Giving her first sermon as Bishop of Dover, The Rt Revd Dr Rose...
Millions of people heard Bishop Michael Curry preach at the royal wedding. For many, his passionate delivery and message of love was inspirational. But not everyone was a fan. Sam Hailes responds to the most common criticisms
An estimated two billion people around the globe watched the royal wedding this weekend.
This means that Bishop Michael Curry’s message is now one of the most watched sermons of all time! And there's been some really interesting reactions from both Christians and those outside of the Church.
I was among the 100,000 people crazy enough to visit Windsor on Saturday in an attempt try and get close to the action. To be honest, the idea of a 5am wake-up call hadn’t filled me with great delight when my wife first suggested we visit The Long Walk. But I’m glad we did.
The atmosphere was incredible throughout the day. As the ceremony began, we gathered around the big screen to watch what was taking place just a few hundred meters from where we sat.
There were a few outbursts during the sermon - one group of people near us misheard ‘balm’ for the word ‘bomb’ – others were surprised by the fiery delivery. It seems they had been expecting something far more reserved. Speaking after the message one lady near me remarked, “well that was lovely, but he could have been a bit more…official”. I smiled at the contradiction. We were a group of people exuberantly waving Union Jacks, shouting, clapping and cheering the royal couple at every available opportunity. We were all excited. But apparently the preacher wasn’t allowed to be.
In the hours following the sermon, four major criticisms of Bishop Curry’s message have emerged – many of them from Christians. Some critiques have more merit than others, but each of them are, in my view, fundamentally misguided. There’s no such thing as a perfect sermon, but Bishop Curry did a wonderful job. Here’s what people have objected to, and why I think they’re wrong:
1. He endorses same sex marriage
There’s no doubt about it - the Episcopalian Church’s decision to perform same sex weddings has angered plenty of Anglicans who see the move as going against biblical teaching.
Some had speculated that Justin Welby was making a statement on this issue by inviting an Episcopal bishop to give the address. So it’s understandable that some of those who hold a traditional perspective on marriage were irked by the invitation. That’s fair enough. But what’s less clear is why the sermon itself is so deserving of criticism.
This sermon wasn’t about same sex marriage. It was about God’s love. Bishop Curry didn’t say anything unorthodox or heretical. Instead he said: “Jesus of Nazareth taught us that the way of love is the way to a real relationship with the God who created all of us”.
Very few of the 2 billion people who watched the message would have even been aware of Bishop Curry’s views on same sex marriage. So while I accept the decision to invite him was controversial, the message itself was not.
2. His message was ‘Christianity-lite’
Critics have used words such as ‘fluffy’ and ‘feel good’ to criticise the sermon. They believe it was a generic message about worldly love rather than God’s saving grace.
There’s an irony here. We Christians have good news to share, but apparently we get nervous if the message sounds too good! Would we really have preferred to hear about fire, brimstone and total depravity? Would that have honoured God more? Is there no room left for Christians to proclaim a God who is love? Is it not God’s kindness which leads us to repentance? (Romans 2:4)
I admit this message did not contain a full description of our fallen, sinful state. Neither did it contain a full description of what Christ’s atoning death on the cross achieved for us. But what 13 minute sermon have you heard in which both of these things were fully unpacked?
It’s worth setting this message in context and having some perspective. To be frank, after the last royal wedding, the major topic of conversation in the tabloid press was Pippa Middleton’s bottom. This time round, many of the papers printed the transcript of Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon. If that isn’t progress I don’t know what is!
3. He didn’t mention the cross
It’s really easy to criticise people for what they’ve omitted. I remember the scholar DA Carson commenting on how he doesn’t pay much attention when people criticise him for over-emphasis or for a lack of emphasis. Why? Because it’s impossible to achieve a perfect balance and always give exactly the right amount of emphasis to each individual point. Especially when preaching.
In the same way, criticising a preacher for what they omitted in such a short message seems unreasonable. You can’t cover everything.
“But this wasn’t a minor point he omitted, understanding the cross is key to the gospel!” I hear you cry. Well, yes. I accept that if Bishop Curry failed to talk about the heart of the Christian message, this would have been a missed opportunity.
But he didn’t miss an opportunity! He took it. Twice! Here’s what he said: “If you cannot preach like Peter. And you cannot pray like Paul. You can tell the love of Jesus. How he died to save us all. There is a balm in Gilead. To make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead. To heal the sin sick soul. Just tell the love of Jesus, how he died to save us all.”
4. It was too long
Bishop Michael Curry spoke for 13 minutes and 34 seconds.
The average TED talk is 18 minutes. Most stand-up comics rant and rave for at least 45 minutes. Philip Hammond’s 2017 budget speech was 55 minutes long.
Bishop Michael Curry had a message to deliver which was far more important than the state of the economy, and has way more relevance than a comedy set. Yet he only had 13 minutes. I appreciate the internet has lowered all of our attention spans, but this was not a long message.
The American researcher Thom Rainer found the most frequent sermon length in the USA is 20-28 minutes. In many churches - on both sides of the Atlantic - sermons will last 45-55 minutes.
So by all accounts, this was a very short sermon.
Can you imagine the pressure Bishop Michael Curry was under? He had to deliver a message which would reach billions of people around the world. He was speaking in front of the Queen of England! And as if that wasn’t enough, he was tasked with preaching God’s word.
If you had 13 minutes to talk to 2 billion people, what would you say? I don’t think any of us could have done a better job than Bishop Michael Curry did on Saturday.
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