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Episcopalians scramble to capitalize on royal wedding opportunity

Members of the armed forces ride horses during a parade rehearsal ahead of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's wedding in Windsor, England, on May 17, 2018. Preparations continue in Windsor ahead of the May 19 royal wedding of Britain's Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Members of the armed forces ride horses during a parade rehearsal on May 17, 2018, ahead of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding Saturday in Windsor, England. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

(RNS) — As 3 billion people worldwide prepare to watch the royal wedding of Prince Harry and actress Meghan Markle on Saturday (May 19), one faith group is especially keen to make the most of every pageantry-filled moment: Episcopalians.

From North Carolina to Washington state, they’ve been scrambling all week to set up for parish viewing parties, update church websites and get their hands on bingo cards designed to reward those who listen most closely.

And why not? Episcopalians not only trace their religious roots through King Henry VIII, whose 16th-century reign ushered in the Church of England. They’ll also have one of their own in the pulpit when Presiding Bishop Michael Curry delivers the wedding sermon.

“The idea that someone you’ve (known), that this individual with this message, is given the opportunity to be heard by 3 billion people — how could we not be listening to this together while he delivers this good news to the entire globe,” said Helen Probst-Mills, who will join fellow members of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Southern Pines, N.C.,  for a 6:30 a.m. viewing party at the parish. “The whole point is that we’re all hearing it while the rest of the globe is hearing it.”

Curry leads the 1.7 million-member Episcopal Church, which encompasses dioceses in 17 countries, including the United States. He’s the church’s first African-American bishop and the first American to give a homily address at a royal wedding.

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry speaks during a service at the Washington National Cathedral on Nov. 1, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

For the Episcopal Church, the occasion marks a moment of opportunity to welcome newcomers and show the world Episcopalians are not entirely marginalized for their progressive views on gay ordination and same-sex marriage.

“After all those threats of schism … the presiding bishop has been invited to preach at a royal wedding,” said the Rev. Susan Russell, senior associate for communication at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif. “It’s hard not to be proud that Bishop Curry will bring the good news not only to the royal couple but to everyone who has ears to hear.”

The Episcopal Church has had a bumpy ride since 2003, when the church’s first openly gay bishop, the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, was consecrated in the Diocese of New Hampshire. Hundreds of congregations left the denomination to join the newly formed Anglican Church in North America. After the Episcopal Church redefined marriage to include same-sex couples in 2015, the church was barred from Anglican Communion decision-making and from ecumenical dialogue on behalf of the communion. From 2006 to 2016, the denomination’s active membership dropped by 19 percent, according to the most recent Episcopal Church statistics.

But none of that history is the focus this weekend, when all eyes turn to St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle for the main event.

Probst-Mills and fellow Emmanuel parishioner Lynn Healy got the idea for a viewing party two days after Curry’s address was announced. They had gotten to know Curry in his prior role as bishop of North Carolina and are excited for him to step onto his biggest stage yet.

Meanwhile, some sermon watchers are going to pay particular attention to his words — and by design.

Specifically, the design comes in the form of a bingo card, where listeners can mark off Curry’s use of phrases known to pepper his sermons, such as “I’m not going to be up here long” or “If you’re breathing, God’s calling.”

The communications staff of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, put together a “Michael Curry Sermon Bingo” card that can be downloaded and printed for use during the broadcast. Demand for the download was so great, according to Communications Director Katie Sherrod, that the diocese’s website crashed for several hours on Wednesday.

Sherrod noted that “in the wake of Barbara Bush’s funeral (on April 21), our website got thousands of hits asking about the Episcopal Church,” which led staffers to wonder what the response to Curry’s royal wedding role might bring.

“We were just trying to look at our website through new eyes,” Sherrod said. “Not through the insider’s eyes, but the (eyes of the) seekers.”

That led Sherrod and colleagues to adapt an infographic on the “Top Ten Things You Might Hear Michael Curry Say in a Sermon” and then develop the game card.

“We hope it gives people fun and gets them to focus on what Michael is saying,” Sherrod said. “He can change lives with this sermon, and we hope they’ll pay attention to what he’s saying.”

At the Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill, N.C., about 10 members will gather early Saturday to watch the wedding live, said the Rev. Lisa Fischbeck, rector of the 175-member parish.

