In April, Washington University in St. Louis welcomed to campus the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. Bishop Curry delivered a public lecture, entitled “Healing a House Divided.” The John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, which publishes this journal, sponsored the event.
Bishop Curry was elected to be the 27th presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church in 2015, becoming the first African American leader of the denomination. Before his installation, he served as bishop of the diocese of North Carolina for 15 years, and previously he served as a pastor in North Carolina, Ohio, and Maryland. Known for his emphasis on social justice and evangelism, he now leads the 1.9 million members of the Episcopal Church, part of the Anglican Communion of nearly 85 million members around the world.
During his visit, Bishop Curry sat down to talk with Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, editor of Religion & Politics, and the John C. Danforth Distinguished Professor in the Humanities. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
R&P: We’re obviously living in very divided times, and you’ve titled your lecture “Healing a House Divided.” What do you see as the source or the sources of the divisions that we see today, and how can they be healed?
MC: On some level, the deeper root of the divisions probably does have its origins in—dare I say it—sin. That is, if you think of sin in terms of the kind of hubris and prideful self-will, where I am the center of the universe and everything else is peripheral to me. That self-centered world could be me, my tribe, my religion, my class, my group, my party, my ideology, my family, me me, me, me, me. If I am the center of the universe, then everything else and everybody else, including the creation itself, are on the periphery. Now that’s a starting point. If that becomes the key by which everybody lives, then you have no formula for social cohesion. You have no way of having community.
And so, on one level, that’s probably the deeper root—that human proclivity to make the self the center of the universe and the danger of that is excluding everybody else. But then if you go even further, if you look at American society and American culture, we have and we’ve always struggled with this. This is a human thing, and it’s been part of our history.
I don’t know that I remember a whole lot about what Paul Tillich said, but the one thing I do remember is, in one of his sermons, he said the essence of sin is separation. When you really look at what the fruit of it is, it’s the separation from God and from each other. I think that now, the polarization that we are seeing and experiencing is the result of that separation and fragmentation, where everybody is in their own tribe and their group and so we live in communities of people who think like us, and as a result, we reinforce each other in our own particular biases and prejudices.
When that happens you get balkanization, you get polarization, and you get the undoing of the social contract itself, and the undoing of society in the long run. That is the formula for democracy failing, in the long run. I think we’re seeing the early stages of that. I think that’s the trajectory of what we’ve got going.
Healing requires a balm in Gilead. We have got to find a balm in Gilead that begins to heal that. That doesn’t mean we all agree, but that begins to move us beyond our differences to where we actually have commonality. And when we move there, we actually find a way to work through differences and come up with creative possibilities.
R&P: How can we find that commonality? Where do you see the balm in Gilead? Where can that come from?
MC: I’m not an expert in this. I’m just coming at this as somebody who’s been living through it like everybody else. I come at this as a follower of Jesus, as a Christian. I think our faith traditions point us in a direction, and while the word love is overworked, at least in the New Testament sense, when you look at Jesus of Nazareth, you find a formula for binding up the wounds of the broken. You find a formula for overcoming differences in the way he acts, in his life.
You look at a life that is not self-centered but other-directed. That’s the agapic love that goes through the cross, not for himself, but for the good of others. That I think is a key to actually healing the breaches and finding a way forward.
Now you ask yourself, what does that look like? Practically, what does it look like? Two things. One is real relationships. Real human relationships. And the other is actually searching for and finding where we share common values and principles and ideals.
People have got to know each other as human beings who got a story. When that begins to happen among people, most of the time—not all the time—but most of the time, that relationship becomes the basis for navigating all sorts of stuff. It’s like a marriage. I was a parish priest for years. Every couple I’ve ever counseled, whether they listened to it or not, I have no idea, but if that relationship is reasonably solid, you all can argue and fuss about all sorts of stuff. You’re going to disagree. You know, wherever there are two there, there’s going to be a third opinion. That’s human nature; that’s just a given. But if the relationship is nurtured and cared for, then you can navigate differences. You may not agree all the time, but you can navigate them. Where there is no relationship, it doesn’t take much to make the whole thing fly apart: It’s true in marriage, it’s true in communities, it’s true in nations.
