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Interview: Bishop Michael Curry on the royal wedding sermon that changed his life

The exuberant preacher who turned the royal wedding upside down talks about politics, the power of love and what it was like to become famous in a day

When Bishop Michael Curry was asked to speak at the wedding of the year, he thought it was a joke. “I got the call from a member of my staff and I was like: ‘Is it April? Is this an April Fool?’”

It did seem unlikely: a charismatic African-American preacher in the pulpit at one of the Royal Family’s most intimate occasions. But the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the soldier prince and the Hollywood star, broke down cultural barriers in a way unprecedented for the House of Windsor. And the surprise guest star was this 65-year-old from Chicago, raised in the civil rights movement, with a message of love that touched so many in St George’s Chapel and watching on televisions around the world.

“The power of love is demonstrated by the fact that we’re all here,” said Curry, beaming. “Two young people fell in love and we all showed up.” The groom laughed when he heard those words and held the hand of his bride, who looked delighted. The Queen and other senior Royals visibly wondered what to make of the Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church, who was dressed in familiar Anglican robes but talked with an unusual ease, fluidity and warmth.

This was the biggest single presentation of the gospel in human history

He certainly had the potential to be controversial. The church he leads supports same-sex marriage. And the bishop did not shy away from mentioning slavery, as the descendant of slaves himself.

The pressure was on for him too: with a global audience of 2 billion, this was the biggest single presentation of the gospel in human history. But what a presentation it was: funny, generous, inclusive, human, twice as long as scheduled and unapologetically full-on about the reason everyone was there in church. “It’s not just for and about a young couple, who we rejoice with. It’s more than that,” he said, seizing his moment. The source of love is God, who is also the source of life, and he made that love known in Jesus, said the bishop.

But what was it like to be Bishop Curry on that day? What did it do to his life, to become so famous that he was simultaneously spoofed by Lenny Henry here and Saturday Night Live in America? And what does this campaigner for social justice, from a country that rejected the idea of a monarchy long ago, really think Jesus would make of our Royal Family? Many of us who were touched by his words at the wedding were concerned to hear that he underwent surgery for prostate cancer over the summer, so how is his health now?

I was delighted to be asked to put these and other questions to Bishop Curry when he flew over for a public conversation between the two of us at Southwark Cathedral. Hosted by the Greenbelt Festival, the event drew a very large audience that included royalists and republicans alike: some drawn by the desire to see the wedding preacher, others supportive of his stand against Donald Trump. He was brought to this country by his publisher, Hodder Faith, to promote his new book The Power of Love, which brings together several of his recent sermons including the most famous of them all. As a clue, it has a cover that looks like a wedding invitation.

The bishop had flown in from the States and arrived just hours before, but he was just as approachable as he had seemed at the wedding, and every bit as eloquent. Personally, at a time when it is often hard to cling to faith, and when the actions of the Church can seem baffling, I found Bishop Curry honest, open, inspiring and still full of hope.

Do you know why you were chosen to preach at the wedding of the year?

No, I don’t know. But they brought together a variety of worlds in that service, respecting each of their histories and heritages and the two nations that were being brought together. They kind of embodied that in the worship, in the liturgy itself. So it kind of made some sense.

Did they tell you what you could and couldn’t say?

No, they really were very generous and gracious. The text they chose, Song of Songs, is a remarkable book. The couple express their love for each other in all its dimensions, then in chapter 8 it’s as though you can almost hear the woman saying: “Wait a minute, this love is incredible, but where does it come from?” She begins to look in the direction of the God who is the source of love.

They saw the sermon a week or two ahead of time. I submitted it as a courtesy.

Did they give you any guidance on timing?

[Laughs] Yes, they did. But you’re on the metric system here, right? We’re still using the old system in the States, so the conversion takes some doing!

It’s not double, Bishop! Were you nervous?

How could you not be? But once I got up to preach, I became a parish priest again. This was a couple getting married. I was talking to them, as a pastor. I’ve been doing that for almost 40 years.

Were you given any chance to get to know them?

Not really, no. But this was a wedding, so the context of the liturgy and the worship of the service were really clear. And even Americans were into it; Americans love the Royal Family. Maybe it is because of the times we live in, but just for a moment – it didn’t last forever – the wedding provided a moment of hope. The wedding was a parable of the power of love itself to actually break down the walls that divide us and bring us together. That’s what love does.

