The church and the world face profound difficulties, said Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael B Curry at a gathering of more than 120 clergy of the Diocese of Atlanta. But Curry reminded the clerics “the church and the world have both been here before.”
Curry said the church that was founded by Jesus has been both the church of worldly power and an underground movement sidelined and persecuted by empires.
“The outward forms of the church will change with the times,” Curry told the assembled clerics. “But the movement that Jesus began when he said to some folk, follow me and I will make you more than you ever dreamed or thought you could be.
“Now, the truth is – the real truth is – I love this church, but it’s not my first love. My first love is Jesus Christ, and it is because of that I love this church.
“But if this church should wither away, the movement that Jesus began will not go away. Because the gates of Hell cannot prevail against that. The outward visible forms of church will transform and mutate and change with time.
“We need to revisit the catacombs, the life of the early Christians in the catacombs,” Curry said during a question time following his opening address. “What were the capacities that enable them not simply to survive but actually thrive in the midst of adversity or in the midst of a profoundly difficult context.”
With both the “church and the world cracked open” by a deadly pandemic and profound racial reckoning, that isolated many, Curry said clergy and laity alike should remember that what saved the early Church was “small community worship that was intense and real.”
“They were fed by actually coming in direct contact with the living God through those means, and that relationship enabled them to do more than they ever thought they could and to become more than they thought they could, which I think Jesus was getting at when he said, follow me and I will make you fish for people,” Curry said.
Curry said that atmosphere of intense love of Christ and each other can and is being rekindled in the Episcopal Church. “Not everywhere, but in enough places and ways that I have hope,” Curry said.
The Diocese of Atlanta is one of those places, Curry said.
The Episcopal Church’s Way of Love spiritual practices and disciplines that Curry shared with the world through his 2020 book Love Is The Way: Holding on to Hope In Troubling Times and debuted worldwide at the 2018 wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle came out of a meeting in Atlanta, Curry said.
“Your bishop was part of that group of folks,” that gathered to expand Curry’s earlier theme – The Jesus Movement – which was an effort to “reinject Jesus into the body of the church, his own church,” Curry said.
“We literally locked everybody up in a hotel for 48 hours and said, ‘What’s the next step?’ and the work around the way of love, that’s the core message that grew out of that,” Curry said.
Curry also recognized the work of The Rev. Stuart Higginbotham, rector of Grace Church in Gainesville in the revitalization of the church’s spiritual practices.
“Number one, you did say, you know, get reacquainted at a deeper level with spiritual practices. I think that’s a word for all of us,” Curry said of Higginbotham. “And you also did name that balcony time and convene balcony time with a group of people, not all of whom have the same viewpoints of the church.”
Higginbotham, whose doctoral thesis was on the subject of contemplative prayer refined the concept after participating in the New Contemplative Leaders Exchange, a fellowship first gathered by Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr, Tilden Edwards, and Laurence Freeman at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado in August 2017. Since then Higginbotham has contributed to and co-edited the 2019 volume Contemplation and Community: A Gathering of Fresh Voices for a Living Tradition and authored the 2021 book The Heart of a Calling: Practicing Christian Mindfulness in Congregational Ministry.
The March 22 Clergy Day was the final scheduled event in Atlanta by Curry as Presiding Bishop and Primate of The Episcopal Church before his nine-year term concludes on November 1, 2024.
The Clergy Day of reflection and learning that began with Bishop Curry’s keynote was followed by a conversation with Bishop Rob Wright and Q & A with the clergy. It ended with the Presiding Bishop preaching at The Cathedral of St. Philip’s noonday Eucharist, a group picture on the steps of the Nave, and lively table-time conversation during lunch.
A sampling of reactions by clergy reflected the depth and honesty of the presentations and the joy from time together.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to gather together with all of my clergy colleagues to worship and pray, and to hear from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who clearly had a tremendous influence on so many of us. Our bishop gave us the opportunity to affirm Bishop Curry specifically and directly and it makes me think we ought to have time of affirmation like that with some frequency. – The Rev. Monica Mainwaring of St. Martin in the Fields church in Atlanta
Clergy Day was a beautiful day of rejuvenating fellowship, excellent food, and the special treat of hearing from the Presiding Bishop. I was so encouraged by his words around how the church will move into the future. I’d never heard so clearly the gospel word he gave that “the mixture of new life and ministry in the midst of the death (literal and figurative) suffered during Covid-19 WAS NOT an aberration of the pandemic but a lived experience of the paschal mystery…Good Friday and Easter all at the same time!” That word alone made it worth the 2-hour drive to the cathedral but add in the hospitality of cathedral and Diocesan staff, +Bishop Wright, and getting to spend time with clergy colleagues…well, that was icing on the cake. I had a ball! – The Rev. Thelma Mathis of St. Gregory the Great in Athens
It was a wonderful gathering of colleagues and friends, and I think each and every one of us felt re-grounded in how we understand our vocation. Sometimes–often, maybe–we need to be reminded that the Spirit is truly at work, and this was one of those moments. I am grateful. – The Rev. Stuart Higginbotham of Grace Episcopal in Gainesville
I was so grateful to be present at the clergy day with Presiding Bishop Curry and Bishop Wright. Bishop Curry’s spirit and faithfulness were inspiring to me, as they always are, and I was also very grateful for the wonderful hospitality of the cathedral and the bishop’s office.
The wonderful food and all the extra preparation for the event helped me feel like I was entering into a special gathering, and I believe our collective spirit was lifted up by the way we were welcomed. – The Rev. Greg Tallant of Holy Trinity in Decatur
Such a blessing to be in the presence of our Presiding Bishop who leads with courage, wisdom, humility, and joy. I appreciated his reminder that we should not delude ourselves into thinking a certain era in church history was golden, or that we are finally being perfectly faithful now. The best times have always been the worst times as well. We live in this mixture of Good Friday and Easter. This is the hope that changes us and the world. Bishop Curry filled our spirits and then allowed us to fill his by offering words about what his ministry has meant to us. This is a day we’ll all remember. – The Rev. Dr. Grace Burton Edwards of St. Thomas in Columbus
Clergy day was a profoundly affirming day for me and my vocation as a priest. To be able to gather once again with all my deacon and priest colleagues in this diocese, with our Bishop Rob Wright, and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry was balm for my soul as Bishop Curry named out loud the struggle, we all felt having to navigate and improvise during the pandemic. Bishop Curry’s use of imagery of Good Friday/Easter – the best of times/the worst of times gave perspective to what we all experienced and provided a soft place to land on our recollection of those times of trial. – The Rev. Scott Kidd of Resurrection in Sautee-Nacoochee
It was a great day. Inspired by the ever-delightful Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry, and filled with joy to be with so many of my peers and friends. I love it when we sing, eat, pray and gather together. – The Rev. Sarah Fisher of St. Catherine’s in Marietta
Watch Bishop Curry’s message here: