First things first. Bishop Michael Curry is the 27th Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church. That means he’s the top Episcopal bishop in all of the United States, along with other countries and territories in the Western Hemisphere. His only direct report is the Archbishop of Canterbury, the seat of the Anglican Church. Of whom, is run by the British monarch, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Many felt that Bishop Curry’s “American style” of preaching was over-the-top. Some commented that he preached too long. Some said that because of all of that, it focused on him. But because of how race plays into everything—even across the pond—most the reactions and responses to the sermon came off as veiled statements for people who wanted to say it was just “too black.”
To be fair, many of the reactions were from demographics wholly ignorant of not just American religious culture, but specifically black religious culture.
Historically, African American Christianity relies on charismatic preaching. This has its roots in what referred to as the “invisible church” where enslaved Africans and their descendants would meet in secret away from plantations and hold meetings and an emergent leader would be the preacher. In states with free blacks, they would hold church services on their own, and again, the character of a charismatic leader was the focal point of the worship service.
This religious practice obviously has carried over to the 21st century. The nature of the call-and-response between the preacher and the congregants is innate in many black Christian settings. From silent nods of affirmations, to smiles to vocalized “Amens,” this type of preaching intends to be more conversational than anything else. Part of knowing whether or not the sermon is resonating in the hearts and minds of the listener is being able to read the congregation.
It’s clear that Bishop Curry is not only good at his craft of preaching, but he’s steeped in this particular African American religious tradition of preaching. It’s also clear most everyone else commenting on it is not.
In the spirit of comedy and satire, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the Saturday Night Live skit featuring Keenan Thompson as Bishop Curry. (Aside from the fact that a basic Wikipedia search would have shown Bishop Curry never served a church in Chicago so the Scottie Pippen joke was pointless.) But to those of us that inhabit this black church world, it was clear that no one at the writing table offered any context to the Black Church experience. And if so, it didn’t seem apparent in the skit. The fact that he was painted as “a black preacher who became famous” misses out on the fact that he’s the whole bishop for the Episcopal church. Instead, they relied on appealing to the lowest common denominator when it comes to the popular imaging the black preacher.
It’s also the fact, that in American culture, the black preacher is one of the most caricatured and lampooned characters. Seriously, think of a movie that featured a black preacher and the character had a semblance of depth and gravitas that was portrayed? The popular imagery of the black preacher is reduced to a charlatan and pimp. It’s no wonder that the meme gods of social media quickly attached Reverend Brown, the buffoon preacher character from the movie Coming to America, over that of Bishop Curry.
Bishop Curry boldly mentioned slavery and Martin Luther King quotes. He relied on black English rhetoric to make his theological claims about love and what fire represents (to those paying extremely close attention, the liturgical overtures of the next day being Pentecost Sunday were not lost on fire imagery). He was authentically who he was standing in St. George’s Chapel this past Saturday. Anything less would have been dry and uninteresting.
Summarily, Bishop Curry represented a disruption of the respectability politics of the British monarchy and culture. Unfortunately, one way to respond to one’s worldview being challenged is to ridicule and de-legitimize the source. It was much easier to make a pasquinade of Bishop Curry than assume the hard task of embracing the cultural exchange that was carried in his African American body and transmitted through his unapologetic blackness.
Because, at all costs, God save the Queen.