You got lucky there. We’ve all seen weddings – including royal ones – where we’ve looked at the bride and groom and thought: “Oh, not sure about that…”

That happens here too?

I won’t name names. But this time it was fascinating to see two people so clearly into each other.

You couldn’t miss it.

Were you conscious of 2 billion people watching?

Not really, no. I mean, I knew it was a big congregation! But I was conscious of the couple. They were my primary focus. I was aware of being careful about the language [I used], because the meaning of a word on our side of the pond might be different on this side of the pond and I didn’t want to get in trouble. But I was also aware of the fact that this message – this way of love, which is at the heart of Jesus of Nazareth – is not limited to anybody. This is a universal message. Dr Martin Luther King once said: “We will either learn to live together as brothers and sisters or we will perish together as fools.”

Your book urges us to follow what you call the “Way of Love”. What does that actually mean in everyday life?

To make it simple: love is unselfish, selfless, sacrificial living. It seeks the good and the well-being of the other. Even sometimes above and beyond my own self-interest. That’s what you have in the New Testament. Nobody made Jesus go to the cross, an angry God didn’t make him do it. Jesus made a decision: “I’ve got to show y’all what this looks like.” So he gives up his life for others. Not for himself. That’s what love does. We’re not just talking about a sweet sentiment. We’re talking about a hard-nosed reality. We’re talking about a way of life. A game-changer in all our relationships. We must seek the common good. You can’t name one change in human history for the good that wasn’t motivated by unselfish, sacrificial, selfless living. That’s love.

Such love leads to action, doesn’t it? That reminds me of a sermon in your book which you gave in the blazing sun outside a detention centre for immigrants…

Twelve busloads of Episcopalians went to Hutto Detention Center in the state of Texas. Many women in there are refugees fleeing violence from South America, women separated from their children. They were being housed in a concrete detention centre with barbed wire all around it. This is in the United States of America today. Our group were holding up signs saying things like: “God loves you and we love you.” Then, all of a sudden you could see the women inside were waving white towels. They knew they were being loved. For a brief moment we saw the capacity and power of love to break through concrete walls. Love will eventually break those walls down like the walls of Jericho. And one day we’re going to reform our immigration laws in the United States and change refugee policies and also maintain security at the borders. You can do all of that. Love doesn’t quit. And love is not partisan. Love is about God and about us.

I’m with you. But those women are still in the detention centres. So their experience of love on that day didn’t get them very far, did it?

Actually, there were other protests and vigils around the country at the same time. Our administration backed off its policy – not completely, but it did back off. But I’ve got to tell you; this love thing for me goes deep. I am the descendent of African slaves in America. My grandmother was a sharecropper, subject to a kind of economic slavery set up so you were in debt forever. She lived through the period of what we call ‘Jim Crow’ segregation, where hooded night-riders, Ku Klux Klan, were wearing their white clan things and burning crosses. That was the world she lived in. And yet she lived long enough to see the emergence of a civil rights movement that was inspired by and defined by the way of love. And that movement eventually did change the heart of a nation. I’ve seen that in my lifetime. Now, progress is never straightforward. It is never easy. It’s always a couple of steps forward then you get knocked back. But we don’t give up. When love is the way we will find our way.

You rightly say Dr King urged his followers to consider the life and teachings of Jesus in all things; but other Church leaders in America also claim to do the same and it leads them to support Donald Trump. So how do you deal with that?

I was part of a group with Jim Wallis and folk at Sojourners magazine to gather together a number of religious leaders primarily from mainline Protestant, Catholic and evangelical churches, who were not satisfied with the religious voices that were getting heard in the public square in our country. We called it ‘Reclaiming Jesus’. We realised that when religious voices get microphones and airtime in the United States, very often Jesus of Nazareth is not being quoted. When was the last time you heard the Sermon on the Mount? When was the last time you heard: “Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the merciful and compassionate”? I’m a biblical person, but there are certain passages that get avoided and don’t get paid attention to. I want to suggest that we must reclaim Jesus of Nazareth, the actual teaching Jesus. Give me that Jesus, because that Jesus will stand the test of time.

And yet so often the Church has not spoken truth to power but has whispered in its ear, asking for a share. Can you understand why people outside the Church often feel it acts in a way contrary to the life teachings of Christ?

