With its repetition and emphasis, his sermon drew upon the devices of black ecclesiastical tradition,” the Times wrote, calling it a “striking contrast” to the bishop of London’s sermon at the 2011 royal wedding.
The sermon itself never strayed far from the theme of love, even as Curry incorporated references to both the Old Testament and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as black spirituals. The message appeared to resonate with the royal couple, with Prince Harry at one point wiping tears from his cheeks while his bride’s smile widened.
The media attention on Curry’s sermon had been intense since the moment on May 12 that he was announced as preacher.
Prince Harry and Ms. Meghan Markle have asked that The Most Reverend Michael Bruce Curry, the 27th Presiding Bishop and Primate of The Episcopal Church, give the address at their wedding : https://t.co/a14L7JGcAd #RoyalWedding pic.twitter.com/njqCaN55Gr
— Kensington Palace (@KensingtonRoyal) May 12, 2018
It was an unexpected choice, given that royal wedding sermons typically are delivered by clergy in the Church of England, which, like the Episcopal Church, is a province of the Anglican Communion. Much of the reaction focused on the fact that Markle is a biracial American actress and on Curry’s status as the Episcopal Church’s the first black presiding bishop.
In the flurry of news stories about Curry leading up to the wedding, he sometimes was mistakenly identified as a “Chicago bishop”– he was born in Chicago but grew up in Buffalo, New York – and confusion about church hierarchy and titles may have played a role in some outlets diminishing Curry slightly, as merely “a black Episcopal priest,” for example.
Many also noted his emphasis on applying the Christian faith and Jesus’ teachings to contemporary social justice issues, part of what Curry often calls the “Jesus Movement.” Curry didn’t shy away from such issues in his sermon, asking those gathered to “imagine a world where love is the way.”
“Imagine our governments and nations when love is the way,” he said. “When love is the way, then no child would go to bed hungry in this world ever again. When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty would become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields down by the riverside to study war no more.”
As the buzz grew leading up to the ceremony, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby called Curry a “brilliant pastor.” Afterward, Welby, who officiated at the wedding, told Sky News he had spoken to members of the royal family, whose reaction to Curry’s sermon was overwhelmingly positive.
“I think what we saw in that is that preaching is not a past art, that the use of language to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ just blew the place open,” Welby said. “It was fantastic. And you could see people just caught up in it, and excited by it.”
The sermon also captured the imagination of some British tabloid headline writers, who borrowed Curry’s light-hearted line, “Two people fell in love and we all showed up,” for their covers. The Sun even gave Curry the pun-kissed new title of “Frock Star.”
Some of the praise come from unexpected sources. Former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, an atheist, tweeted, “Rev. Michael Curry could almost make me a believer.”
Rev Michael Curry could almost make me a believer
— Ed Miliband (@Ed_Miliband) May 19, 2018
“Still reeling from Rev. Curry,” British TV host Piers Morgan tweeted. “What a guy!”
Wow. Still reeling from Rev Curry.
What a moment. What a guy!
He may have gone on a bit long but as my youngest son just rang to say: ‘Dad, imagine being a black American watching this wedding? It’s historic – and brilliant.’ He’s right. pic.twitter.com/JkPM8E4xeS
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) May 19, 2018
The sermon even caught the attention of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” which dressed up cast member Kenan Thompson as Curry for a short parody during the “Weekend Update” sketch on May 19.
Curry gave his own take on the wedding and his sermon during an appearance the next day on NPR’s “Weekend Edition.” The sermon took its cues from the Bible passages that the couple chose, though he also hopes the message resonates beyond the walls of St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle.
“I hope it was a message for all of us, because all of us, no matter our political persuasion, no matter our social class, beyond all of that, we all are fundamentally children of God, and that means we’re part of God’s human family, if you will,” he told NPR. “It means that we must always find ways to better the human condition, find ways to make a world where there’s room and space for all of us.”
The global exposure generated by Curry’s sermon already has brought renewed attention to his two books, “Crazy Christians” and “Songs My Grandma Sang.” It also could create unique opportunities for evangelism by the Episcopal Church, and some congregations say they already are seeing a modest impact.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in San Diego, California, posted a Facebook ad linking to Curry’s sermon for the 24 hours leading up to its 10:30 a.m. service on May 20. During the service, “I asked if anyone had come because of the sermon. Three young people in the back waved their hands,” St. Paul’s Dean Penny Bridges said in an email.
“There was a very positive buzz among the congregation yesterday too, and people reported getting messages from non-churchgoing friends who were curious.”
Proud day for Episcopalians to have our leader represent the heart of our faith on such a visible stage #ProudEpiscopalian
— Julia Kirt (@JuliaKirt) May 20, 2018
Some Episcopalians have been reacting to Curry’s sermon on social media by using the hashtag #proudEpiscopalian, and St. Bart’s Episcopal Church in New York is hoping the excitement will increase turnout at the congregation’s “Bring a Friend to Church Sunday” on June 3.
“We are now developing messaging that encourages parishioners to invite friends who may have been inspired by Bishop Curry’s preaching on Saturday,” said Kara Flannery, the congregation’s director of communications.
Two weeks earlier, Curry had spoken on discipleship at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Austin, Texas, the city where General Convention kicks off on July 5. So it seemed natural for the Rev. Morgan Allen, rector of Good Shepherd, to make Curry’s royal wedding sermon the focal point of his own sermon on May 20.
“Wow, what a weekend to be Episcopalian!” Allen said.
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.