Meeting at General Convention in Salt Lake City, the House of Bishops made history twice June 27 when they elected the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, bishop of North Carolina, as the 27th presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.
Curry is the first African American and first person of color to be elected to the post. His election also was the first to require only a single ballot, in which Curry received 121 of the 174 votes cast. Eighty-nine votes were required for an election.
“It really is a blessing and a privilege to serve our Lord and serve our church in this way. I treasure this church,” said Curry when he, his family and members of the North Carolina deputation were presented in the House of Deputies after that body ratified Curry’s election in a similarly lopsided vote of 800 to 12.
“We’ve got a society where there are challenges before us; we know that,” Curry said as deputies welcomed him after the election. “And there are crises all around us. And the church has challenges before us. But we’ve got a God. And there really is a Jesus. And we are part of the Jesus movement. And nothing can stop the movement of God’s love in this world.”
Curry will be installed as presiding bishop on Nov. 1, All Saints Day, in Washington National Cathedral. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s term will conclude that day.
Deputies, bishops celebrate historic election
Immediate reaction from the Diocese of Los Angeles’ deputation and bishops was ecstatic.
“I am thrilled by the overwhelming choice of our House of Bishops, with the consent of the House of Deputies, of our presiding bishop-elect,” said Bishop Suffragan Diane Jardine Bruce. “Many in the diocese are familiar with Bishop Curry from his preaching at our Martin Luther King Jr. service [in 2014] and from his visit with Bishop Bruno to St. Philip’s Church, Los Angeles. Bishop Curry, with his love of Jesus and this church, is a great leader to follow our wonderful current presiding bishop. I am looking forward to working with him in the House of Bishops and in this church.”
“I am absolutely overjoyed for the church,” commented Bishop Suffragan Mary Glasspool, who called Curry a reconciler and healer. “Michael Curry is a Christian of profound spirituality and faith. Everyone knows he’s an excellent preacher, but beyond that he has a gift of incredible joy and exuberance in the love of Jesus Christ, and that is the good news of the Gospel right there. You want to spread the good news after you’ve had contact with Michael. I can’t think of a better gift for the church at this point in time.”
The vote came just after two major decisions by the United States Supreme Court; one denying a challenge to the legality of the Affordable Care Act, and the other confirming the constitutional right to marriage for same-gender couples.
Bishop J. Jon Bruno said he was excited by the events of the week. “We’ve affirmed the means of health care for all people by the Supreme Court, which also affirmed the rights of gay and lesbian people and transgender people to be married,” he said; “not gay marriage, not lesbian marriage, but marriage. And we’ve now elected the first Black presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.”
Referring to the election of Jefferts Schori in 2006, he added, “I am overjoyed that I have been able to vote for the two elections we’ve had — we elected the first woman and the first Black. We elected the best people in both cases.”
“With today’s election we made history, and I think we elected a wonderful presiding bishop,” Bishop Catherine Roskam, bishop-in-charge of St. James’ Church, Los Angeles, and retired bishop suffragan of the Diocese of New York, said after the vote. “Michael Curry has all the gifts that we need in our leader now, at this time. Plus, he’s a great guy! I couldn’t be happier.”
Curry has endeared himself to Episcopalians with his charismatic presence, powerful preaching, humility and devotion to God, Jesus and the ministry of the Episcopal Church — not to mention his willingness to pose for hundreds of selfie photos during the convention. The House of Deputies affirmed his election without debate.
Curry’s entrance into the House of Deputies after the election with his family, the North Carolina deputation, and the current presiding bishop brought a standing ovation and sustained applause and cheers from deputies, bishops and visitors.
“Seeing Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori leading Bishop Michael Curry was a fantastic image,” said Rex Botengen, alternate lay deputy from the Diocese of Los Angeles. “It was an absolutely fantastic image — a vision of the church we’ve always wanted to be,” said Botengen. “We’re not completely there, but it’s very, very close.”
Other L.A. deputies agreed.
“I’m thrilled,” said Jim White, deputation chair and member of All Saints Church, Pasadena, as he recalled the events of the week. “The day before yesterday, we got Obamacare from the Supreme Court; yesterday we got marriage equality; and today we got Michael Curry. So good things come in threes!”
Clergy Deputy Lester Mackenzie, assistant at St. Matthew’s Church, Pacific Palisades, and chaplain to the House of Deputies, brought an international and intensely personal perspective to the election.
“I feel emotionally overwhelmed because this moment reminds me of my own family history,” said Mackenzie, who was born and reared in apartheid-era South Africa. “I had the gift of witnessing and being around as a kid when Desmond Tutu was elected as archbishop. My own grandfather was his bishop suffragan, and now I’m sitting on the floor of the House of Deputies at the election of the first African-American presiding bishop.
