Bishop Michael Curry’s star turn at the royal wedding Saturday introduced (or reintroduced) the world to the power of preaching.
For many Americans and Britons not that many decades past, listening to a sermon was something of a weekly ritual. For Protestants it was the “main event” of Sunday worship, and for Catholics and Episcopalians it was a crucial part of the liturgy, which culminates in the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. The Sunday sermon became a topic of conversation in many households — many pastors joked darkly that their congregants had “roast preacher” for Sunday dinner — and some newspapers even reprinted sermons for the edification of their communities. Riveting preachers like Charles Spurgeon, Dwight L. Moody, Peter Marshall, Billy Graham, William Sloane Coffin, Jimmy Swaggart, Kathryn Kuhlman and Martin Luther King Jr. were treated like celebrities.
Those days are long past, in both the United States and Britain.
Part of it has to do with institutional faith’s slip overall. In America, mainline Protestantism — including Curry’s own Episcopal Church, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion — has seen a steady decline in membership, attendance and giving since the mid-1960s, and evangelicalism is also in retreat. In Britain, weekly attendance at the country’s 16,000 Church of England parishes has slipped to 760,000, considerably less than 2 percent of the population and a 12 percent decline in the past decade. As testament to an aging clientele, 1 percent of the churchgoing population dies each year.
Scholars have offered many reasons for this decline — the secularization of society; a gap between laity and clergy on political matters, especially sexuality; the televangelist scandals of the 1980s; Sunday soccer leagues; the rise of two-income households — but the effect is that the sermon no longer serves as a cultural marker.
It’s not difficult to understand why sermons would lose popularity. In this age of Internet distractions and the pyrotechnic wizardry of multimedia, a sermon is decidedly old-school. Why allocate even an hour every week to hear a solitary figure hold forth on some matter that is likely to be of marginal relevance to everyday life?
As a longtime student of religion in North America, I won’t deny that there are a lot of bad preachers out there churning out their quota of forgettable sermons. Good oratory — from the pulpit, in business or on the campaign trail — is in short supply these days, and it is precisely because we’ve lost that art that a preacher like Curry stands out. Perhaps an old-fashioned medium, especially when executed to perfection, provides an antidote to the unreflective dross of Facebook and Snapchat. The fact that Curry is African American, a descendant of slaves, leading an overwhelmingly white denomination often characterized as “God’s frozen chosen,” merely adds to his aura.
Curry, a cradle Episcopalian (his father was an Episcopal priest), is often mistaken for a Baptist. His preaching style draws on the long and venerable tradition of black preachers dating to the days of slavery. At St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle on Saturday, he opened his sermon in measured tones, beginning with a reading from the Song of Solomon. This was to be a sermon about love, one appropriate to the marrying couple, but also — and here Curry demonstrated his artistic mastery — to the gathered audience and to the world at large. “There is power in love,” he said. “Don’t underestimate it.”
As he developed his argument, Curry drew from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, pointing out that Jesus summarized all the law and the prophets as love for God and love for your neighbor as yourself. And here, in the classic African American tradition of preaching, the bishop’s pace began to quicken; his tone grew more insistent and his gestures more expansive. Curry quoted King and Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, and added his own touches of humor.
Markle, the bride, sat transfixed from the beginning; Harry’s expression suggested skepticism. The cutaways to the other royals suggested that they, too, were not sure why this stem-winding African American preacher had been invited to participate.
Redemptive love changes lives, the bishop continued, inviting his audience to imagine a world “where love is the way.” Skepticism was giving way to bemusement and then, eventually, to rapt attention. “Imagine business or commerce where love is the way,” Curry said. If we harnessed the redemptive power of love, “no child would go to bed hungry” and justice would roll down. “When we harness the power of love,” he said, the sermon reaching its crescendo, “we will make of this old world a new world.”
Then, having made his point, the preacher backed down and concluded almost in a whisper: “And may God hold us all in those almighty hands of love.”
Unless I misread his lips, Harry turned to his bride and said, “Wow!”
The power of preaching.
Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest and author of more than a dozen books, is the John Phillips professor in religion at Dartmouth College.