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In autumn 2019 I had the privilege of hearing the Episcopal Bishop of the United States, the Most Revd Michael Curry, discuss his thoughts on current issues at St Paul's Cathedral in London. As 2020 dawns I would like to share his very timely views on what our societies face in coming years.
Despite a long and grueling multiple-biopsy session at the Royal Marsden Hospital followed by an exhausting Reiki treatment, I was determined to make my way on a cold fall evening from North London to the other side of town, where the Most Revd Michael Curry, presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States, was delivering a special sermon for Londoners at St Paul’s Cathedral. I had put the date in my diary months before and despite feeling drained stood in the enormous queue and was lucky enough to be seated in the front row by a verger who saw how feeble I looked!
Considering the negative feedback about Bishop Curry of which I had been at the receiving end for a good year and a half since the May 2018 wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, where he had delivered what I thought was a breathtaking address, I was pleased to see the massive crowd filling the cathedral. Needless to say, at the royal wedding some members of the royal family did not hide their irritation and amusement; subsequently some of my circle expressed horror at the length and passion of his homily. For me it was an experience that resonated with my childhood in Philadelphia; though raised in the Jewish faith, I sang in a gospel choir and often visited friends’ churches. Here was a chance to see and hear the great man himself.
Chaired by Paula Gooder, Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, the evening with Bishop Curry was an exploration of ‘Where Love is the Way: the Jesus Movement Now’ but became an absorbing retrospective of his journey as an African-American through some of the nation’s most turbulent and disturbing times.
The Bishop described his early years as a parish pastor from 1978 to 2000 dealing with urban and rural communities’ struggles with crack cocaine, AIDS, and the perpetual violence of drive-by shootings. ‘I buried a lot of young men,’ he said, noting that mere boys were pallbearers for their slain friends. At one funeral of a nineteen-year-old, one of the pallbearers said to the coffin ‘Wayne, we’ll see you real soon.’ These young people, he told us, saw no future for themselves.
Bishop Curry took us back to the days of the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and ‘60s, an era I am old enough to remember; the imagery he produced in his speech was as clear to me as if it had unfolded yesterday – the fire hoses turned on anti-segregation demonstrators in the South and the ruthless suppression by Birmingham, Alabama police chief Bull Connor. Bombings of black churches by white supremacists gave the city the name ‘Bombingham.’ Bishop Curry then took us to the present day, urging us to recognize that the August, 2017 white racist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia represented an upsurge in the bigotry that pervaded the South in the ‘50s and ‘60s. He stressed that the violent confrontations of that day that resulted in the death of an anti-racist demonstrator also contained a high level of anti-Semitic rhetoric and that the event was an offshoot of a general rise in homophobia and bigotry in the United States in recent years.
Mentioning President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, Bishop Curry lamented the fact that despite great strides in race relations, events like Charlottesville meant, in Theodore Roosevelt’s words, 'Nothing worth doing is easy' - stopping the hate that is creeping back into American life will be a struggle. In this context he looked back at less than admirable chapters in American history, citing the internment of Japanese-American citizens after the attack on Pearl Harbor as a grievous mistake by President Franklin Roosevelt. Moving back even further in history he reminded the audience that his name was the product of slavery – with # a broad smile and the good humor that is a trademark of his delivery, he informed us that his ancestors’ slave-owners were British and Irish Currys.
He said that in the 1980s when crack and AIDS dominated the life of his parishes, the church created programs that saved the lives of young people and that they are productive citizens today because of this. ‘If we save our children, they may save us,’ he said. The tragic violence that has characterized life amongst youth in American cities in the past decade – and indeed in Britain – needs to be addressed, and the church can do that with some very hard work and dedication. Sadly, he continued, in recent years when a substantial number of young people have been asked ‘What does “Christian” mean to you?’ their response is ‘Bigotry, homophobia and racism’.
It is necessary, he continued, that if we work together in the church we can learn to love each other; who is God to say LGBTQ people are to be spurned? All who are baptized are equal in the church.
Not having been raised in a Christian home I found it fascinating to hear Bishop Curry explain the evolution of early Christianity: that had it not been for Paul, the Jesus movement would not have flourished and the early faith would have died out. Peter felt ‘gentiles,’ not just Jews, could become Christian, but the Jerusalem Church said one had to become Jewish to become a Christian: one must learn the tradition of Israel and men had to be circumcised. Paul asserted that becoming a Christian meant ‘circumcision of the heart, not physical circumcision.’
In light of the many troubles in America today enumerated in his speech, it should be noted that the motto of the Jesus Movement is 'Jesus came to earth to start a movement not to found a religion, and the Jesus Movement has the power to turn the world upside down.' Asked what Jesus meant to him, Bishop Curry ended the evening with ‘He pulls me out of myself – he makes me a better me – he is my Lord, he is my friend. He’s ours.’
I did not feel at all that I had been evangelized or preached at; I was delighted that the enormous British crowd that had turned out to fill this vast cathedral on this cold, wet night had given him such a warm reception, rounded out by an ovation. I was proud to be in the company of this eloquent and very special fellow American.
May he be blessed as 2020 dawns.
Carol Gould is a Philadelphia-born BBC broadcaster and drama producer in London. She is the author of Spitfire Girls and Don’t Tread on me – anti-Americanism Abroad.