Bishop Michael Curry vividly remembers growing up in segregated Buffalo in the 1950s and ’60s, where on one bright morning in 1963, he crossed Main Street from East Buffalo to West Buffalo to attend an integrated school.
As an Episcopal priest and civil rights activist, his late father, Kenneth Curry, helped lead the boycott of the city’s segregated public schools. And yet, like the larger culture at the time, worship in the Episcopal Church he so loved was largely segregated. As leader of a black congregation in Buffalo, he never would have been called to the pulpit of a white Episcopal church.
Five decades later, Kenneth Curry probably would never have imagined that his son would be chosen to lead the entire denomination.
On Nov. 1, Michael Curry — who was elected this summer just one week after the shootings at a historic African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, S.C. — will be installed as the first black presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church at Washington National Cathedral. He will replace Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who was elected the church’s first female presiding bishop in 2006.
In many ways, Curry’s tenure will be a continuation of what his father taught him: In God’s eyes, all human beings are equal and deserve to be treated as such.
“I grew up seeing that Jesus of Nazareth has something to do with our lives and has something to do with how we structure and order our society,” said Curry, 62.
Curry, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina since 2000, was elected with an overwhelming majority, the third black candidate for presiding bishop in the church’s history.
“Most black Episcopalians interpret this as catching up, as something they should’ve done before,” said Byron Rushing, vice president of the House of Deputies and a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Blacks make up 6.3 percent of the church’s membership, compared with 86.6 percent for non-Hispanic white members, according to church data.
But as presiding bishop, Curry will face membership challenges that extend far beyond race. Like other mainline denominations, the Episcopal Church — the historic home to U.S. presidents and the nation’s elite — has struggled to fill its pews. It has lost more than 20 percent of its members since it consecrated its first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in 2003, and new statistics suggest that membership continues to fall, dropping 2.7 percent from 2013 to about 1.8 million U.S. members in 2014.
On Tuesday, Curry and other church leaders gathered at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria to consecrate a chapel to replace the one that burned down in 2010. Curry was like a rock star to many of the seminarians, making faces for selfies.
Ian Markham, dean of the seminary, noted that the founders and faculty from the institution once owned slaves and that its new chapel has a plaque noting its past segregation in worship. “We have to recognize the sins of our past and repent of them,” he said.
Curry has a clear passion for evangelism, something he calls “the Jesus movement,” though not a formal movement within the church. He is also progressive on social issues and was one of the first bishops to allow same-sex marriages to be performed in North Carolina churches.
As bishop in North Carolina, Curry was involved in the grass-roots Moral Monday demonstrations in Raleigh, challenging local and state governments to address the poor and marginalized.
“The work of evangelism and social justice must go together, because it’s part of the whole gospel,” he said.
Observers note Curry’s desire to keep his installation service simple and his focus on people on the margins — almost like a Protestant Pope Francis who could help change the face of the church. His friends point to his boisterous preaching style as he moves around the pulpit and gestures with his arms, more Baptist than Episcopal in some ways.
The father of two adult daughters with his wife, Sharon, Curry is known for his infectious laughter and self-deprecating humor. He is an avid reader, a Buffalo Bills fan and a self-described “certified NFL grief counselor,” and a lover of music who took up the violin about seven years ago.
Curry said he was deeply shaped by his Baptist grandmother, the daughter of sharecroppers and granddaughter of slaves. While he was in middle school, she stepped in after Curry’s mother went into a coma brought on by a cerebral hemorrhage.
“My grandmother couldn’t imagine Barack Obama in the White House, and I know she couldn’t imagine her grandson as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church,” he said.
As a family, they would pray every night, and Curry jokingly said he would secretly hope that his father would pray so it would be a shorter one. “If it was the Baptist prayer, it would go on forever,” he said.
His mother, who grew up Baptist, switched to the Episcopal Church after she read “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. His father, who was a licensed Baptist pastor and came from a line of Baptist preachers, followed her.
Curry remembers the denominational bantering between his father and grandmother.
“They would tease each other. She would say, ‘How do you know if someone in your church has the Holy Spirit?’ He’d say, ‘You all got too much Holy Spirit in your church.’ ”
Curry’s down-to-earth style and gift for bringing people together should prove valuable as he leads a church riven by divisions in recent years over issues from gay rights to how to read Scripture. However, many of its more theologically conservative churches have left the denomination after having been involved in multimillion-dollar lawsuits over the right to church properties.
Part of Curry’s challenge will be to put those battles over social issues fully in the past, said Ryan Danker, a church historian at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.
“If he can bring some peace and healing, maybe end the lawsuits, have discussion and dialogue with various parties, I think he’ll be very successful,” Danker said.
Jefferts Schori, the outgoing presiding bishop, said Tuesday that the Episcopal Church is no longer “the establishment church” in the United States, which she considers to be a good thing.
“We’re more focused on the people of the margins,” she said. “We’re willing to go be with, rather than do for, and I think that’s healthier spiritually.”
The Rev. Sandye Wilson, rector of St. Andrew and Holy Communion Episcopal Church in South Orange, N.J., and a friend of Curry’s, said he is uniquely able to address the range of Episcopal Church members.
“He is comfortable with kings and princes but doesn’t lose the common touch,” Wilson said. “He is as comfortable with people who are very wealthy and comfortable with people in prison.”
The Episcopal Church is affiliated with the larger worldwide Anglican Communion, the world’s third-largest Christian denomination, which is discussing whether it can remain unified amid divisions over sexuality and other issues. A large percentage of Anglicanism is thriving in the developing world, where more-conservative leaders have been unhappy with the Episcopal Church.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who attended Tuesday’s chapel consecration in Alexandria but declined interviews, has called Anglican leaders to a special meeting in January.
The Episcopal Church voted this summer to let gay couples marry in the church’s religious ceremonies, which Welby said “will cause distress for some and have ramifications for the Anglican Communion as a whole, as well as for its ecumenical and interfaith resolutions.”
January’s gathering of leaders includes a review of the worldwide Anglican Communion’s future.
Some believe that Curry’s election as presiding bishop could help lead the way into that future, in which the membership of the global church will probably keep growing more diverse.
“It could change the face of the Episcopal Church, which is — at least in the eyes of many — a largely white, upper-class denomination of people in power,” said the Rev. Adam Shoemaker of Church of the Holy Comforter in Burlington, N.C. “It will be significant now that we have a nonwhite presiding bishop to represent us to the rest of the church.”