WITHIN hours of its delivery, Bishop Curry’s sermon had inspired a Saturday Night Live sketch on NBC and made its way on to the front pages of British newspapers. “[It] just blew the place open,” the Archbishop of Canterbury told Sky News, in an interview with his fellow Primate that evening.
The strength of the reaction — The Washington Post was not alone in suggesting that the Bishop had “stolen the show” — prompted intense discussion online about what lessons the Church might learn.
On Twitter, the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, described a BBC article’s description of the sermon — a “modern, unorthodox invocation of love” — as “a terrible indictment. We have the gift of God’s complete love to proclaim, and we hide it in infighting within and disdain and judgement without.”
The Dean Emeritus of Durham, the Very Revd Michael Sadgrove, admitted to feeling envy: “This more than anything else is what makes the preacher convincing: that he or she is comfortable in their own homiletical skin.”
The C of E’s director of evangelism and discipleship, Canon Dave Male, agreed. “I thought the sermon was brilliant,” he said on Wednesday. “It was warm, engaging, and authentic. . . People have really engaged with that, as much in the style as the content.”
This did not mean that “everyone will have to preach like Michael Curry”, he said. It was not a “Gospel-lite, nice little chat,”; it had “helped people see there is a big picture of this whole Christian story. A movement of love is a very enticing, engaging idea. I would hope people think, at least, that it is worth finding out about.”
Amid celebrity confessions (“Rev Michael Curry could almost make me a believer” tweeted a former leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband) and swift attempts to capitalise on interest with online invitations to church, Canon Male said that he was not expecting an immediate upturn in church attendance. “But it will have led to many conversations in homes and offices and pubs.”
The Vicar of St Saviour’s, St Albans, Canon Richard Watson, described on Twitter how in a school assembly on Monday, what the children had remembered about the wedding was “this guy preaching who was really enthusiastic and happy”. The message they had retained was: “It was about how we should love each other.”
Among the praise was some criticism, and observations that the sermon had not resonated with everyone outside the Church. The Bishop of Repton, the Rt Revd Jan McFarlane, reported that guests she had spoken to at a wedding “hadn’t connected at all. . . Comments include ‘too long’; ‘didn’t understand the fire references’; ‘style meant switched off as couldn’t relate’. . . How we hear things isn’t necessarily how an interested but non-churched audience hear them.”
The length of the homily — almost 14 minutes — provided material for Saturday Night Live’s writers. “I preached, and I testified and I yelled while 500 stuffy British people looked at me like I was a fart in an elevator,” recounted Kenan Thompson, dressed in an alb and stole to impersonate Bishop Curry. “They told me I had five minutes but the good Lord multiplied it into a cool 16.”
By noon on Tuesday, the real Primate had appeared on three of the most-watched television programmes in the United States, including the Today Show. He was asked about the style of his preaching, which was likened to that found at a Baptist church in North Carolina, and whether he had had concerns about its resonance in Britain. “I didn’t know but I knew that they had asked me to come, and that’s me, so I showed up,” he replied. After he had sat down, he had thought to himself, “Well, I hope that was okay.”
“Episcopalians aren’t known for being loud and raucous in church but I’ve been known to be able to hear an Amen by looking in their eyes,” he joked. “I was looking in the eyes of people who were there and they were doing quiet, British Amens.”
The invitation to preach had come from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office, he confirmed. In their Sky interview on Saturday, Archbishop Welby suggested that it had been shown that preaching was “not a past art, that the use of language to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ just blew the place open. It was fantastic, and you could see people just caught up in it and excited by it.”
Asked about how it was unconventional, he argued that there was “nothing conventional about Christianity”, which entailed “blowing open a revolution that gives an energy and life to the world”. People had been “gripped” by it, he said, “This was raw God.”
On Wednesday, the C of E’s Head of Life Events, Canon Sandra Millar, suggested that the wedding had shown that “you do not have to have a perfect back-story to have a church wedding — we work with people whatever their circumstances are.”
The service was “identical — word for word” with that available to anybody getting married in the Church, and research suggested that the “sense of timelessness” afforded by a church wedding was “very valuable to Millennials”. A recent poll of 1000 people aged between 18 and 35 suggested that almost half (47 per cent) would prefer to marry in a church or chapel.
Bishop Curry’s sermon had been “warm and emotional and passionate”, she said. “It was accessible and used examples that people could connect to, like Martin Luther King, and had an ordinary experience of, like being in love, but it was delivered in a way that built relationship. . . We catch people by surprise as a church when we are warm and personable.”
Having trained in homiletics while on an exchange in California, she had learned to preach without notes — “that frees people up to make eye contact, and he [Bishop Curry] was able to use his body more in preaching”.
Canon Male suggested: “There is a moment here that is not going to last long where people are open for conversations around this. It’s one of those situations where it is perfectly acceptable for a Christian to say to a friend or neighbour, ‘What did you think of the sermon?’”
Read our leader comment on that sermon, plus Andrew Brown on the press coverage