Surveying a throng of English royalty, political officials, visiting dignitaries, beautified guests, and various celebrities and other friends, the preacher stepped up to the lectern to deliver his wedding homily. Streamed by 72 million outlets, seen in more than 180 countries, the sermon’s broadcast was estimated by some media analysts to have reached nearly two billion people.
And soon thereafter it was forgotten. The preacher was the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, and the wedding at which he delivered his seven-minute homily was that of Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine Middleton in 2011. Today, my guess is that outside of Anglican circles and the environs of London, very few people recall Chartres’s name, despite the fact that he retired from his long and influential bishopric only last year. Only a few more, perhaps, recall what he said at William and Kate’s nuptials.
Contrast that with what happened on Saturday at Windsor Castle. Not much was different as far as the details of the occasion go—the preacher, like Chartres before him, surveyed his congregation, gave an equally meaty sermon (albeit nearly twice as long, bucking the Anglican stereotype), and was seen doing so by close to two billion souls.
But, unlike Chartres’s homily, that of Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the largely American Episcopal Church, is unlikely to be forgotten any time soon. When I sat down with a friend for breakfast on Saturday morning, he showed me the sermon on his iPhone. As it finished, I broke into a grin and said, “That was pretty great!” Apparently I wasn’t alone.
All morning my Twitter feed—admittedly populated by church nerds and journos—was awash with praise for the homily. Even the woke disdainers of royal excess couldn’t gainsay its power. “A black reverend preaching to British royalty about the resilience of faith during slavery is 10000000% not what I thought I was waking up for, the royal wedding is good,” tweeted Elamin Abdelmahmoud, an editor at BuzzFeed, whose traffic-driving site later posted the full text of the sermon. And John Milbank, that most unwoke of Anglo-Catholic theologians, agreed: “Hurray for Bishop Michael Curry! He was asked to preach and he turned up and did so. A full-blast account of Christian teaching of love. How wonderful to speak of the balm in Gilead for oppressed peoples in an ancient seat of Christian power. Wholly fitting.”
All the major British and American news outlets—the BBC, CNN, Fox News, even SNL’s “Weekend Update”—ran stories on the sermon, whose impact caused Prince Harry to turn to Meghan Markle and mouth “Wow” when it finished. One acquaintance of mine, watching on a TV in Boston’s Logan Airport, said the travelers around him were glued to the screen.
What explains the impact? For one thing, there’s Bishop Curry’s personal history—and its collision with the pomp of a royal wedding. Born at the height of Jim Crow to parents whose lineage included slaves and sharecroppers, Curry was the first African-American elected as the presiding bishop of a mainline Protestant denomination that had long dignified Southern slaveholders. Not unlike President Obama’s entry into the White House, Curry’s invoking the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. from a raised platform in a room full of British royalty was a moment full of significance. Here was a black preacher bringing the fire to a royal family whose ships in centuries past had made possible the trade that eventually led to the capture of Curry’s ancestors.
It’s unlikely, though, that this sermon has been so much discussed chiefly for the social and cultural change it symbolizes. More significant were the sermon’s content and its impassioned delivery. “There’s a certain sense in which when you are loved and you know it, when someone cares for you and you know it, when you love and you show it, it actually feels right,” Curry said, warming to his theme. But then there was this: “We were made by a power of love. … Ultimately the source of love is God himself, the source of all of our lives. … Two young people fell in love and we all showed up. But it’s not just for and about a young couple who we rejoice with.” That there may be a connection between the kind of love that gives us the misty-eyed shivers (even when we’re only watching it unfold on TV) and the love that is the wellspring of creation itself—and that goes on to reshape entire societies—is the kind of thought that most of us, much of the time, ignore or disbelieve. It seems too grandiose, too metaphysical. To have it proclaimed with evident conviction, fervor, and fist-pumping cadence was to find ourselves, for a moment, confronted and beguiled by the fact that it just might be true.
Some theologically conservative commentators found the sermon wanting. In their eyes it was, as an Anglican priest friend of mine put it, “shy of the Gospel.” “Bishop Curry is a great preacher,” wrote one of the Queen’s former chaplains, Gavin Ashendon. “And [his sermon] will change nothing; because it wasn’t Christianity. It was ‘Christianity-lite.’” In order to understand this criticism, it’s important to note, as Ruth Graham does in her piece for Slate, that Curry’s sermon was an example of a “robust mainline Christianity,” the kind of Christianity fueled by the great eighteenth- and nineteenth-century tradition of theological liberalism and by the social witness of twentieth-century martyrs such as King.
In mainline Protestant Christianity, Jesus has most often been heralded as a prophet of equality, an exemplar of selfless love, and a catalyst for change—Bishop Curry speaks frequently of a “Jesus Movement”—whose end is peace and sustenance for all. On this account, as the theologian George Hunsinger has noted, “Salvation takes place through our imitation of Christ, which requires our repentance as we strive to emulate his way of life.”
But what goes unsaid in this tradition is equally telling. Though “Jesus” is often on the lips of mainline preachers, a “high” doctrine of his person and his achievement on humanity’s behalf seldom is. As Hunsinger puts it, in much of politically progressive Christianity, “Jesus does not need to be anything other than a gifted and exemplary human being. He can do his saving ethical or religious work without being fully God. All he needs to be is fully human.” This, I think, is what troubled some listeners about Bishop Curry’s sermon. It’s not what he said. It’s what he leaves out.
Reflecting on Bishop Curry’s sermon, I found myself thinking of another, similarly charismatic bishop named Lesslie Newbigin. A Reformed minister from the UK, Newbigin presided over the newly unified Church of South India in the mid-twentieth century and became one of the leading lights of the ecumenical movement and a star in the worldwide Anglican Communion. Prior to that, in his student days, Newbigin had sounded very much like a Protestant liberal. In his autobiography, he mentions his enthrallment to talk of a “new social order” and his vision of eradicating poverty. Then something changed. One night, while laboring as a social worker in Wales, he saw “a vision of the Cross … spanning the space between heaven and earth.” Barely five years later, he would write of this strange apparition:
[God] does not merely emit a stream of ‘unchanging love’ like a wireless broadcasting station which continues to radiate its programme according to a predetermined plan irrespective of what listeners there be and what they think of the programme. Such a conception of love is abstract and unreal and is certainly not biblical. … God’s love is offered to us at the cost of a Cross, the passion of Christ, because God’s honesty could not suffer sin to appear in anything but its true colours.
Newbigin never abandoned his belief in what Bishop Curry called the “power of love”—the belief that Christians and other people of goodwill can even now begin to imagine a world made new, that we can indeed combat racism and oppression and hunger. But he came to see that love’s power is not so much something we bring about in the world by imitating Jesus, as something anchored in and energized by what Jesus has already perfected without our aid. Our efforts don’t usher in the kingdom of love; they rather attest to its arrival.
Unlike some of my conservative friends, I am not inclined to criticize the Royal Wedding sermon. It filled me with the same joy I had when I heard Bishop Curry preach in person once in my native Pittsburgh, and it left me eager to go to church the next morning (my own Episcopal parish was jubilant when I arrived). The sermon made me want to bear more vibrant witness to the love of Jesus in my neighborhood. But I also find myself pondering Newbigin’s theological shift, and wondering how much more power mainline Christian preaching would have if more mainline preachers were to follow Newbigin’s lead.
Wesley Hill is associate professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry.