The Jesus Movement now - Interview with Michael B. Curry ’78 M.Div.

Last summer, Bishop Michael B. Curry ’78 M.Div. and the Episcopal Church made history: Denominational delegates elected Curry as Presiding Bishop, the first African American to lead the church body. His election culminates a ministry of nearly 40 years as a parish priest and, mostly recently, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. Curry is known for strengthening support for local parish ministry, organizing investment in innercity neighborhoods, and supporting campaigns for the Millennium Development Goals.

In his 2013 book Crazy Christians: A Call to Follow Jesus, Curry writes of God’s intentions for the world from biblical times until now, a vision of challenging injustice and cruelty. Jesus “showed us the way to live beyond what often are the nightmares of our own sinfilled human design and into the direction of God’s dream.” He spoke to Reflections in August.

REFLECTIONS: As Presiding Bishop, is there a particular theme you’ll want to emphasize?

THE MOST REV. MICHAEL CURRY: One thing I’ve already been talking about is: I really do believe we need to see ourselves as a movement – a Jesus movement – rather than as an institution. That’s what Jesus was about. He inaugurated a movement to make God’s dream happen. To see ourselves this way changes everything. It means our institutional configurations must be designed to serve the movement and not the other way around. The movement serves life. There is no life in serving the institution.

REFLECTIONS: How do we go about this practically in a world of budgets, programs, and infrastructure?

CURRY: I go back to what (lay theologian) William Stringfellow (1928-85) taught us. We must become radically biblical and theological. We must enter our communities deeply and intentionally, with love. If we do that, then we’ll find a way to deal with our buildings and budgets. They’ll find a new purpose. But it all starts with Bible study and prayer. These things lead to action. You can’t read the Book of Exodus without being stirred by the theme of the liberation of people. We have to engage with the Word deeply – that’s what Dietrich Bonhoeffer did, that’s what Martin Luther King Jr. did. There are no institutional quick fixes or gimmicks that will turn a church around. Bible and prayer – then you deal with the institutions. Then you can transform institutions into servants of the Jesus movement.

REFLECTIONS: What does success look like?

CURRY: Success will always be blood-stained: It is linked to life-giving sacrifice. A congregation that lives only for itself will die by itself. A congregation that lives for God and others will live. For example, there’s a historically African American congregation in North Carolina that decided to give up its historic identity and reach out to the changing neighborhood. The result was to welcome its Latino neighbors and start creating a truly multiethnic church. Confirmations have dramatically increased. They opened themselves to the world. Any community that does that is going to have life.

REFLECTIONS: Thinking back to your YDS days, do particular mentors and ideas remain important to you?

CURRY: YDS was and is a place of creative ferment – ecumenical, interfaith – that helped me be open to the idea that God is the source of all truth. This freed me to converse with other traditions without fear. Where truth is found, God is there. I think of Brevard Childs, who taught Old Testament. He helped me see the Bible as a whole, but also in its details it had a message for us each day. Before the word “spirituality” became popular, Henri Nouwen taught us how to pray, unhinging our prayers from our egotistical needs. Leon Watts made us see the connection between world and Word. He stressed that Jesus is as much about saving broken bodies as about saving souls.

REFLECTIONS: We’re accustomed to statistics about declines in church membership. Do you have advice for for seminarians entering parish ministry?

CURRY: I’m very familiar with the Pew Research numbers, but I don’t think this era is any more challenging than what Bonhoeffer faced in Nazi Germany or what Harriet Beecher Stowe confronted before the Civil War. We are encountering new complexities in our time, but I don’t think they’re anything substantially different from the time of the Acts of the Apostles. The challenge always is to hear the radical call of Jesus to turn the world upside down – that is, to set it back right side up again! We’ll know we’re on the road toward that when real love is seen and experienced as the practical law that liberates our lives. It reveals itself in a commitment to seek the well-being of others before my own self-interest. In such a world, we won’t allow children to go to bed hungry or deny them an education that would enable them to fulfill God’s intentions for them. And our politics will be focused on the common good, and poverty will be a thing of the past. Then we’ll know we’re moving toward God’s dream.