By Melonie McLaurin | firstname.lastname@example.org
HAMLET — Members of All Saints Episcopal Church gathered in their fellowship hall last week to celebrate the national church body’s election of the Right Rev. Bishop Michael Curry as 27th presiding bishop. Curry will succeed current Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori on Nov. 1.
Schori just happens to be a woman. Presiding Bishop-Elect Michael Curry also just happens to be African-American, but in the Episcopal Church, there have been plenty of “just happen to be” deacons, priests and bishops because it is a church proud of its diversity.
Curry has been bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina since June 2000 — just one of the reasons All Saints is particularly proud of his first-ballot election at the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church.
Jane Mask said the Episcopal Church is unique in that it is inclusive and welcomes all people.
“With our new presiding bishop, who is very personable, this makes it even more so,” she said. “The things going on out in Salt Lake City (the place selected for the general convention) they are discussing marriage in the church, they are talking about gun control and all types of social issues. I think it’s wonderful.”
Ann Martin agreed with Mask about the church’s inclusiveness across a wide swath of diverse people.
“Just looking across this room, we have African-American, former Baptists, a cradle Episcopalian, a converted Jew and a Catholic who has converted,” Martin said. “We are truly an accepting church and anyone who comes to our church, like all Episcopal churches, no matter what, you are welcome. The church is family, and you are treated as a family member.”
Martin added that the sacrament of Holy Communion is available to all individuals who have been baptized and are part of the extended family of the church, including its children. She said that from the time Episcopalian infants are old enough to chew the bread, they receive the Eucharist just as adults do.
“And we touch their tongues with wine, so they receive both the bread and the wine,” she said. “It’s not just for members of All Saints or other Episcopalians. It’s for everybody who is baptized and part of God’s family.”
Katy Shelley, 20, said the most special thing about her church is that its members are her extended family. She knows each and every person and they know her.
B.J. Lowry, who converted from Judaism, said she has had times when people confronted her about her ethnicity.
“I’ve actually had people say to my face, ‘You’re Jewish and you belong to the Episcopal Church?’ And my answer back to them is, ‘There’s only two Jews in that church — God and me.”
Kathy Shelley (who is not 20) said she likes to think of her church as a special kind of family.
“I often tell people you’re born into a family you don’t choose,” she said. “But this is the family you get to choose. We, as Episcopalians, don’t always agree with one another, but we accept and love and value all cultures and find our sameness in serving the Lord.”
Thomas Hager, a member of the A.M.E. Zion church, is the organist for All Saints. He said even though his home church is A.M.E., he still considers himself to be part of the Episcopal Church by virtue of his friendships and bonds, and the important role of selecting music that complements the liturgy.
Dr. Betty Brown, a professor in the Department of Educational Specialties at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, said explaining the structure of the Episcopal Church to people from less traditional denominations can be complicated or simple.
“I have explained this to my husband who is a Baptist,” Brown said. “There is a person who oversees all of the Episcopal churches in the United States, and then each state has a certain number of bishops determined by the number of churches in each state. A lot of the presidents of the United States have been Episcopalians.”
Hager compared the church to one of America’s largest mainline Protestant denominations.
“The Episcopal church is a lot like the Methodist church,” he said. “These types of churches with bishops are known as ‘connectional churches,’ where typically there is the commonality of liturgy, which is very important because there are prescribed scriptural readings, readings of the Gospel, hymns and psalms for every Sunday and for liturgical seasons within the church.
We all have the same readings on the same Sundays, from the Revised Common Lectionary. And on a three-year cycle, those churches will have covered all of scripture, so it’s very unitive. And also, Episcopal churches use The Book of Common Prayer.”
The role of a bishop in the Episcopal churches is that of chief pastor, and while there is room within the structure of the liturgy for differences, only a bishop can administer confirmation when someone officially joins the Episcopal Church after completing catechism classes.
Jane Mask said one thing about the Episcopal Church is certain.
“We do change,” she said.
Curry, now 62, is a self-proclaimed advocate of what he has called “the Jesus movement.”
“I am looking forward to serving and working for the cause of the Jesus movement in the world,” Curry said. “To help this become a transformed world that looks more like God’s dream and less like our nightmare. That’s what energizes me and what I believe in and we can really continue and build on the good work that’s been done in Bishop Katharine’s years.
“Everybody knows I really do take evangelism seriously and discipleship and witness and service and social advocacy, the gospel principles that we hold. Those three things are critical and needed in this time. I think the Episcopal Church has something to offer in the public square. We have a way of looking at the gospel that makes known the love of God in Jesus.”
The Rev. Dr. Kara Slade, vicar of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Laurinburg, explained Curry’s philosophy in a recent exchange of emails.
“I think there are a few things worth noting about the way Bishop Curry talks about Jesus and evangelism,” Slade said. “The first is that he is relentlessly focused on the mission of the Church as it’s lived out by proclaiming and following Jesus Christ. That is, we’re not talking about God in general or abstract terms, but about God as revealed in Jesus Christ. I think that’s important because it gives us a very particular grounding and content for what we say and do. Jesus becomes the standard by which all our efforts are measured.
“The second is that when we talk about the Church as a movement, what we’re hoping to leave behind is the idea that we should just sit back and wait for people to come to us. Especially in the present day, especially here in Richmond and Scotland counties, we need to be the church actively and visibly in the community — and not just within our own walls.
“For example, one thing we’ve done at St. David’s in Laurinburg is to partner very intensively with the elementary school next door to the church. We have volunteers who read to the kids, who help out with end-of-year testing, and we’ve worked to make sure children who might struggle to get enough to eat over the holidays are taken care of. It’s been a way that even a small congregation like ours can have a big impact in the community.”
Slade’s personal memories of working with Curry are many, but one left a distinct impression on her.
“I vividly remember him telling me once that we were ‘in the resurrection business,” Slade said. “It has really stuck with me, and I have tried to live into that in my own ministry.”
The Episcopal Church — the United States branch of the Worldwide Anglican Communion — is known for being the first to embrace controversial changes in U.S. culture over the years such as allowing female priests (and later, bishops), accepting openly gay clergy and encouraging its churches to intermingle rather than isolating their members according to divisive social constructs involving race and ethnicity.
On July 1, the 78th General Convention voted to allow same-sex religious marriages in its churches after vigorous debate, leading Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby to release a statement expressing his “deep concern” over the votes, writing that the “decision will cause distress for some and have ramifications for the Anglican Communion as a whole, as well as for its ecumenical and interfaith relationships.”
But this will not be the first time the church in the U.S. has led the charge toward change and sent ripples across churches in all parts of the world — and nor is it likely to be the last.
Welby is the senior bishop of the the Church of England and the symbolic head of the Worldwide Anglican Communion with a family of churches in more than 165 countries.
To learn more about the 78th General Convention and topics on its agenda, visit http://bit.ly/1BX4Sfy on the Web.
Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @meloniemclaurin.