“If Michael weren’t preaching, we’d watch the reruns on YouTube,” Fischbeck said. “Here he is, one of our own, going to speak at the royal wedding — and there’s something pretty stunning on its own.”

But, she added, it’s the sermon more than the ceremony that’s the draw.

“It’s got to be something good to get me out of bed so early in the morning,” she said.

Not every Episcopal church will host a viewing at the crack of dawn, however. St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City will convene a British-style tea at 1 p.m. and show a recording of the event. On the menu: cucumber sandwiches, scones and strawberries with clotted cream.

Vicki Zust, spokeswoman for the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York, which includes Curry’s hometown of Buffalo, said pre-wedding publicity about Curry’s address has boosted web traffic by 30 percent. Zust said parishes around the diocese are getting ready for new visitors on Sunday, the day after the nuptials.

Episcopalians are hopeful they can capitalize on all the attention paid this weekend to Anglican ritual and spirituality. If all goes well, Curry might be their ticket to framing the church in a fresh light.

“For those who know enough about Christians not to want to be one,” Russell said, the wedding brings a chance “to hear someone who gives a message of justice and compassion.”

About the author

Mark A. Kellner

20 Comments

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  • Very sad that they chose a man who does not follow Christ, to conduct their wedding.
    Christian means follower of Christ;

    1 Corinthians 7 – Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. 3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.” But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband.”
    No exceptions

  • Given the distaste for Christianity experienced by countless throngs of young people who are leaving that religion in droves, repulsed by the rank hypocrisy, exclusivity, self-righteousness and judgmentalism of evangelicals, perhaps Anglicanism is long overdue for a comeback.

    After all, those who love to gloat about the Episcopal Church’s decline in this country mainly point to that church’s tolerance for LGTB people as the reason. Personally, I think the real reason people left was because they were looking for an excuse to stop giving their money to the church since membership in just the “right” sort of church was no longer necessary in order to succeed in business like it once was.

    From what I gather, many of those parishes who left in a huff came crawling back with their tails between their legs when one court case after another ruled that Episcopal Canon Law ensured that the various dioceses owned the disputed church property of those parishes which wanted to take their fine English-style buildings with them and worship under the aegis of homophobic African bishops.

    So why not Anglicanism as a more liberal answer for thinking people who are not attracted to autocratic forms of religion and are seeking a faith practice that doesn’t require them to leave their brains at the church door or look down on certain minorities in order to be one of the clan? It’s been here all along, adding human experience to the tripartite pillars of scripture, reason and tradition as the foundation stone of their belief. Add to that the beauty of Thomas Cramner’s elegant prose, the majesty of English Cathedral music, the magnificence of Anglican houses of worship throughout the world, and what’s not to love? Inclusion and tolerance are just icing on the cake.

    “High and crazy, broad and hazy, low and lazy – one glorious family we – the remarkable AEC.” (American Episcopal Church) Good for them, and Mozel tov to Harry and Meghan.

  • “So why not Anglicanism as a more liberal answer for thinking people who are not attracted to autocratic forms of religion and are seeking a faith practice that doesn’t require them to leave their brains at the church door or look down on certain minorities in order to be one of the clan?”

    1000 upvotes for this sentence alone.

  • Thanks. Since you live in the Bay area (I assume) have you ever been to Grace Cathedral on Snob Hill in SF? Wonderful place.

  • Many times. My former profession took me into a lot of churches. I always liked grace because it was so consciously old world.

  • I’ve not been to Grace Cathedral, but I enjoyed it’s role in one of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books!

  • Unfortunately, the cause decline of the Episcopal Church is demographics, demographics, demographics. The traditional constituency of the Episcopal Church is the educated, urban-cultural elite and semi-elite and that demographic has for some decades now trended secular.

    No matter how much the Episcopal Church showcases its socially progressive commitments and, I suspect, no matter how much it now tries to exploit the connection with British royalty, most Americans simply don’t notice because in the US religious affiliation is inextricably linked to the Deplorables. If you admit to being religiously affiliated people immediately assume you’re lower class, and they don’t make fine distinctions between Episcopalians and Fundagelicals. Religious affiliation has become a class marker—and a source of shame.

  • The evidence for that “root cause” appears to be nil.

    The traditional leadership of the Episcopal Church was the educated, urban-cultural elite and semi-elite, but the rank-and-file was everyone.

