Presiding Bishop joins panel in Massachusetts on Episcopal Church’s ‘big tent’

By Tracy Sukraw
Posted May 17, 2019
Curry, Harris and Rushing

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, retired Massachusetts Bishop Suffragan Barbara C. Harris and House of Deputies Vice President Byron Rushing receive a standing ovation following the April 28 panel discussion at Grace Church in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Photo: Bridget K. Wood/Diocese of Massachusetts

[Diocese of Massachusetts] Presiding Bishop Michael Curry joined retired Massachusetts Bishop Suffragan Barbara C. Harris and House of Deputies Vice President Byron Rushing on April 28 at Grace Church in New Bedford, Massachusetts, for a candid panel conversation about racism and about who is on the inside, who is on the outside and who is still on the margins of the church and society.

The program, “Our Episcopal ‘Big Tent’: How Big Is It?” was the culminating public event of Curry’s April 26-29 visit in the Diocese of Massachusetts that included preaching at a “Way of Love” rally on Boston Common and gatherings with numerous ministries, groups and congregations from the Merrimack Valley to Cape Cod.

“I think the reality is we are not as big a tent as we sometimes think. We’re not as small as we once were,” Curry said, in terms of inclusion, “and I suspect that the tension is that we are somewhere between who we actually are, which is a mix. It is a mix. …

“You think the tent is bigger when you’re at the center, but when you’re on the edge, it’s not that big because it doesn’t feel like there’s room for you,” Curry said, adding, “I’ve gotta tell you, it’s work to be a minority in the majority culture, whether that’s racial, or whether that’s gender, or that’s orientation, or whether that’s political.”

Rushing, who is serving a third term as vice president of the House of Deputies and is a former Massachusetts state representative, said it is essential to understand that the call to be a church for everyone is a countercultural idea, given that most Americans still live in segregated communities.

He described growing up in a Bronx, New York, neighborhood where the majority non-black population was Jewish. “And so when I looked around when I was growing up, I thought all Christians were black and all white people were Jewish,” he said.

“The biggest problem of any kind of openness to everybody is that we expect people to arrive some place. And so the people who are in the middle of that place are the most comfortable in that place,” Rushing said. “Sometimes you can be on the edge but you have made a middle for yourself, which is what black people have done in The Episcopal Church. And sometimes even then, there is no place where certain people can have a middle.”

Harris, who this year marked the 30th anniversary of her consecration as the first female bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion, said she is “not as sure the tent is as big as we proclaim it to be, or we may have inadvertently closed some of the flaps by which people can meaningfully come in,” she said. “I think for this really to be a big tent, we have to more fully live into the words: Come in under the broad umbrella of faith. Period.”

All three shared personal stories of answering a call to act for justice when there was personal or professional risk involved, and all three pointed to Jesus in their closing words of challenge and encouragement for these divided and partisan times.

Harris said she wouldn’t deal in words of woe, but left the audience with this advice: “My mother used to say to me, growing up, ‘Pray to God and ask people.’ So that’s my word of weal,” Harris said. “Pray to God and ask people, and some right will come out of it.”

“I’m with Barbara in this,” Rushing said. “I think most of us in this room could give the woe list real fast. I am convinced that the authority is Jesus. And I am more and more convinced that he is with us for this one reason: To have us understand that we are all human beings and have to love each other. That there is no love if we can figure out ways of having some list of people that we don’t have to love.”

“Amen and amen to them,” Curry replied. He recalled the previous day’s meeting with young adults in their 20s and 30s. “The only word I can think of to describe it, it was holy,” he said. “They were asking about how do you run the race and keep running because it’s hard, and opposition within and without is real. And it’s like you say, Byron, you’ve got to keep looking at Jesus.”

“Keep eyes on him, because Palm Sunday is real and everybody’s happy,” Curry said. “And Good Friday is real, and ain’t nobody happy. But Easter’s always coming.”

Video of the full “Our Episcopal ‘Big Tent’: How Big Is It?” program and video of the “Way of Love” rally on Boston Common, are available here.

– Tracy J. Sukraw is director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts.