News, Culture & Society

Reverend Michael Curry tells JAN MOIR about those giggling royals

All God’s children, all those with sin-sick souls, the blessed and the meek, the brothers and sisters, gather round and hear me now.

For yes, this really did happen. An American preacher did pitch up at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding last Saturday to bellow about love and fire, fire and love, and the fiery love that ignites when we love each other in a fiery way.

The Color Toner Experts

And lo, the royals looked on, some of them three shades short of full beetroot in the Bible of blush, some of them smirking under their elaborate hats, some loving every minute.

Jan Moir, pictured with the Reverend Michael Curry, discovered he hadn’t planned to overrun his allotted time during the wedding service last weekend of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry

Oblivious, the Most Reverend Michael B. Curry — Presiding Bishop of the American Episcopal Church, who was chosen by the couple to read the sermon — roared on, running over his allotted time and into the history books before a TV audience of two billion.

He didn’t mean to overrun so badly, he tells me when we meet in Washington DC, he was just seized by the moment and inspired by the unexpected presence of his late grandmother’s spirit in St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

Say, what? ‘Yeah! My grandma was there, she was there in the room singing hymns. I could hear her voice in the back. She was saying: “I gotta see this, I gotta see this,”’ he says.

He is speaking of his maternal grandmother Nellie Strayhorn, who raised him when his own mother died of a brain haemorrhage when she was 44 and he was 14 years old. ‘She was a big influence, a profound influence on me,’ he says. ‘She was in her mid-70s by then, but she helped my father and she helped me.’

Rev Curry said he had been inspired by the unexpected presence of his late grandmother's spirit in St George's Chapel in Windsor. His grandmother raised him after his mother's death

Rev Curry said he had been inspired by the unexpected presence of his late grandmother’s spirit in St George’s Chapel in Windsor. His grandmother raised him after his mother’s death

Nellie was a remarkable woman of strong faith who lived through the Jim Crow years, who buried a husband and several of her own children. In one of his books, the Rev recalls misbehaving at college not long after Nellie died in her 90s, but coming to his senses when her face came to him in a dream. This became part of the awakening that put him on the path to righteousness at a time when he was, in his own words, ‘close to the edge’.

The Most Rev Curry has been hailed as a conquering hero since he returned home to the U.S. In his only British newspaper interview, he talked this week to the Daily Mail about becoming the breakout star of the Royal Wedding. This year’s Pippa, if you like. ‘This won’t last forever, I know that,’ he tells me.

He spent much of this week barrelling around New York from chat show to news show, not entirely sure who or what was on the schedule. ‘Who is next, is it Entertainment Tonight?’ he would ask, as his phalanx of ferociously organised assistants handed out instructions to interviewers to call him Bishop Michael and parcelled out his time in ten-minute slots.

The Most Rev Curry has been hailed as a conquering hero since he returned home to the U.S.

The Most Rev Curry has been hailed as a conquering hero since he returned home to the U.S.

He was a perma-presence on TV screens, popping up like a cork that had just been released from a bottle of fizzy holy water. Is he expecting an upturn in Episcopalian membership as a result of this global spotlight?

‘In all honesty, I don’t know. What I do hope is that it is an upturn towards a better world.’

In person, he is small and slightly stooped, and wears what look like orthopaedic shoes. His beard and close-cropped hair provide a tufty aureole of grey around a kindly face and, in contrast to the terrible teeth of the traditional British vicar, Bishop Michael is luxuriantly furnished in the dental department.

He has some zingy bling, including his gold bishop’s ring and a chunky silver cross, a gift from a member of his congregation which he has worn for more than 30 years.

He is approachable and warm, the kind of bishop you would happily confess your sins to, were he in the confessing business. At one point, he holds my hand, in a resolutely clerical way, of course. ‘Bless you, Jan!’ he cries, and I am surprised at how blessed me and my old Presbyterian heart feel by his benediction.

On a balmy spring evening here at the imposing National City Christian Church, Rev Curry is leading a march and candlelit vigil that will end at the White House.

