[February 27, 2019] Presiding Bishop and Primate Michael Curry gave these remarks to the opening session of The Episcopal Church Executive Council on February 21:
Allow me to begin with an apology if I seem foggy. I’m just getting back from South Africa, literally yesterday, morning. But I think I’ve recycled and I believe I’m in this time zone, but we’ll know in a minute…
While in the province of South Africa, good friends of our church and Bishop Thabo, he’s just a wonderful leader and partner in faith and many other good friends there. But while there, one of the things we did have an opportunity to do was to meet with young people. The conversation that we had with several young people was just simply remarkable. They want to talk about Jesus Movement. What that really means to their lives, and this Way of Love stuff that we’ve been talking about here. Allow me, if you will, to give you two texts that really emerged out of that conversation and maybe out of our life together.
The first is from the Acts of the Apostles; it is Jesus speaking to the disciples after the resurrection. After the crucifixion and just before his ascension. He says to them, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” You will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth, to the end of time, in every age, in every culture. My witnesses.
Then from a friend of mine, Charles Marsh, who teaches at the University of Virginia. He’s actually a Bonhoeffer scholar really, by background, that’s where he really cut his teeth, but has done a lot of theological work on the spirituality of the civil rights movement and of the history of that movement theologically understood. He comes to it with some credibility having been the son of a Baptist pastor in Mississippi during the time of the movement, a man, a white man who stood for justice and lost his church. Charles comes to it with some credibility.
In one of his studies in a book entitled “The Beloved Community,” he says this, and I quote, “Jesus of Nazareth began the most revolutionary movement in human history. A movement built on the unconditional love of God for the world and the mandate to live that love.” Jesus began the most revolutionary movement in human history. A movement of people who dare to commit their lives to him and his real way of love, which is the only way to life, not just for the church, but for the world. A Jesus Movement, if it is a Jesus Movement, is about daring to live in bearing witness to his way of love. That way of love is the way of life for the world and for the church. A church that does not live by that way has no life in it. That way of love is the way. It is the truth, and it is the life.
While we were in South Africa, as I said, on the last day, we met with young people. We had been with them in various configurations, up to that point. They were with us in the Cathedral on Sunday morning, a grand and glorious, just wonderful celebration and service. Actually, it was only two and a half hours, which—
That’s almost low mass. It really was fairly short. Then in the afternoon, [we gathered] for a lecture and some conversation and questions and answers, all of which focused on youth, young people. Even with a mixed congregation crowd. When we met, these were young people who grew up having known of the legacy of apartheid. They would’ve been too young, but they knew of it very intimately.
Young people for whom their two archbishops ago, Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Ndungane, and now Archbishop Thabo. They’ve grown up in a province where there are two of the three women bishops on the continent of Africa are in that province. They’ve grown up in a province that has had the courage to have conversations about human sexuality. They’re having conversations. They’ve grown up in a province that has been willing to face questions of human trafficking and the ravaging of lives in the midst of a culture. A church that’s been willing to speak up on social issues not, as matters of sociology but as matters of concern to Almighty God, who is the source of all love and all compassion and all decency. They’ve grown up in a church that has taught them the faith and taught it to them well. Yet one of them asked the question that was on the hearts of all of them. He said it and he threw me because at first, I didn’t know what he was really asking.
He said, “We live in a digital age, an age that really changed our worlds.” He said, “Is there a future for the church?” At first, I wasn’t sure what he was really asking. Then I realized he was asking is there a future for faith? Does faith have a future, and therefore does the church, the community of those who have faith in Jesus, does it have a future?
That may be one of the most critical questions before us in our time. It is, I suspect, I suspect, the wisdom of the Holy Spirit that has led Russ Randle, our own Russ Randle, to be willing to take responsibility for leading us over the course of this triennium in forward-thinking conversations that are beginning to ask the questions, “What does faith look like in the time in which we live and in the days ahead of us?” Not for the purpose of creating another strategic plan. Those are nice and they have their place, but for the purpose of us daring to ask the spirit, “Where shall we go?”
