Q&A: Presiding Bishop shares stories from his life and ministry in new book on Christian love

By David Paulsen
Posted Sep 22, 2020

[Episcopal News Service] Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s latest book, “Love Is the Way,” was released on Sept. 22, and like his 2018 book, “The Power of Love,” it emphasizes Christian teachings, particularly Jesus’ command to love one’s neighbor, as a powerful force for unity and healing in a troubled world.

Whereas the earlier book was a collection of notable sermons, including the one Curry preached at the royal wedding in May 2018, “Love Is the Way” takes a more autobiographical approach to the lessons of his faith. Curry illustrates core Christian beliefs and applies them to today’s social context by mining personal stories, from his early childhood in Buffalo, New York, to his work as a parish priest in Baltimore, Maryland, to his time as bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina.

Curry, who was elected presiding bishop in 2015, also describes key moments in recent church history, including the internal debate over same-sex marriage, the church’s values-based political advocacy and its support of the Standing Rock Sioux in their opposition to an oil pipeline in North Dakota.

“The purpose of this book is to explain what the way of love looks like, even as we walk it in a world that feels at times closer to a nightmare than to the dream,” he says in the introduction.

Curry spoke with Episcopal News Service by phone from his home in North Carolina, where he now spends much of his time, since his normally dizzying travel schedule has been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and length.

ENS: Your previous two books have been on the theme of Christian love, but this new book is quite a bit different than the last. Why did you write this book and why now?

Curry: This book really came out of a number of people saying, “You know, this love message is a consistent message; it’s something you’re constantly talking about,” and somebody put it this way: “Where does that come from, for you?” I wasn’t speaking of love in the abstract. I wasn’t speaking of it as a theoretical construct. I was speaking of it based on my actual experience of people who have taught me about love, shown me how to love and who loved me.

And that ranged from the love of my family, going through the trauma of my mother’s death. I also saw it in people who helped me to see stuff as I went along, kind of the educational journey that we all go through. I saw it when we were at Standing Rock. I saw it in our church’s struggle for true equality, baptismal equality, and actually applying what Paul says in Galatians 3 about baptism. We are all equal at the baptismal font, we must all be equal at the holy table, we must all be equal in all of the sacramental rites of the church, which includes marriage.

I’m here to say there is power in the kind of love that is unselfish, even sacrificial, that seeks the good and the well-being of others as well as the self – enormous untapped power in that kind of love that can help both to give us hope in troubling times and to help us find our way and navigate our way through.

ENS: There’s a passage in which you note that church is the only society that doesn’t exist for the good of its members.

Curry: Yeah, that was a [Archbishop of Canterbury] William Temple quote.

ENS: How do you see the role of the church, both for its members and looking outward?

Curry: Well, again, Jesus said the supreme law is the law of love. He was very clear about that, Matthew 22. There can be no debate about that. The New Testament was absolutely clear about that: to love God and love the neighbor, that is what the will of God calls for.

What is love? The love most frequently talked about in the New Testament is “agape” love, which is a kind of love that is not selfish. It actually seeks the good and well-being of others as well as the self, but it’s not a selfish kind of love. It’s giving, not always taking. If that is the case, and we who are the church are a Jesus movement of people who have committed their lives to the way and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, then love must be the dominant chord of the music, of the life of we who are the church. That means that we by definition are a community of people who are bidden to love, to live for the good and the well-being, not of the institutional church, not of ourselves, but for the world for which Christ died.

ENS: You also say at one point that we live in a world of selfishness.

Curry: And it’s not working out very well for us.

ENS: Some chapters in the book apply that love to the public sphere and politics. In reaction to the church’s advocacy, some people say that it’s not the church’s business getting involved. How would you respond?

Curry: You know, last week, when I preached at the House of Bishops meeting about the role of the church in the time of an election, one of the things I said then is the church must always maintain partisan neutrality. We don’t tell people how to vote. That’s not our job. Everybody must make that decision based on their own conscience. But partisan neutrality does not mean moral neutrality. The church must always be a moral voice for what is good, for what is kind, for what is just, for what is loving. That’s the nature of the church. That’s Jesus of Nazareth. When he was in a conversation about love and someone asked him who’s my neighbor, he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. That was a moral declaration about how we need to live both together interpersonally and as a society, and in a society, the way things get adjudicated is in the political world, the public square. There is a separation, and should be, of the church and partisan politics, but not the morals of public policy.

ENS: Do you find it harder to get those messages across in today’s world given how polarized American politics in particular has become?

Curry: Not necessarily. One of the things we must do is to find where is there common moral ground? Where are there values, ideals, moral principles that we share that we can then build on in terms of developing public policy? And that’s where there may be great overlap between progressives and conservatives, or whatever the various sides or factions are. Because we actually do share moral common ground.