Where are there commonalities? Where do we actually share some values and some convictions? There’s a lot more that we share than where we differ. If we start there and name that and really claim that space and then begin to engage in matters of public policy and public issues coming from that space, I think we will find in our public discourse, we actually will be able to navigate and come up with creative possibilities.
I really believe that the center of any culture, or any group, or even a country, is more sensible than we give it credit for. But you don’t notice it because it’s quiet. It’s not the loud side of the equation, to make all sorts of metaphors there. I was a bishop of an Episcopal diocese for years, and we would engage in congregations where there were issues, and the trick was not to be deceived by the loudest voices in the room. You had to find the center, and that center was bigger than the loud voices, but it wasn’t loud. If you could help that center to rise up, you usually found the health in the community. I think that’s true as a country.
R&P: This gets us into a specific issue. The Episcopal Church now supports LGBT rights, even at the risk of schism, which we have seen within the Anglican Communion. Do you see a way forward for the global church on LGBT issues, and how does that happen?
MC: I’ve said it publicly in a variety of contexts, that as a church, as the Episcopal Church, we really have wrestled with how do we take seriously what Jesus was talking about. He was quoting the prophets, but when he said “my house will be called a house of prayer for all people,” and part of that quote is from Isaiah 56, it’s there in that vision of the temple where there are no outcasts in the temple. Remember that Jesus is pointing back to the eunuch, the foreigner, categories of people who, by part of the law, were excluded from worship in the temple, but are now included. My house should be called a house of prayer for all people.
And so how do we live that? How do we live that house of prayer for all people? Or to take it another step, how do we, as a community, take seriously when St. Paul in Galatians says all who have been baptized into Christ, and put on Christ, and there is no more Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but all are one in Christ—how do we live into that? And so as I’ve said on other occasions, part of how we’ve lived into that is by recognizing in our community all who have been baptized, whether they’re gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, rich, poor, Republican, Democrat—you know, just roll out the list.
But part of living that out means that we must live in communion and community and relationship with people who agree with that, and people who disagree with how we live that out. When I was bishop of North Carolina, I used to say that a real welcome of all people reflects the welcome of Jesus. That means that our welcome must embrace those who agree and those who disagree. And that’s not easy.
And so my hope for our Anglican Communion is that, we may not all agree, we’re all in different cultural contexts, but that principle, which Jesus clearly undergirded and supported from the prophets, also will allow us for the American or the Episcopal Church to have one way of doing that and a church in another culture might have another way of doing that. And that’s how you actually create space for all of us.
I’m an optimist, but not because I’m optimistic about me or us. I’m an optimist because I believe there’s a God, and God has been sorting human messes out for a long time. And God’s going to sort our contemporary human messes out, too.
R&P: Doubtless the Episcopal Church is home to supporters of Donald Trump as well as very strong opponents to the president. How does the church minister to both sides, often in the same congregation? How do you as the leader of this national church, in a deeply divided moment, minster to people of faith on both sides?
MC: I do think that some of it is pastoral, and some of it is taking seriously the teaching role of the church again. One of the things I learned as a parish pastor was that those relationships affected everything else. People could disagree with you, but if they knew you loved them and cared for them and vice versa and were in relationship with them, they might disagree with you and they might put some grey hair on you too, but it didn’t cause schism, you see what I mean? That pastoral relationship impacted everything else. If that wasn’t there, it doesn’t matter how right or wrong you were. You could be prophetic all day, but if you don’t have a pastoral relationship, it doesn’t matter. I mean that’s pastoring 101, it really is.
I think that the second piece is related to that, and it has to do with the teaching and vocation of the church. I think one of our real opportunities now will be to help—and I’m just talking about people in the church right now for the moment—to help our folk engage the deeper values, principles, and ideals that are at the core of the Gospel, the teachings of Jesus. You know there’s some stuff we don’t understand, but we understand a whole lot more than we don’t. There’s a whole lot that’s clearer in the Bible than is unclear, so let’s do what we know, what is clear. And if we start there, and then engage matters of morality and public policy with some clarity about the principles and values we’re seeking to uphold or live into, understanding that how we work out the specifics may not be the same for everybody, and that’s ok. If we’re working form common principles and common values, and learn from the teachings of Jesus, we’ll be able to navigate that.