It is not a protest, he insists, more a ‘response’ to current events, a sort of cough-cough polite reminder to the President to ‘love God and love thy neighbour’. Does loving everyone mean Rev Curry has to love Donald Trump, too? ‘Yes it does, dear, it extends to Trump. It extends to everybody. Love doesn’t mean you agree, love means you respect and honour each other as children of God. We can’t afford to dismiss love.’

Rev Curry said he provided a manuscript before the wedding and 'deviated slightly' 

Rev Curry said he provided a manuscript before the wedding and ‘deviated slightly’ 

This sentiment was more than evident during his sermon for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex — or the Duchess of Success, as she is known by admiring Americans.

His themes included love, more love, slavery, Martin Luther King, the Song of Solomon, the Industrial Revolution, the balm of Gilead, cars with fires instead of engines, poverty, war and, did I mention, the fire of love and the power of love?

As he repeatedly implored Christians to put love at the centre of their spiritual and political lives, it became clear nothing like this had ever been heard before at a royal wedding.

‘It was raw God,’ said the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, who, along with the Dean of Windsor, the Right Reverend David Conner, and the royal couple, had conspired to bring Rev Curry on board, no doubt impressed by his devotion as a campaigner for social justice, same-sex marriage and LGBT rights.

In the Quire, the Duchess of Cornwall seemed amused by all the roaring, the pink frills on her giant hat shivering like a slightly aroused flamingo as she tried, not terribly well, to suppress her giggles.

The Duchess of Cambridge twinkled and dimpled, while Princess Eugenie looked as if she liked the sound of that balm of Gilead — was it good for chapped lips? She was going to order some anyway.

In the Quire, the Duchess of Cornwall seemed amused by all the roaring, the pink frills on her giant hat shivering like a slightly aroused flamingo as she tried, not terribly well, to suppress her giggles

In the Quire, the Duchess of Cornwall seemed amused by all the roaring, the pink frills on her giant hat shivering like a slightly aroused flamingo as she tried, not terribly well, to suppress her giggles

If he noticed the reaction, the Most Rev didn’t mind a bit. ‘They were listening in their own way,’ he says. ‘They are good people and they were very gracious and kind.’ So holy and compassionate is he that he doesn’t have a bad word to say about anyone, which is lovely, but maddening.

Despite this, his sermon was radical, calling for an end to poverty and war amid a pompadoured thicket of elites, in front of a diamond-draped bride in a £200,000 gown and a groom who owes his status entirely to hierarchy and inherited wealth.

‘Wow,’ said Harry after the sermon ended, and no wonder.

‘I provided a copy of the manuscript a week before and I only deviated slightly,’ the Most Rev told me, but who is he trying to kid? He veered off script almost from the second sentence, and ran for 14 minutes instead of his allocated six. He sure got his preach on, as they say here in America, but not everyone loved it.

Some senior figures in the Church of England reacted with pearl-clutching horror, insisting that it was ‘seriously misjudged’. The Very Reverend Trevor Beeson, who was dean of Winchester Cathedral for nine years, even wrote to The Times to declare his belief that the sermon ‘distorted’ an otherwise moving occasion.

‘Actually, I hadn’t heard that, but it is OK. Let’s have the discussion,’ says Rev Curry. ‘Love doesn’t mean that we have to agree. It just means that we have to love each other.’

There were also claims that the Most Rev used the wedding as an ‘attempt to gain world fame’.

‘No, no. Good Lord, no. I really did want to say a word about the way of love that I have learned from Jesus Christ. I want God’s love to be the thing that people remember. They can forget me, but think about the love of God.’ And the laughter in church, was that good? ‘Oh, there were some funny moments. OK, I would have laughed, too. A sermon should have some tears, some joy.

‘Emotions should be expanded. Laugh at me, laugh with me, it is all fine by me. Any way I can steer the message about the love of God, I am glad to do that,’ he says.

