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?