Does faith have a future, does faith have a future? Is there a future for The Episcopal Church? Is there a future for the Anglican Communion? Is there a future for the Roman Catholic Church? As I ask those questions, hear the culture around us, hear the issues before the church today. Is there a future for the Southern Baptist Convention? Is there a future for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America? Is there a future for Presbyterians and Congregationalists? Is there a future for Judaism, a future for Islam? Is there a future for religious faith? Does faith have a future?
The answer that I eventually gave them, but it took me a while to think it through, was that it does not have a future. If faith and religion is seen and understood primarily and essentially as an institutional arrangement, faith will not have a future if we believe the church is primarily an institution in which we must prop it up to keep it going.
I say that as a 65-year-old man who, when he finishes his term as Presiding Bishop, will then go on the Church Pension Fund. I’m not anti-institutional. If the church, if we, if Executive Council, General Convention, House of Deputies, House of Bishops, if we see the church as an institution, we will not have a future. It’s that simple. Look at our past. I thought about all of that seminary stuff that I thought I forgot, [it] came rushing back to me at five o’clock this morning when I was realizing I was back in this time zone. I realized if you just look at the history of the church, it’s only been an institution periodically. That’s not actually the norm.
It began, Biblical scholars tell us, it began as this nascent Jesus movement of people who simply gathered around Jesus. They gave up everything they had, they followed him, followed his ways, that was it. The Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. That was it. All they had was Jesus and the ability to go fishing and feed themselves. They just followed him, all they had.
Oh, the old slaves used to sing that song, that spiritual, “You can have all this world. Just give me Jesus.” That’s all they had. It was a Jesus movement from the very beginning, “You will be my witnesses.” Slowly but surely, that movement went from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, which was Rome. They were a little movement, a ragtag movement. That’s all they had, all they were. They started in house churches. They started as an underground railroad.
Then Constantine came along, and they went from an underground movement to the established church. All of a sudden, they went from house churches to basilicas. Now, notice, they started enjoying that. It was right comfortable. Bishops became princes, wore purple. I’m getting in trouble now. Gold rings, big vampire killing crosses.
All of a sudden, what had been an underground movement, if you will, suddenly became an institutional arrangement. Suddenly, churches were crowning emperors, but that didn’t last too long. Reformations came along, and all of a sudden, the institutional arrangements that applied once no longer apply. There was schisms: “Oh, they argued over that Filioque clause. Oh, the Filioque clause.” Such fond memories it brings back. They argued and literally, church split apart, turned asunder and rent itself. No longer the same institution. Then reformations and enlightenments, questioning whether you needed a church anyway, and who was the arbiter of knowledge?
All of a sudden, we were state churches and then became enemies of the very state of which we had been state churches. We had been established and then disestablished. We had been the majority and now, a fragile, small minority.
The church, if it is an institution; you see where I’m going with this? It does not have a future. What I said to those young folk: “if you understand that you are baptized into a movement, a way of life, before Christianity was ever even called church. It was called The Way. All through the Acts of the Apostles, they were people of the way, who followed the way of Jesus, the way of love. That is the way of life, not just for the world, but it is the way of life for the church.”
As long as the church, when we are a movement of people who dare to center our lives on Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings, and his way, and his way of love, when we are that, the gates of hell will not prevail against us. When we are less than that, then we ought to die because we have nothing to give the world.
I believe we ought to have life. The only way to life is the way of unselfish, unconditional love. That is the witness, that is the witness we have to give to our beloved Episcopal Church, to our Anglican Communion, to Christianity throughout the world. Indeed, to people of faith of all stripes and types, the way of love. It really is the way. It’s the way of Jesus. And, when that way is lived, the Church will have life and will have a future, and it may be for us, whether you knew it or not, that the Holy Spirit was putting forth thinking on your mind to become the work of this council in our time. To think, to pray, and to listen to what the Spirit is saying to our church and to find our life.
And so, we may not have easy days ahead of us. We may not, but that’s all right. Our Lord was crucified. Pilate thought he killed him, thought he was down for the count, but on Sunday morning, the brother got up, and that’s who we follow. And, if we follow his way, follow his way of love, then the gates of hell will not prevail against us. Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come. ‘Tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.