“And so I’m excited to take his challenge, to be a ‘crazy Christian’ for Jesus,” added Mackenzie, referring to Curry’s book Crazy Christians: A Call to Follow Jesus. “I’m excited because together we will go into the world and take that message together — especially in a time when the world is in pain, a time when the world is crying out for love. I like that.”
“I’m really happy that we made the right decision,” said Kathryn Nishibayashi, who is a two-time deputy and the youngest member of the Los Angeles deputation. “We have one historic PB finishing a term, and another one about to start, and I can’t wait to see what happens.”
First-time clergy deputy Melissa McCarthy seconded Nishibayashi’s words, adding, “It’s awesome in the true sense of the word — awe-inspiring. I love that [Curry] talks about Jesus.”
“I really am just thrilled by this process and feel honored to be a part of it,” said Michael Bamberger, clergy deputy and rector of Church of the Ascension, Sierra Madre. “I’m also just very excited for our church — to have an evangelist, a pastor, a preacher, someone who cares deeply for the love of God and for God’s people — it’s just wonderful.
Church leaders express high hopes
“This is a historic day for the Episcopal Church, and I think we can move forward with our mission and ministry under this new dynamic leadership,” said Barbara Harris, first woman to be elected a bishop in the Anglican Communion.
“I never thought I’d live to see the day that Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected presiding bishop, and I never thought I’d live to see the election that this day brought — and on the first ballot at that,” said Harris, who also is African American.
Michael Moore, deputy from East Tennessee, said that he believed Curry’s election had little to do with his race. “He got elected because he is an evangelist, because of his sincerity, his spirituality and bringing people together,” he said. “Through him we can send a message to the world and to my daughter, who’s become cynical about the church. He can bring us all together, not just black people who’ve left, but he can also give white people hope.”
People of the Diocese of North Carolina, which Curry leads, especially felt the moment. “It is a bittersweet day for those of us in North Carolina,” said Lisa Fischbeck, vicar of the Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill. “We are excited that the whole church will now experience the passion, commitment and leadership of Bishop Curry as we have known it for the past 15 years. But we certainly feel a sadness, too. Personally, I will really miss him as my bishop, but I am really excited that he will be our presiding bishop, especially at this time in the history of our church and the world.”
Renowned preacher, social conscience
Born in Chicago on March 13, 1953, Curry attended public schools in Buffalo, New York, and earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1975 from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, in Geneva, New York, and a master of divinity degree in 1978 from the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. He has also studied at the College of Preachers, Princeton Theological Seminary, Wake Forest University, the Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary’s Seminary, and the Institute of Christian Jewish Studies.
He was ordained to the diaconate in June 1978 in Buffalo and to the priesthood in December 1978 at St. Stephen’s Church, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He began his ministry as deacon-in-charge at St. Stephen’s, and was rector there 1979-1982. He next accepted a call to serve as rector of St. Simon of Cyrene Church, Lincoln Heights, Ohio. In 1988 he became rector of St. James’ Church, Baltimore, Maryland, where he served until his election as bishop.
In his three parish ministries, Curry helped establish ecumenical summer day camps for children and networks of family day care providers and educational centers, and helped broker millions of dollars of investment in inner city neighborhoods. He also sat on the commission on ministry in each of the three dioceses in which he has served.
As bishop of North Carolina, Curry instituted a network of canons, deacons and youth ministry professionals dedicated to supporting existing ministries in local congregations and refocused the diocese on the Millennium Development Goals through a $400,000 campaign to buy malaria nets that saved thousands of lives.
Throughout his ministry, Curry has also been active in issues of social justice, speaking out on immigration policy and marriage equality.
He serves on the boards of many organizations and has a national preaching and teaching ministry. He has been featured on The Protestant Hour and North Carolina Public Radio’s The State of Things, as well as on The Huffington Post. He is a frequent speaker at conferences around the country. He has received honorary degrees from Sewanee, Virginia Theological Seminary, Yale, and Episcopal Divinity School. He served on the Taskforce for Re-imagining the Episcopal Church and recently was named chair of Episcopal Relief & Development’s board of directors.
His book of sermons, Crazy Christians, came out in August 2013.
Curry and his wife, Sharon, have two adult daughters, Rachel and Elizabeth.
— This article was updated Aug. 27 with additional church leader reactions and biographical information drawn from Episcopal News Service reports. For more about Bishop Curry, as well as a video of his sermon at the closing Eucharist of convention, visit ENS.