Some years ago when I was in North Carolina and we were attempting comprehensive immigration reform, I was in a number of conversations with legislators, members of Congress, and one of the things I would say to them often – most of them, at least in North Carolina, were professing Christians – and I said, that means we follow Jesus Christ. And that means we follow the Jesus Christ who in Matthew 5, 6 and 7 said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” How does the policy that we have do to others what we would want someone to do to us? That’s just a simple question. How does this public policy or this action, how does this reflect the values that Jesus of Nazareth taught us in the parable of the Good Samaritan, showing compassion and mercy to someone else? Or how can we shape it in a way that it does reflect that, that both you and I can agree on? I’m trying to be nonpartisan and to actually argue that we’ve got moral common ground. Not on everything, but we’ve got moral common ground on a lot more than we sometimes think. We can build on that.

Curry and group

The Rev. Jim Wallis, second from left, and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry lead fellow clergy in a vigil titled “Reclaiming the Integrity of Faith During Political and Moral Crisis” as they process to the White House in May 2018. Photo: Reuters

ENS: In a chapter talking about The Episcopal Church’s decision in 2015 to offer marriage rites for same-sex couples and the negative reaction of some of the provinces of the Anglican Communion, you say some of that reaction was based on a perception of a kind of American imperialism and not just on that issue. Do you think that dynamic still shadows The Episcopal Church’s interaction with other provinces, as we look ahead to the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops in 2022?

Curry: Well, we all have to reckon with the histories of our countries and our cultures. And so we who are Americans, we have a burden that we have to bear. Other people from other countries have burdens that they have to bear; that’s true for all of us. And we have to acknowledge that. My approach, whether it’s the Anglican Communion or differences in the church, is that it’s important to learn how to both kneel and to stand at the same time. To kneel in real humility, to know that I’m not God. This is the best that I can do with the light I’ve received. And I’ve got to honor and respect the fact that you differ with me on whatever the issue or concern happens to be, and I’ve got to kneel before you as my brother, my sister, my sibling, and honor the image of God that is in you because you, like me, are a child of God.

And then it’s also important to stand with integrity for whatever it is you happen to believe. And I’ve learned, I’m still learning, that it’s important to both kneel and stand at the same time. And that if we all do that and engage each other, kneeling in real humility before each other and before God, and yet being honest and up front and clear about what we stand for or what we believe and hold, the fact that we have knelt before each other creates the space where we can stand together with our differences.

ENS: Let’s talk a little about preaching. You describe in the book that your more emotive style differed from the preaching style of your father, an Episcopal priest, partly because the church culture has since changed to encourage more of the preacher’s “authentic voice” to come through.

Curry: I remember my father telling me, when he was in seminary they were told that displays of emotion are signs of lack of intelligence and that a preacher must give a learned discourse. That’s the way the church was; that’s the way clergy were trained. Now this would have been in the late ’40s, early ’50s. It was a different time. By the time I went to seminary, people were saying, you need to find what is your voice in the pulpit. It was Phillips Brooks who said preaching is the communication of truth through the medium of human personality. You need to communicate the truth of the Gospel as you understand it through the modality of who you are. That was a change that probably started in the 1970s in Episcopal seminaries and ecumenical seminaries all across the board, and so that freed me to learn to be me in the pulpit in ways that are authentic.

Michael Curry Niobrara

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preaches July 25, 2017, at the 145th Niobrara Convocation at Red Shirt Table, South Dakota. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

I remember Daddy telling me at one point – because my grandfather was a Baptist preacher, my father’s father – I remember my father saying, “You preach like your Granddaddy did. He was a revivalist.” And then he stopped and said, “That’s fine. Just always make sure it’s you and not a show.”

ENS: One other thing that you note in the book is that not only are you the first Black presiding bishop but you also were the first Black diocesan bishop in the South. And you mention in high school reading writers of the Harlem Renaissance, including James Weldon Johnson, who wrote the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Black national anthem. What meaning do you take from that hymn?

Curry: Well, there’s a lot! One of the verses, it speaks of “the lessons the dark past has taught us.” And then it says, “facing the rising sun of a new day begun, let us march on until victory is won.” Notice the pattern. The lessons the dark past has taught us, and then facing the rising sun. What you have in the genius of that hymn is a recognition that you can’t ignore the past, and this is a message I think for all of us, white, Black, brown, Indigenous, Asian, all of us, everybody, that part of our past is dark, part of our past is filled with pain. The point is not to wallow in it but to acknowledge and face it and then learn from it, and then turn in a new direction and together, for all of us, together to work to right any wrongs, to repair the breach and then to work at the work of real reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. That’s right there in that hymn. The message of that hymn – which I had to memorize as a kid, and we sang it all the time, sang it in church on various occasions – what I realized is that that hymn was teaching a worldview where you’re charged with living a life in such a way that you help this world and our society to learn from a dark past and turn to work for a new day.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.