bishop michael curry - spirit of pentecost

Bishop Michael Curry brought with him the Spirit of Pentecost

The reaction to the Royal Wedding address/sermon delivered by Bishop Michael Curry has resulted in post-match analysis akin to that of ‘Match of the Day’. Dull it wasn’t – everyone agrees on that, even its critics.

Those of us keen to take the good news of Jesus Christ to all and sundry can at least agree that dull uninspiring preachers fail their Lord, no matter how closely their personal doctrinal slant might align with our own preferences. As my ex-teacher wife reminds me, “If you don’t reach, you can’t teach.” Bishop Michael reached parts of God’s people some of us can only talk about, and for that we should be thankful. He engaged with the many, not the few.

Premier Christianity has helpfully collated a summary of early reactions from a variety of sources. The fact that so many commented is important: they did so because, quite obviously, this wedding address mattered, and that would never have been predicted by anyone in advance.

His Grace anticipated and preempted the inevitable criticism of the unconventionality of what was heard, urging: “Don’t slam the Royal Wedding Sermon; Bishop Michael Curry reached two billion souls with the love of Christ.” But inevitably adverse criticism arose, centring on who Bishop Michael is, what he said, what he didn’t say, and what he allegedly represents. Gavin Ashenden, Jules Gomes, and David Robertson all took issue with what they had seen and heard, the latter promising to address His Grace’s contribution to the discussion later this week. Regular readers might like to buy in popcorn for that event.

I loved the television news clips of Bishop Michael and Archbishop Justin before the wedding, and afterwards. In the former, two friends relax and deliver the shared message that Christ breaks down all barriers, and afterwards they are overflowing with love and enthusiasm, almost like the disciples on the Day of Pentecost.

Looking at them, and the wedding footage of the address itself, you really don’t have to understand the language to recognise that inspiration occurred: their very exuberance testifies to their shared love of the Lord. We ought perhaps to remind ourselves that at Pentecost, too, there were stiff-necked observers who could only see negativity and ascribed the extraordinary of the divine to everyday drunkenness. Happily, the majority then and now are more interested in the big picture rather than any individual score to be settled.

It is, of course, correct that their respective official positions and responsibilities within their church organisations cast them, institutionally at least, in tension. Yet if the wedding brought together two people from very different backgrounds, so the two Church leaders came together to demonstrate that our problems are less important than many would have it. If the mutual love and respect on show between the leaders embodied anything, it was surely that ‘good disagreement’ is both possible and positive.

Had Bishop Michael invited Archbishop Justin to preach at a US gay wedding, that would have been a story; but asking Bishop Michael to preach a perfectly orthodox sermon with enthusiasm ought not to have troubled anyone.

One of the oddities about those taking theological issue with Bishop Michael’s presence is how they appear to have overlooked the significant context: this was not a same-sex marriage. It was, however, a second marriage for the bride, and it was conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Once, that would have been not only outrageous but inconceivable. If anything, it was the acceptance of remarriage within the Church of England which was (or should have been) the crossing of the Rubicon for our more conservative friends. When that huge step was taken, we made an exception in legislation for those who could not participate in such ceremonies in good conscience, and having their position respected and recognised, many remained. Good for them: we disagreed well.

Given that there is direct and specific condemnation of divorce and remarriage by Jesus, that surely ought to have been the occasion for many of the current critics to have left. However, many remained thereafter for many years. Yet if it is a point of principle, rather than of personal engagement, that offends, why are they still here? Why did they stay so long? Did that decision not offend them by breaching the definition of marriage as a lifelong union of one man and one woman?

That is absolutely not an attempt to exclude my more conservative-minded friends: ‘good disagreement’, as I understand it, is about acknowledging, respecting and accommodating different understandings. We have done so on many issues before, and can doubtless do so again.

Neither is it only the conservative interest that has exercised forbearance, restraint, and patience. For years women hung on with us as we denied them the place which they now enjoy at all levels. Both my complementarian Evangelical friends and my liberal gay ones are still walking with us, each, to their immense credit, struggling to avoid schism which Archbishop Justin rightly reminds us is also a sin. Those who have succumbed to that temptation are foremost among the critics, not least of His Grace, who tells me he has come under withering scorn for daring, as a natural conservative, to speak well of Bishop Michael.

I ought to flag up, however, that Bishop Michael’s was probably not the most momentous sermon preached in recent years in the presence of Her Majesty. That honour might go to the preacher to the Papal Household, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa who, by another inspired invitation from Archbishop Justin, came to preach at the opening of the General Synod which coincided with the 400th anniversary of the Reformation. Taking as his theme ‘Rebuild my house’, based upon the book of Haggai, he reached across the divide between our churches with a generosity that would serve as a good example to all would-be schismatics of this age. He sounded thoroughly Lutheran as he explained:

We need to go back to the time of the Apostles: they faced a pre-Christian world, and we are facing a largely post-Christian world. When Paul wants to summarise the essence of the Christian message in one sentence, he does not say, “I proclaim this or that doctrine to you.” He says, “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23), and “We preach… Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor 4:5). This is the real “articulus stantis et cadentis Ecclesiae”, the article by which the Church stands or falls. This does not mean ignoring the great theological and spiritual enrichment that came from the Reformation or desiring to go back to the time before it. It means instead allowing all of Christianity to benefit from its achievements, once they are freed from certain distortions due to the heated atmosphere of the time and of later controversies.

Justification by faith, for example, ought to be preached by the whole Church – and with more vigour than ever. Not in opposition to good works – the issue is already settled – but rather in opposition to the claim of people today that they can save themselves thanks to their science, technology or their man-made spirituality, without the need for a redeemer coming from outside humanity. Self-justification! I am convinced that if they were alive today this is the way Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer would preach justification through faith!

He went further, prefiguring Bishop Michael’s stance as he told us:

The situation has dramatically changed since then. We need to start again with the person of Jesus, humbly helping our contemporaries to experience a personal encounter with Him. “All things were created through him and for him”; Christ is the light of the world, the one who gives meaning and hope to every human life – and the majority of people around us live and die as if He had never existed! How can we be unconcerned, and each remain “in the comfort of our own panelled houses”? We should never allow a moral issue like that of sexuality divide us more than love for Jesus Christ unites us.

Directly addressing the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and its entire leadership, the Pope’s preacher was laying to rest the divisions of the past and urging us not to create barriers to unity in our own day. We are to rebuild a house where all may dwell, not pack our tents to disappear in high dudgeon in opposite directions. Fr Raniero does not have the charismatic showmanship of Bishop Michael, but his sermon reads well and I urge you to read it in its entirety.

Following the Royal Wedding, on Pentecost Sunday, I heard a reader friend preach, and he too reached back to quote a past sermon – that of the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero. In a sermon congruent with Bishop Michael’s thoughts, he preached:

It will always be Pentecost in the Church, provided the Church lets the beauty of the Holy Spirit shine forth from her countenance. When the Church ceases to let her strength rest on the power from above that Christ promised and that he gave to her on that day, and when the Church leans rather on the weak forces of the power or the wealth of this earth, then the Church ceases to be newsworthy. The Church will be fair to see, perennially young; attractive in every age as long, as she is faithful to the Spirit, through her communities , through her very life.

In Bishop Michael Curry, many unconnected with the Church saw something ‘fair to see’ and attractive: “Two people fell in love – and we all showed up,” he quipped, endearingly. I wonder if it is too fanciful to suggest that what folks subsequently found themselves responding to, as they discussed his address, was the unruly, uninvited guest Bishop Michael brought with him – that free and indiscriminate Spirit of Pentecost, to whom we should all be faithful.