    Its current membership has a much higher percentage of ex-Catholics than it did two generations ago, individuals attached to the bells and smells and liturgical accouterments but rejecting the notions of authority, Biblical and otherwise, whose belief system corresponds to the platform of the Democratic Party.

    Those who adhere to its role as a bridge church between the Protestant and Catholic views, and take it seriously, are now found in the so-called “continuing” churches.

    Nearly the identical downward trajectory marks the United Church of Christ – including schisms over doctrine – which similarly bailed out of Christian belief and substituted a political agenda.

    But your personal belief that religious affiliation is a mark of shame is noted.

  • One correction: Bishop Curry is not our first African-American bishop. That distinction belongs to Bishop James Theodore Holly, ordained bishop of Haiti in 1874. Bishop Curry is our first African-American PRESIDING Bishop, which is to say chief pastor and Primate of the Episcopal Church.

  • It’s nice to give attention to a man of religion who stands up for decency after the apostasy of the fundamentalists to the Father of Lies.

  • Much is being made of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church preaching at the Royal Wedding as if this is some kind of prophetic witness, really, are you fecking kidding me! If he wants to follow in the steps of Amos or Jeremiah or the other prophets let alone Jesus then when he and his fellow bishops of ECUSA and his brother/sister bishops in the ELCA, The UMC, the AME, The CME, the U S Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Senior Minister of the UCC, and all the rest stand at the White House gates, in the halls of Congress, and in the state houses, and denounce the evangelicals, the Republicans, and the nazi klansmen in the White House for the den of vipers as Jesus would call them that they are, and divest themselves of the investments and stocks that make them religious corporations and not churches then and only then might they claim a modicum of moral authority!

    Edit

  • ALL churches that have traditionally catered for the educated upper middle class are collapsing, including the UCC as you note. But the Southern Baptist church, not liberal, has also been declining. If you look at the statistics ranking ranking denominations by wealth and income of members—Hindus and Jews on top followed closely by Episcopalians, with Evangelicals about 1/3 from the bottom the correlation between class and secularization is clear. And secularization is now trickling down to the lower classes.

    The collapse of the mainline churches has nothing to do with doctrine and everything to do with class. Mainliners are not by and large leaving liberal churches to affiliate with more conservative ones—the ‘continuing churches’ in the Anglican tradition are marginal. They are leaving to become Nones. Again, I’m not going to do your research for you—google around and check the stats. As for the RC church, once again upper middle class Anglos are leaving in numbers comparable to those bailing from mainline Protestant churches and are being replaced by lower class immigrants and minorities. Again class is everything.

    And, personally, I am not ashamed of being ashamed of my religious affiliation. Being upper middle class is extremely important to me, something I value highly, and it is depressing that my religious affiliation has become a class marker, an indicator of lower class status.

  • I don’t believe you’re going to find data supporting sufficient numbers of “educated upper middle class” in either denomination prior to their shifts in doctrine to support nearly 50% losses.

    That seems to put a torpedo right into the waterline of “The collapse of the mainline churches has nothing to do with doctrine and everything to do with class.”

    The fact that the gain in membership of the continuing Anglican churches and the admission of former Episcopalians into the Catholic Church equal roughly 2/3 of the loss at the Episcopal Church would appear to support a different conclusion: the collapse of the mainline churches has nothing to do with class and everything to do with doctrine.

  • As an American Episcopalian, I believe the royal ceremony was very much a plea to African bishops not to leave the Anglican Union. For African bishops to have seen the Archbishop of America – a black man – giving the sermon at St. George’s Chapel, at Windsor Castle, must have been very intoxicating. To have seen all that was black and African in the wedding may have curbed their anger about the “sins” of the North American churches. Frankly, as an American Episcopalian, I’m feeling a little revolutionary, as the Church of England and its Queen sort of just told American and Canadian Episcopalians – who support the sacraments of marriage and ordination among homosexuals – to quiet down.

  • No, Bishop Curry is not the Church’s “first African-American bishop” (see the comment below) and no, US Episcopalians don’t “trace their religious roots through King Henry VIII”. US Episcopalians “trace their religious roots” to the consecration of Samuel Seabury by the Bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church – which has never been part of the Church of England. At the time of their respective Reformations, Scotland and England were entirely separate states.

    Frank Cranmer

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