Certainly, his life has changed enormously in the space of a week. When he flew to London, he was little known outside Episcopalian circles. When he flew back, the American Airlines crew were in raptures. ‘They all wanted selfies,’ he says. ‘Except the pilot. He kept on flying.’

So who is the Most Rev Curry, the charismatic preacher installed in 2015 as head of the country’s wealthiest Christian denomination? He was the first African-American elected to the post and today heads a church with more than three million followers, 90 per cent of whom are white.

In a religion not given to ecclesiastical ostentation, the 65-year-old bishop is well known for his lusty, fire-breathing Southern Baptist-style preaching, embellished with rhetorical flourishes, repetitions and plenty of ham and cheese.

Born in Chicago, he is married to Sharon, a choirmaster and organist. The couple have two adult daughters; Elizabeth is a teacher, while Rachel is ‘a self-employed mother’ who shares online posts about her struggles with lupus.

At home, Dad is a hero, an American football fan who supports the Buffalo Bills and is a keen cook. ‘Oh, I am a spaghetti master! I can do an Italian spaghetti like you wouldn’t believe. You would think I was Italian the way I can cook it,’ he says.

He tells me his great-great grandparents were slaves, his great grandparents were sharecroppers and that preaching runs in the family. ‘My daddy was an Episcopal preacher, my granddaddy was a Baptist preacher, the daddy before him was a preacher, too, but we don’t know which kind.’

He grew up in Buffalo, in upstate New York, where his mother, Dorothy, was a mathematician. His father, Rev Kenneth, was involved in civil rights. He once told his children he might have to go to jail, explaining: ‘You must always be willing to give yourself up for a higher cause.’

Tragedy struck the family in the Sixties when Dorothy suffered a brain aneurysm. She was in a coma for a year before she died. Michael and his siblings, then teenagers, would visit her every day, do their homework by her side and pray.

His mother was Baptist, and didn’t switch to the Episcopal faith until she read Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis. His father also switched, after he saw how Episcopalians welcomed a black woman into the fold. However, grandma Nellie never switched.

‘That led to some interesting discussions,’ says Rev Curry, who attended Yale Divinity School.

As a schoolboy, he worked as a volunteer on Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. As a man, he has been compared to Pope Francis for his open and positive messages. All of which led him to Windsor, and to his own date with destiny. So how did his big moment come to pass?

The Reverend was ‘happily minding my own business’ when the call came from Lambeth Palace to his office in New York, inviting him to preach at the Royal Wedding.

‘I said: “What? Get outta here. April fool or what? You have to be kidding me.” Then, when I realised they really were serious, it began to sink in. I couldn’t even tell my wife for a month. When I did she said: “Michael, get outta here!”, too.’

Everything happened so quickly. He arrived at Lambeth Palace on the Thursday and first met Harry and Meghan on Friday at the wedding rehearsal.

On Saturday morning, he had coffee and two slices of toast with jam for breakfast, ironed his own robes and felt nervous.

In the chapel he did his bit, channelled the spirit of grandma Nellie and got his preach on. ‘Afterwards, I sat down and thought to myself: “I hope that was OK.” ’

At the reception afterwards, he spoke briefly to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, who thanked him, but he appears not to have had a meaningful conversation with any other royals, including HM. ‘I didn’t formally meet the Queen, no,’ he says. ‘She was there at the reception and I saw her briefly. You nod to the Queen, if she speaks to you, you speak back. We nodded,’ he says, and laughs.

A cold little nod from afar? No Prince Charles giving him a slap on the back? Sometimes the Royal Family seem very weird indeed — or perhaps they were shell-shocked from the bishop’s fire power.

The rest of the world has taken this lovable clergyman to their hearts. Back in DC, it is time for the bishop to gather his flock and march on the White House.

A frisson of rock-star excitement ripples around the gathered Episcopalians as he clomps off down the church steps in his big shoes.

They follow as he goes out into the warm velvet night to spread God’s word and put more good love into this bad, bad world.

Brothers and sisters, I may be more blessed than thou, but do I hear an amen? Amen.



Comments are closed.