The Bishop from Chicago? Racism and the media coverage of our Presiding Bishop

When Kensington palace first announced that the Most Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop and primate of The Episcopal Church, was to give the homily at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, something strange started happening. Television anchors, newspapers, across the media started talking about a “Bishop from Chicago.” At first this seemed like a simple mistake. Our society is less and less religiously literate. The media, with some notable exceptions, no longer seems to care about doing in-depth research about a particular leader’s denomination or history. But as the stories continued to come out, and as the stories became more glowing after Bishop Curry’s phenomenal sermon, the identity of “bishop of Chicago” seemed almost impossible to shake.

This unshakeable mis-reporting about a “Bishop from Chicago” leaves me wondering, is the reporting innacurate because of a subtle form of racism? Is it easy to see a black American clergy person and think: “Oh, he must be a ‘bishop’ of some small black Pentecostal congregation in South Chicago?” I am not accusing the media of overt racism. I am not saying there would be anything wrong with a small denomination’s bishop being invited to preach at a prominent service.

I am wondering if racism is playing a subtle covert role in masking the identity of the Presiding Bishop. One of the persistent, subtle, and pernicious powers of racism, of all forms of discrimination, is erasure. We see a “black preacher” or a “gay designer,” or a “Latina actor,” and we make a set of assumptions about where a person works, about their context and their audience. We don’t do more research. We don’t ask questions about the nature of the institutions they lead.

The media stories, even the Saturday Night live impersonation, shared something in common: a consistent ignorance about the newly celebrated preacher. In an interview on the Today Show, Presiding Bishop Curry had to explain that “Episcopalians aren’t known for being loud and raucous” when he was asked what it was like to preach to a congregation with royals who stayed quite, and didn’t respond with a loud “Amen!”

The engagement around our presiding bishop seems ignorant, in a literal sense. Very few reporters have made use of an Episcopal Church press release with a description of the denomination. Very few stories have even made note that Michael Curry is the first African American to head The Episcopal Church, one of the most historic churches in America. The stories do not understand the Presiding Bishop’s Role as an equal to the Archbishop of Canterbury. That lack of reporting stands in contrast to media engagement around the last Presiding Bishop.

Almost every time Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the 26th Presiding Bishop, was interviewed or written about, at least part of the story centered around her gender and her role as one of the most powerful women in Christianity. She was celebrated in the press for being the first woman to lead such a prominent denomination, and stories often featured photos from her investiture in the National Cathedral. The impressive architecture around her helped to paint a picture.

In the interviews following the royal wedding, you could easily imagine a reporter asking: “what was it like for you, a simple Chicago bishop, to preach in such a fancy church?” I haven’t heard that question exactly, but the tone is there. Bishop Michael Curry is a humble leader. He is not likely to trumpet his own accomplishments, or to point out that some of our buildings rival the chapel at Windsor palace. The Presiding Bishop is more concerned that the reporters and the audience hear about the love of God made manifest in Christ Jesus.

Episcopalians knew, when he was elected, that the first black person to hold the role of Presiding Bishop would challenge an institution with a history and present reality of racism. His very presence means that we must tell difficult stories, and question subtle ongoing assumptions. The first black presiding bishop is a blessing and a challenge to our church. We have internal work to do. But this week has raised another question: Can we do our work of reconciliation publicly, for the sake of the world? At this moment as a central part of our church’s mission, can we embrace a call to challenge the persistent and often hidden power of racism?

 

15 thoughts on “The Bishop from Chicago? Racism and the media coverage of our Presiding Bishop

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  1. This is disgraceful! And it needs to be spread around. Can anyone else help I’m going to try to post it on Facebook. Or a link to this place. Hope it spreads.

  2. I have not heard one word of him being the presiding Bishop of North Carolina prior to becoming the Presiding Bishop of the United States. During this time he lived in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is an humble man, a man of God, and yes, he is a joyful man who has led the “Jesus Movement” teaching the most important lesson in our Episcopal Church and also in every other Christian church…love. It’s so plain and simple yet so powerful. Three billion people heard his sermon and if it touched even one heart…here we are…the Episcopal Church in America and we welcome you all.

