North Carolina Bishop Michael Curry elected as 27th Presiding Bishop

History-making decision will bring first person of color into church’s top leadership office

Presiding Bishop-elect Michael Curry, bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina, speaks to a packed House of Deputies hall after deputies confirmed his election as the 27th presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church. Curry’s family and others joined him on the dais. Photo: Cynthia L. Black/For ENS

Presiding Bishop-elect Michael Curry, bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina, speaks to a packed House of Deputies hall after deputies confirmed his election as the 27th presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church. Curry’s family and others joined him on the dais. Photo: Cynthia L. Black/For ENS

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 5:55 p.m. MDT to note historic nature of first-ballot election.

[Episcopal News Service – Salt Lake City, Utah] The Episcopal Church’s General Convention made history June 27 when it chose Diocese of North Carolina Bishop Michael Curry to be its 27th presiding bishop.

Curry, 62, was elected by the House of Bishops from a slate of four nominees on the first ballot. He received 121 votes of a total 174 cast. Diocese of Southwest Florida Bishop Dabney Smith recieved 21, Diocese of Southern Ohio Bishop Thomas Breidenthal, 19, and Diocese of Connecticut Bishop Ian Douglas, 13. The number of votes needed for election was 89.

Curry’s election was confirmed an hour later by the House of Deputies, as outlined in the church’s canons, by a vote of 800 to 12.

He will serve a nine-year term that officially begins Nov. 1. On that date, Curry will succeed current Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and he will become the first person of color to hold that position.

A liturgy marking the beginning of Curry’s ministry as presiding bishop and primate will be celebrated Nov. 1, All Saints Day at Washington National Cathedral.

The House of Deputies, which was filled with visitors and bishops awaiting Curry, erupted into sustained applause when Jefferts Schori and Curry entered at about 2:30 p.m. His entrance came about 30 minutes after the House of Deputies confirmed his election. Deputies stood on their chairs, holding aloft their phones, tablets and cameras to capture the historic moment.

“Oh, God love ya,” Curry said when he got to the microphone on the dais. “I know you haven’t had lunch so, no sermons now.”

The deputies worked past their scheduled 1 p.m. recess to vote on Curry’s election and hear him speak.

“It really is a blessing and privilege to serve our church and to serve our Lord in this way,” he said. “I treasure this church, this house, the House of Bishops, all of us. We are God’s children.”

Curry said The Episcopal Church is “the church where I learned about Jesus.”

“This is a good and wonderful church and we are good and wonderful people and I thank God to be one of the baptized among you,” Curry said, adding, “My heart is really full.”

“We’ve got a society where there are challenges before us and there are crises all around us. And the church has challenges before it,” he said. “We got a God and there really is a Jesus, and we are part of the Jesus Movement. Nothing can stop the movement of God’s love in this world”

As Curry left the dais, people in the house sang the Doxology.

Curry has been North Carolina’s 11th diocesan bishop since he was ordained and consecrated on June 17, 2000. He was the rector of St. James’ Episcopal Church, Baltimore, Maryland, when he was elected to the see on Feb. 11, 2000. He is also the current chair of Episcopal Relief & Development’s Board of Directors.

This makes the second time in a row that the General Convention made history with its election of a presiding bishop. In 2006, Jefferts Schori became the first woman ever elected presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church. She was also the first female among the primates, or ordained leaders, of the Anglican Communion’s 38 provinces, a distinction she still holds.

Curry’s election also made history by being the first time a presiding bishop was chosen on the first ballot.

Echoing an old spiritual, Curry said during a video interview after his nomination was announced on May 1 that “our hand must be on the Gospel plow.”

“We are followers of Jesus – Jesus of Nazareth – and the truth is we’ve got a message to proclaim, a life to live and something to share and offer the world,” he said. “There’s a lot of suffering in this world. There’s a lot of heartache, there’s a lot of nightmare. We are people who believe that God has a dream and a vision for this world, and that Jesus has shown us how to follow him in the direction of that and how to help this world live into God’s dream and vision for us now.

“Our work is actually the work of participating in the Jesus movement, which seeks to realize God’s dream and seeks to accomplish God’s mission in this world,” Curry said.

The church must help form disciples who will live like Jesus, Curry said. Such formation must become a priority so that the church is not just creating members, but disciples of Jesus “who actually live out and struggle to live out the teachings of Jesus in their lives, and make a tangible difference” in the world. If such churchwide formation combined with Episcopalians’ individual commitments to imitate Jesus, “we would transform this world,” Curry said.

“After formation, there’s evangelism and I know sometimes folks are afraid of that word, but I’m not talking about evangelism like other folk do it,” he said. “I am talking about the kind of evangelism that is as much listening as it is sharing.” Being present with another person and listening to that person is a “transforming possibility” of invitation and welcome.

Episcopalians must also be willing to “witness in the social sphere, witness in the public sphere, through personal service that helps somebody along the way … prophesying deliverance … [and] being a voice for those who have no voice,” Curry said.