Oh yeah, sure. I have a theory that where and when it has gone wrong it has been the further we have strayed away from the teachings of Jesus, his example and his Spirit. That’s when the Church has even gone away from its Lord and its master and its saviour and its friend, its Jesus. Those who were justifying slavery rarely went to Jesus. They might have talked about Christ in some abstract sense, but the example of Jesus and the Spirit of Jesus does not countenance slavery. It does not countenance anything that hurts any human child of God.

OK. I’m going to put you on the spot about a contemporary issue. What does your reading of the life and teachings of Jesus tell you about same-sex marriage?

I can answer from the perspective of the Episcopal Church. I’m not going to get in your business [in the Church of England]. I’m not going there. I don’t want to intrude or be inappropriate. We in the Episcopal Church now have same-sex marriage. Or better yet: for us, marriage is a sacramental right for two people who are willing to make a commitment of fidelity, monogamy and a loving commitment of relationship for life. I believe in that.

But I want you to hear the workings of love. There are people in our church who don’t agree with that. And I said to them: “The love that compels me to make it possible for marriage to be available to all who would take the vows is the same love that compels me to make sure that there’s space for you in this Church.” The old slaves used to say: “There’s plenty good room in the Father’s kingdom.” We’re not there, but we are working at that.

I want to go back to that wedding, and ask you this: what would Jesus say about a hereditary monarchy?

What do you think he would say? [Laughs]. I haven’t got the foggiest idea! But I can tell you what Jesus would say not only about the monarchy but of all the people of this great country and of all the people of all the lands of the earth: “God loves you so much. If you live in that love, you’ll find the way to life no matter who you are.” That’s what Jesus would say.

Could you ring me up and tell me that every morning, please? When you sat down after preaching at the wedding, what did you think?

This is the honest to God truth. I sat down and said: “Oh God, I hope that was all right. I hope I didn’t mess up.”

The media picked up on the facial expressions of some of the Royal Family, amused or otherwise. Did you notice those?

Ha! Well, I’ve been an Episcopalian all my life so I can pretty much assure you that your Episcopal cousins are very similar. Let me tell you a true story. My mother died [of a brain haemorrhage] when I was at junior high school and my grandma came and really helped Daddy to raise us. She was a big influence on my spirituality, the deep roots of it. And after Mummy’s funeral, Grandma said: “You always know where the Holy Spirit is, when people love.” So the personal origin of my sermon that day is in my grandmother, Nellie Strayhorn: the granddaughter of slaves, who buried several of her own children (one of whom was my mother) and who turned around in her mid-70s and helped to raise two more, my sister and I. There’s the power of love. I’ve seen it.

If she had been in the Windsor pews that day, what would she have said to you?

Well, she might have been intimidated by the space a little bit, but if you could have let her cut loose she would have said: “Lord, hallelujah!”

So after the service did you all go back to the reception and dance to YMCA with the Queen?

Yeah, right! The reception was lovely. Everyone was very gracious, and it was neat to meet a lot of the people who were involved in various charities who are doing really good stuff that really makes a difference. It was really cool and they had a pretty good pianist, I think his name was Sir Elton John…

Pretty soon after the wedding it was announced that you’d been in hospital for major surgery. How is your health now?

It’s good. I had prostate cancer surgery, a prostatectomy, and everything went well. Anybody who said a prayer, thank you. I am a cancer survivor and I don’t quit. I’m going to keep on.

The wedding made you a global star. Did it make you big-headed?

Premier Christianity Cover - Dec 2018

No, my head was already big, I’m a bishop! Two members of my staff are sitting right here; they probably can tell you! But the wedding did change things. What it has really done is to create opportunities for real conversations about real faith that I didn’t have as easily before. I’ve noticed more spiritual conversations at airports…and in churches, even. I don’t know if it’s just the wedding that has done this but there is a deeper conversation: “Let’s talk about this Jesus. Let’s get into this text. What’s going on here, and then how do we apply it; how can we live it?” I’m noticing a depth, a richness, as though the wedding sermon gave us permission to have real spiritual conversations we were afraid to have before. Maybe it’s given us an opening. I really do pray that we can get a real, underground movement going, of people who will commit themselves to the way of love: living it, sharing it and making it real. When that happens, as Dr King said: “This old world becomes a new world.”

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