WASHINGTON — The service that installed Michael Bruce Curry as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church on Sunday would have been unrecognizable to Episcopalians of the past century. And congregants say that’s a good thing.
The church’s first African-American presiding bishop was instated in a ceremony led by female bishops, openly gay priests and a rabbi. After a spirited opening by a gospel choir, Episcopal leaders filed into the National Cathedral in Washington to the sound of guitars guiding a Spanish hymn and a Native American drumming prelude.
“Don’t worry. Be happy! God has not given up on the world, and God is not finished with the Episcopal Church yet,” Curry said.
Curry faces the daunting task of revitalizing a splintered denomination that has lost more than a quarter of its members in the past decade.
His sermon to the more than 2,500 people in the cathedral was “classic Michael Curry,” his friends said. He needled. He reflected. He reassured.
“Racial reconciliation is just the beginning for the hard and holy work of real reconciliation that realizes justice but really across all the borders and boundaries that divide the human family of God,” he said.
For today’s Episcopal Church, the historically buttoned-up spiritual home of U.S. presidents and the nation’s elite, which is still 86 percent white, inclusion means survival.
“Today is a spectacular day because the election of an African-American bishop opens a new horizon that really just gives us so much hope for the future of the church,” the Rev. Gladys Diaz of New York said in Spanish.
An emotive man whose sermons often resemble the energetic oratory of a Southern preacher, his voice often dropping to a dramatic whisper before a booming exclamation, Curry may seem an eccentric choice to lead the church’s 1.8 million Episcopalians.
“Some people say that he doesn’t sound very Episcopalian, but no person does,” said the Rev. Sandye Wilson, a friend of Curry’s and rector of St. Andrew and Holy Communion Episcopal Church in South Orange, N.J. “Preaching style is as wide and varied as people and experiences in the church.
In recent years the church has moved toward increasingly progressive positions, including sanctioning gay marriage and female ordination. Curry is replacing Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, the first woman to hold that office.