To do this, Episcopalians need to partner with Anglicans around the world along with people of other faith traditions, according to Curry.

And “we need to create organizational structures that serve the mission, that help the institution and the church become a vessel of the Jesus movement,” he concluded.

The election process

The names of all four bishops were formally submitted to the General Convention by the Joint Nominating Committee for the Election of the Presiding Bishop during a joint session on June 26, the day before the election. There were no additional nominees from the floor during that session.

Anyone intending to make such a nomination had to inform the nominating committee of that intention by May 12 so that additional nominees could undergo the same background screening process that the committee completed for all of its nominees. The committee announced on May 12 that no additional bishops were nominated.

The four nominees spoke to convention participants during a three-hour session on June 24, the afternoon before the General Convention formally convened.

Bishops gathered at the Convention Eucharist at 9:30 a.m. on June 27 in the Salt Palace Convention Center. Following that, the bishops with seat, voice and vote traveled to St. Mark’s Cathedral, where the election session was closed and took place in the context of prayer and reflection.

After Curry was elected but before his name was announced, Jefferts Schori sent a delegation to House of Deputies President the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings informing her of the result. Jennings referred Curry’s name to the House of Deputies legislative committee on the Confirmation of the Presiding Bishop without announcing the news to the full House. The legislative committee was charged with recommending to the House of Deputies whether to confirm the election or not confirm. The deputies heard the recommendation at 1:48 p.m. local time, and began to debate the confirmation request.

The House of Bishops remained in session at the cathedral until a delegation of deputies, appointed by Jennings notified the House of Bishops of the action taken. No communication was permitted from the House of Bishops during the election and until confirmation was received.

Shortly after receiving word of the confirmation of his election, Curry came to the House of Deputies.

Presiding Bishop-elect Curry will preach at the convention’s closing Eucharist on July 3, and Jefferts Schori will preside.

The roles of the presiding bishop

The presiding bishop is primate and chief pastor of the church, chair of the Executive Council, and president of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. The canonical outline of the presiding bishop’s election and term can be found in Title I Section 2 of the church’s Canons.

(The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society is the legal and canonical name under which The Episcopal Church is incorporated, conducts business and carries out mission.)

Curry’s election comes near the start of a meeting of General Convention that is considering a number of proposals to change some aspects of the governance and management of the church-wide structure and, hence, the roles and responsibilities of the presiding bishop.

According to Title I Section 2 in its current form, the presiding bishop is “charged with responsibility for leadership in initiating and developing the policy and strategy in the church and speaking for the Church as to the policies, strategies and programs authorized by the General Convention.”

The presiding bishop also “speaks God’s word to the church and world as the representative of this Church and its episcopate in its corporate capacity,” represents The Episcopal Church to the Anglican Communion, serves as chief consecrator of bishops, and leads the House of Bishops. He or she also holds a significant role in the discipline and changes in status of bishops.

Also, the presiding bishop exercises a significant role in the governance of the church by making appointments to various governing bodies, making decisions with the president of the House of Deputies, serving as a member of every churchwide committee and commission, and serving as chair and president of key church governing boards. He or she is the chief executive officer of the Executive Council, which carries out the programs and policies adopted by the General Convention, according to Canon I.4 (1)(a). Therefore, the presiding bishop is responsible for staff and operations of the Episcopal Church Center, with the exception of the executive office of the General Convention.

In its “Call to Discernment and Profile”, the joint nominating committee said the 27th presiding bishop would need to be “comfortable in the midst of ambiguity and able to lead the church in the rich, temporal space between the ‘now,’ and the ‘yet to come.’” The person discerned and elected by the church would need to “delight” in the diversity of a “multi-national, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-generational church.” And, because “our polity has many components and complexities,” the 27th presiding bishop will need the “skills and wisdom for leading complex and democratic systems through a time of significant change.”

Historically, the office of presiding bishop was filled automatically by the most senior bishop in the House of Bishops, measured by date of consecration, beginning with the presidency of William White at the first session of the 1789 General Convention. That process changed in 1925 when the church elected the Rt. Rev. John Gardner Murray as the 16th presiding bishop.

Presiding Bishop-elect Curry’s past ministry

Born in Chicago, Illinois, 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 at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buffalo, New York, and to the priesthood in December 1978, at St. Stephen’s, 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 the rector of St. Simon of Cyrene, Lincoln Heights, Ohio, where he served 1982-1988. In 1988, he became rector of St. James’, Baltimore, Maryland, where he served until his election as bishop.

In his three parish ministries, Curry was active in the founding of ecumenical summer day camps for children, the creation of networks of family day care providers and educational centers, and the brokering of 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.

During his time as bishop of North Carolina, Curry instituted a network of canons, deacons and youth ministry professionals dedicated to supporting the ministry that already happens in local congregations and refocused the diocese on The Episcopal Church’s dedication to the United Nation’s 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 a large number of 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. In addition, Curry is a frequent speaker at conferences around the country. He has received honorary degrees from Sewanee, Virginia Theological Seminary, Yale, and, most recently, 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.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.

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The Servant June 2015

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