News broke late last week that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have invited The Most Rev. Michael Curry, 27th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, to preach at their wedding. The ceremony will be broadcast across the globe early Saturday morning. Episcopalians are notably excited, looking forward to hearing the preacher who calls himself leader of our “branch of the Jesus movement” on the international stage. This is an important moment for the church, and it merits some reflection. What does this invitation mean for our identity?
I do not have inside knowledge how this invitation came about, but I have a suspicion that the idea for the invite originated with the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. My guess is that the couple were discussing how best to represent Ms. Markle’s cultural heritage, her roots in the African America community. The idea to have a vibrant black preacher might have been discussed, with caution that they didn’t want someone who might say something sexist or disparaging of the LGBTQ+ community. The Archbishop knew just the person for the job, a black US preacher he could trust to preach a profound gospel-centered sermon.
The 2015 choice of Bishop Curry, our first African-American presiding bishop was prophetic. As a nation, and as a church, we are grappling with the history and current reality of systemic racism. The Convention met as protests continued in Ferguson Missouri and around the country. Signs proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” were displayed around the General Convention halls. In 2015, one of The Episcopal Church’s best preachers, and most respected bishops, was eligible for election. Bishop Curry made history for more than being the first black presiding bishop, he was also the first person elected to the office after just one ballot. It was time.
But this Saturday’s invitation brings an important nuance to the question for Episcopalians. Yes, it was important for the internal life of the church that we elected bishop Michael as presiding bishop. It matters for Episcopalians that a black leader stands in our principle pulpits, and presides over the church. But it matters beyond the walls of our churches as well. We might be surprised how much it matters. In fact, I would argue, Bishop Curry’s message might mean more for those outside our walls.
Our world is hungry for good news. So many have been disenchanted, even abused, at the hands of the wider Christian church. Christian denominations and congregations writ large have proved unwilling or incapable of engaging questions of racism, sexism, and homophobia. On Saturday, the world will have the chance to hear from the Episcopal Church, and we will be represented by a man who consistently preaches the gospel with power and generosity. You can bet that the bishop will pivot from simply talking about a prince and an actress and their love. Bishop Michael is going to talk about Jesus, is going to invite the world to join Jesus’ movement.
On Sunday Episcopalians might see a few new faces in church. We might, but Bishop Curry’s sermon is more than free advertising for our brand. The invitation could be an indication of what Brian McLaren called “The Episcopal Moment.“ As a denomination, the evangelical leader argued, Episcopalians are well placed to represent a generous and loving vision of Christianity to a world hungry for such a presentation of the Gospel.
My first job after seminary was across the street from the White House. St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square, is known informally as the “church of the presidents” since every US president since James Madison has attended services there. My tenure first as seminarian, then assistant rector spanned the first and second Obama administrations. St. John’s has always been a pretty unique place to do ministry, but at this moment in the life of the church and the life of a particular president.
As we were preparing in Washington for President Obama’s second inauguration, I got a phone call. Joshua Dubois, in the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood partnerships, the president’s lead faith advisor, needed a favor. The pastor who had been asked to deliver the benediction had to withdraw after homophobic remarks he made were publicized in the lead up to the event. The White House was calling to ask whether my boss, the Rev. Dr. Luis Leon could offer the prayer in his place. Joshua said to me, “The president trusts Rev. Leon.” I quickly handed over Luis’ phone numbers. We were Obama’s neighborhood church, and the president knew we had a history of inclusion and work against discrimination.
On Saturday, Bishop Curry will, I am sure, represent us well, just as Luis did back in 2013 at the inauguration. I don’t imagine the sermon will be reported as much as Ms. Markle’s dress or their decisions about food and flowers. But the invitation itself matters, because it comes from someone eager to hear the Gospel at one of life’s most important moments.
The Episcopal Church, alongside a few specific ecumenical partners, is importantly positioned. As more and more of the faithful opt out of bigoted, sexist, and homophobic versions of Christianity, as more young people choose not to engage faith for that reason we have made prophetic choices to challenge a history of discrimination. Evangelical bloggers often say that The Episcopal Church’s decline in attendance comes from choosing to “side with culture instead of the gospel.” I thoroughly disagree. Rather, I believe our decision to stand for inclusion means we are poised to preach the Gospel, to talk about the love of Jesus, the power of resurrection, the truth of salvation. For a generation that hopes for new relationships around race and gender, in a time where homophobia has become unacceptable, we have proven ourselves trustworthy.
We have important work ahead of us. In many towns and cities, we are not currently well positioned to welcome folks into worship and to form souls for Christ. Too many of our institutional life is focused on caring for aging buildings and dwindling congregations. If folks looking for Jesus come to visit and hear more about a leaky roof or a divided vestry than about the Good news of God in Christ, then we have let our institutional worries trump the Gospel. We need to get back into the business of planting worshipping communities, of building up new bodies of believers. We might need to sacrifice a few historic buildings to fund the work. The new life will be worth the sacrifice.
Our world is hungry for the Gospel and weary of a church that preaches discrimination. While not every invitation will be as public as a royal wedding, how can Episcopalians live and preach the Gospel at this moment? How can we show up on our street corners, board rooms, college campuses, and neighborhood meetings? Will we tell the world of the love of Jesus? We might be surprised by the hunger, and the eagerness to hear from a church body that is consciously working against discrimination. We might be surprised by the people who want to join in the Jesus Movement.