North Carolina Bishop Michael Curry, who will be installed next month as the new head of the Episcopal Church in the United States, offered a possible preview Sunday of his agenda. Topping the list: Promoting a form of evangelism that calls on members to listen to others’ faith stories and then share their own.
He also wants to stress the love of Jesus, foster social justice, work for reconciliation – racial and otherwise – and preside over a church that’s open to all, including both supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage.
Curry, an outgoing preacher and author of “Crazy Christians: A Call to Follow Jesus,” will be the national church’s first African-American presiding bishop. In a Q&A with parishioners at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in uptown Charlotte, he said that Episcopalians have been so shy about advertising what their tradition has to offer – including its liturgy, its sacraments and its commitment to social justice – that many people don’t know the denomination exists.
“We’ve got to get to the day when the average Episcopalian is in touch with their own faith story and faith journey and is able to share that appropriately and authentically,” Curry said. “That may be the game-changer. … We’re good about doing. We’re nervous about talking.”
Such evangelism, Curry said, isn’t about converting people – “that’s God’s job, not ours” – but is about helping them “find their way to God.”
Since 2000, Curry, now 62, has been the Raleigh-based bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, which covers 38 counties (including Mecklenburg), 112 congregations, nine campus ministries and 48,000 members.
His flock will jump to nearly 1.9 million members on Nov. 1. In a ceremony at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Curry will succeed Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.
Curry will lead a New York-based Episcopal Church that is the U.S. body of the Anglican Communion – a worldwide fellowship of churches with 80 million members and roots in the Church of England.
In an interview Sunday with the Observer, Curry said he wants to preside over a welcoming church open to all people – including gay couples and opponents of same-sex marriage.
Marriage is now open to all in the Episcopal Church. But no clergy opposed to same-sex marriage will be compelled to act against his or her conscience by performing one.
“We respect conscience, just as we respect and honor gays and lesbians who wish to receive the holy sacrament of matrimony,” Curry said. “That’s a church that’s working to be, as Jesus said, quoting the prophets, ‘a house of prayer for all people.’ We’re making room for all.”
In 2012, Curry was against a proposed state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage that passed but was later thrown out by a federal court. But the bishop told members of St. Peter’s that he has remained “in connection” with clergy in the N.C. diocese who disagreed with his stand.
The denomination has emerged from a period of turmoil after the 2003 election of Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion. Many Episcopal conservatives and even some congregations left or distanced themselves from the church after his election.
Curry, a Chicago native who grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., and graduated from Yale Divinity School, was elected to the denomination’s top post at a convention in late June, a week after the shootings of nine African-Americans in a church in Charleston, S.C.
He said Sunday that the Episcopal Church will continue to focus on racial reconciliation – many of its early members were slave owners – but also wants to encourage relationships between those separated by class, religion, sexual orientation and politics.
“We are a segregated society (in many ways). And the way to break segregation is you’ve got to create bridges between communities and ways for people to come together,” Curry said. “Then they encounter each other and get to know each other and maybe love each other.”
The bishop also lauded St. Peter’s, a church founded in 1834, for its service to the homeless, saying the Episcopal Church needs to lead in social justice.
Curry will take up his new role at a time when, according to polls, the number of Americans with no religious affiliation – the “Nones” – is on the rise. And the decline in the number of churchgoers is especially pronounced among mainline Christian churches, including the Episcopal Church, whose membership has dropped 18 percent over the last decade.
But Curry sounded bullish about the way forward for Christianity. He pointed to the public’s enthusiastic response to Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, which offered evidence that focusing on a loving Jesus can attract those with spiritual hunger.
“That is the message that will bring people back,” he said. “And the more we embody it … as a church, I suspect that there are people who will actually take note.”
Curry, who also spent his day in Charlotte sermonizing, baptizing and confirming at St. Peter’s, got high marks from the church’s members for his record as their bishop – and for his potential as their denomination’s presiding bishop.
Jackie Kalbas, who’s attended St. Peter’s for six years, likened Curry to an alarm clock that can wake up a sleepy Episcopal Church.
“He’s well-spoken and dynamic,” she said. “And I think he’s filled with the love of God.”
The Associated Press contributed.