If the sheer magnitude of the occasion, the unpredictability of the page boys and the vague possibility an uninvited Markle might have smashed through a stained-glass window weren’t enough to keep the congregation sharp in St George’s Chapel, one moment was sure to wake royal wedding guests up: The sermon.
After opening remarks by the Dean of Windsor, David Conner, and before the marriage vows, officiated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the assembled guests – plus many millions watching on television around the world – heard a sermon delivered by American preacher Michael Bruce Curry, the 27th Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church.
It was quite a gear change. Curry, 65, became the first African-American to lead the Episcopal Church in 2015, and is renowned for his highly entertaining preaching style. His rambling addresses from the pulpit are by turns gloriously melodramatic, sharply political and filled with self-deprecating humour. Welby and Conner may wish to up their game; Curry promises to steal the show.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markleare said to have discussed whom to select for the sermon with Welby, who knows Curry well. The Chicagoan bishop hadn’t personally met Harry or Meghan, but it was said they hoped to be introduced prior to the service. A Kensington Palace statement described him as “an appropriate figure” to speak at the Royal wedding.
“The love that has brought and will bind Prince Harry and Meghan Markle together has its source and origin in God and is the key to life and happiness. And so we celebrate and pray for them today,” Curry said.
Welby, who baptised Ms Markle into the Church of England in March, underlined his admiration for the American preacher with a tweet. “I'm thrilled that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have asked Bishop Michael Curry to preach at their wedding. [He] is a brilliant pastor, stunning preacher and someone with a great gift for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ,” he wrote.
Curry’s announcement was a surprise to some, given he is not a family friend of the royals. At their wedding in 2011, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge had Richard Chartres, the former Bishop of London and an old university friend of the Prince of Wales, deliver the sermon.
Chartres nudged the congregation awake that day with a fantastic seven-minute speech that trod the line between tradition and modernity. His colourful opening quote from St Catherine of Siena – ‘Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire’ – became one of the more memorable from the day.
Curry, a descendant of slaves, was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1953, before moving to Buffalo, New York, as a child. He has said his mother switched from the Baptist church to Episcopalianism after she read CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity, which prompted his father, the late Reverend Kenneth Curry, who came from a line of Baptist preachers, to do the same. Reverend Kenneth Curry was a civil rights activist who helped bring an end to racial segregation in schools in Buffalo.
Following his father into the church, Curry became ordained in 1978 and moved to North Carolina, where he served at St Stephen’s Episcopal Church, before stints in parishes in Ohio and Baltimore. He was elected 11th bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina in 2000, later becoming one of the first bishops to allow same-sex marriages to be performed in churches there.
After 15 years in North Carolina, Curry was elected to lead the entire Episcopal Church in 2015 with an overwhelming majority. Founded in 1789 and with almost two million baptised members (only a fraction of whom are black), it is one of the oldest Anglican churches in America. During the American Revolution, the second presiding bishop, Samuel Seabury, was a famous rival of Alexander Hamilton, and makes a fleeting appearance in Hamilton: An American Musical.
“My grandmother couldn’t imagine Barack Obama in the White House, and I know she couldn’t imagine her grandson as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church,” Curry once said of his historic election.
Curry, who has two grown-up daughters, Rachel and Elizabeth, with his wife Sharon, has previously compared the LGBT and black civil rights movements, and is a staunch advocate of same-sex marriage.
In 2015, when the Episcopal Church voted to allow gay couples to marry in religious ceremonies, Welby was temporarily furious at the rift such a progressive move could create. He said that the decision of Curry’s church would "cause distress for some and have ramifications for the Anglican communion as a whole, as well as for its ecumenical and interfaith resolutions,” and the Episcopal Church was subsequently suspended from key voting positions in the Anglican Communion for three years. It rejoins next year.
Curry, never one to back down easily, stood his ground. “I stand before you as a descendant of African slaves, stolen from their native land, enslaved in a bitter bondage, and then even after emancipation, segregated and excluded in church and society,” he said. “And this conjures that up again, and brings pain.”
Welby and Curry have remained firm friends, however. Curry is a supporter of Thy Kingdom Come, a global prayer movement started in 2016 by Welby and Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, and the two men are thought to agree on many issues – not least the need to modernise the Anglican church and its image.
A fanatical music fan, follower of the Buffalo Bills American football team and avid reader, Curry’s sermons are widely admired, despite frequently containing strong political undertones. As well as a vocal advocate of gay marriage, he has made veiled (and not-so-veiled) attacks on the Trump administration.
“Very often our very faith has been hi-jacked by cultural voices more concerned about self-serving agenda and not concerned about self-sacrificial service for others. Where is the Christianity worried about immigrants? Where is the Christianity speaking up for those young dreamers? Where is the Christianity speaking up for children in our society and for the poor?” he preached earlier this year. Along with 22 other Christian leaders, he plans to join a march on the White House to “reclaim Jesus” just days after the royal wedding.
Luckily the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth has made a Michael Curry Sermon Bingo card for the big day pic.twitter.com/FTFzZmtRe2— Breaking Butter (@breakingbutter) May 18, 2018
With his deep baritone voice and sing-song cadence, Curry’s inspirational (albeit occasionally very long) sermons tend to capture any audience’s attention, including the thousands who watch him on YouTube.
According to his followers, wherever he preaches, he uses jokes, African-American spirituals, poetry and masterful storytelling to captivate the congregation. American fans on Twitter have even produced a ‘Michael Curry bingo’ card for viewers to play along with. “If you’re breathing, God’s calling!”, “Crazy Christians”, and simply the word “GO!” are among the phrases to look out for, apparently.
Timings may be tight tomorrow, but don’t be surprised if Curry is allowed to steal an extra minute if he’s in full flow. Americans are confident he can bring down the house, or at the very least shine brightly in a day full of unexpected tweaks on tradition.
“The man is 100% joy," said one Episcopalean commentator this week. "Don’t be surprised if everyone at St. George’s Chapel is singing 'There is a balm in Gilead' next Saturday."