  3. Thank you for this good piece. I have thought likewise, a bit. On the SNL posting of the skit, I pointed out that Curry has plenty of experience speaking to a sea of white faces. A couple of our cathedrals are indeed larger and more impressive than St. George’s chapel. The thing about the racism, of course, is that it is always there. It’s worth taking note and pointing it out, but it’s not like correcting these little things would take away the racism–the problem is much deeper and the solution is deeper and more long term. We mostly only notice when the varnish wears off a little. There’s much hard work ahead.

    Curry handles this with extremely good grace and confidence. I like to point out that he is a typical Episcopalian. It is not in perfection or heroism that he is a leader, but in living confidently in God’s grace as one of God’s beloved children.

  4. The “from Chicago” bit comes straight from the initial announcement from the Royal Family, The palace’s typical brevity and the press’s ignorance of the Episcopal church and the PB is no small part of the problem. Of course we might wonder why they bothered to say where he is from. Do they normally give the birthplace of the ABC? Although in fairness the fact that the PB lacks a see of his own is confusing to many non-US Anglicans. https://www.royal.uk/most-reverend-michael-bruce-curry-give-address-prince-harry-and-ms-meghan-markles-wedding

    1. I’m with David on this: The source is the original Palace and COE announcement. Introducing someone with their birthplace may be an English thing but is not American English and it was taken to mean in the present and not past tense by those “lazy reporters” who had little or no knowledge of most organized churches. I sent out several emails commiserating with the Episcopalians of Buffalo NY where he grew up and served early on.

  5. Some journalists are incompetent and, worse, lazy. Someone mistakenly wrote Chicago and everyone else picked up on it without fact-checking. It’s not racist; these errors happen frequently.

  6. I have read quite a few news articles on Bp Curry’s sermon, and not one referred to him as “a bishop from Chicago.” Indeed, they all noted that he was the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the first Black to hold that office, and the former Bishop of North Carolina.

  7. BARBARA ZUCK SPRIGGS

    Like many others listening to the Bishop, I heard his message of “love” loud and clear. He spoke with such clarity and directness, he brought tears to my eyes.

    Where he us from is of far, far less importance. This message is what I took away from his Homily.

    I do wish more Americans and even Episcopaleans knew the historic importance of our church in America.
    It was the church of many of the Founding Fathers.

    If there is racism in the erroneous description of his title, I agree with whomever said it was an error once made that was passed on and on. A great deal of good journalism has gone the way of the daily newspaper – swept up by the tide of “talking heads” on television.

    The racism that infects America, however, is an “error” that must be corrected. It is eating away at the foundation of our country.

  8. I’m struck by the line “a blessing and a challenge”. I think that real blessings are not things that make our lives easier, but push us to be better. Clearly, as you wrote above, we have plenty of opportunity to grow and become better now. Thanks be to God.

  9. I’ve always thought the Episcopal Church’s naming of dioceses was a bit odd – it often uses states or parts of states rather than cities.

    In following up on the post here I notice for the first time that, unlike in the Scottish Episcopal Church of which I was once a member, the Presiding Bishop (Primus in Scotland) of TEC no longer has any assigned diocese at all.

    I wonder if there are any other cases where this is practice.

    In this case Bishop Michael does not seem to be a bishop “of” anywhere. He was Bishop of North Carolina, but no longer.

    That makes labelling him correctly quite hard, and I seriously do not think journalists can be expected to include a history of TEC in news reports.

    1. Paul—Yes and no. The Episcopal Church at its founding was deeply interested in being “American.” All of its original dioceses were named for states instead of cities for that very reason. Our term Presiding Bishop comes from the more radical aspect of our origin: That our polity would be democratic—elect bishops and share governance with representatives of the clergy and laity; “Archbishop” smacked of appointment and royalty. Remember most of our tory clergy left for Canada or back to England; except for Connecticut, most of those who remained were supporters of independence.
      If the CofE’s press office could get over this, they would have put his
      title, office, and former see in the first sentence of their original announcement ( See my reply to David Bains )

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