When I was bishop in North Carolina, our state legislature made some decisions on some actions that were highly problematic. There was a whole Moral Monday movement that got going, and I was supportive of that, but that doesn’t mean that every Episcopalian was supportive of that. We were able to navigate that because I consistently said to our folk, when it comes to healthcare, Medicaid, when it comes to unemployment insurance, when it comes to just basic human rights and decency, we’re not talking about extreme stuff. Let’s start with the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Let’s start with Matthew 25: As you did it to the least of these, do it to me. Let’s start with love of God and love of neighbor. Let’s just take those. There’s clarity about that. So we start there. Then apply them.
Now, you might come up with a different way of applying them than I do, but let’s make sure that’s the starting point. I did say any matter of public policy has to pass the golden rule test. Do unto others. Is this a piece of legislation that I would want the results to affect my children, or my grandchildren, or my family, or me? If it’s not, then how could you do it? You got to find a better way. It wasn’t my job to always say what that better way was, but to say to our legislatures and others, you got to work together to figure out what is that better way that passes that golden rule test.
R&P: The church has made racial recognition a priority. What does that process mean moving forward?
MC: In terms of the racial reconciliation work, I really do think the Holy Spirit was working with us, because there had been a long history of work in the Episcopal Church, both church-wide and in local communities. We’ve got a long history of that, and we haven’t always gotten it right, but there’s been a long history of engagement, of at least trying. I think this go-round, what really triggered it, in a deepened way, was the murders of the folk in Charleston. That happened within the week of the General Convention.
I think that was a part of a crystallization that something is deeply and profoundly wrong. It is kind of like the Pauline thing of realizing that, of course you need law, but you got to go deeper, you got to get to the heart.
R&P: You talk a lot about the spirit and about spiritual renewal, and you’ve declared that you take discipleship and evangelism very seriously. That’s language that people don’t always associate with the leaders of liberal mainline churches. Reflect on your use of that language, what that means and, and how that’s being received.
MC: When I was in seminary, back in the ‘70s, there was that old discussion of the appropriation of the language of the tradition. Do you reclaim the language of tradition? Or do you find new language—that gets at what the tradition was talking about, but hasn’t gotten so enculturated and confused by the culture that nobody knows what it means anymore?
I think some of those words actually have a lot of power and depth and gravitas to them. But they may have to be reclaimed. For example, the word evangelism. I really do believe in evangelism, and I believe in the kind of evangelism that I think I see in Jesus. And I could be wrong. I don’t think I am, but I could be. The kind of evangelism that I see in Jesus, is Jesus actually helps people back into a loving, liberating, and life-giving relationship with God. And, in turn, a loving, liberating, and life-giving relationship with other people. He actually does that. That’s what he does. I think our job of evangelism is to help people find their way into that kind of relationship with God and with each other.
That’s not about making the Episcopal Church bigger. Although I suspect you can get blessed from that, that’s not the motivation, or the intention, or the direction. The direction is help folk find that life-giving, loving, liberating relationship with God and with each other. And then, you’ve got to do that in a community of some sort. What community is that? That may depend on how you and Jesus and the spirit work that out.
To be a disciple is to dare to live in what that question is trying to get at: How is the living Jesus of Nazareth, the living Christ, present in this, and where is he going? And how do we follow where he is going? And that is a game changer.
My faith tradition, everything I said to you earlier really has grown out of my experience, both as a person living in this culture, but also in trying to listen to Jesus and what he says. That’s a disciple, that’s what discipleship is, to actually try to learn, and then live into it.
People who try to do that, they don’t get it right all the time. But they start hospitals and food banks, and they stumble their way into human rights, and ways of protecting the environment and the creation of God, and they find themselves speaking for others and with others for whom nobody else would speak. They march to the beat of a different drummer. And those are the people who change worlds. Which is what discipleship is about, in the end.