May 2018, Week 4


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Fri, 25 May 2018 22:36:51 -0400
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 		 [Michael Curry delivered a homily both impassioned and erudite.
Based on the faces of the assembled British royals, aristocrats, and
celebrities, it was also clearly something that hadn’t quite been
heard at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle before.]



 Ed Simon 
 May 20, 2018
History News Network [https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/169076] 

	* [https://portside.org/node/17297/printable/print]

 _ Michael Curry delivered a homily both impassioned and erudite.
Based on the faces of the assembled British royals, aristocrats, and
celebrities, it was also clearly something that hadn’t quite been
heard at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle before. _ 



In 1770 Boston, a 17-year-old prodigy and autodidact who’d taught
herself Greek, Latin, and the principles of prosody wrote an elegy for
the most famous preacher in the colonies, an Anglican minister in the
growing Methodist tradition named George Whitfield. The poet’s
homage to Whitfield, whom she may have heard speak in Boston as he
made his tour throughout the colonies from northern New England to
Savannah Georgia, and deep into the western frontier, was
“exceptionally popular” as the literary critic Henry Louis Gates
writes, “published as a broadside in Boston, then again in Newport,
four more times in Boston, and a dozen more in New York, Philadelphia,
and Newport.” 

Whitfield’s preaching was of a famously “hot” variety,
commensurate with the evangelical fervor of the series of revivals
that have come to be known as the First Great Awakening, and his
sermons were immensely popular, receiving praise from even that old
deistic rascal Benjamin Franklin. Concerning the departed minister,
the poet sang of the “music of thy tongue,/Thy wonted auditories
cease to throng,” and of his “strains of eloquence [which]
refin’d,/Inflame the soul, and captivate the mind.” When
valorizing Whitfield’s rhetorical aptitude, it would have been just
as appropriate for someone to have celebrated that of the poem’s
author, for nobody in the colonies was as talented a versifier as

Said 17-year old author of the poem was so brilliant in composition,
that two years after her lyric for Whitfield, a committee of Harvard
scholars was convened to interrogate the woman and to deliberate as to
whether she was the author of the verse (they concluded that she was).
Their unfounded suspicions were characteristic of the bigotry of the
time, for the woman’s last name was “Wheatly” from the
Massachusetts family that owned her, and her first name was
“Phillis” after the slave ship which stole her from Africa. 

Gates calls the example of Phillis Wheatley the “primal scene of
African American letters.” For Gates and other scholars, Wheatly
marks the nascent stirrings of the unique, powerful, full-throated
American vernacular of black literature, whose voice has indelibly
marked not just our writing, but our preaching, our creating, our
laughing, and our singing. In her homage to a white English cleric,
Wheatly wrote that “Towards America – couldst thou do more/Than
leave they native home, the _British _shore,/To cross the great
Atlantic’s wat’ry road.” On Saturday May 19th, 2018 a very
different minister made the reverse crossing as Whitfield, bringing
with him the fruits of the tradition which Wheatly embodied and which
he was the inheritor of. 

Delivering the invocation at the marriage of Prince Harry to African
American actress Meghan Markle (who is now the Duchess of Sussex) was
the head of the American Episcopal Church, Bishop Michael Bruce Curry.
A leader in racial reconciliation, gender equality, and LGBTQ rights,
Bishop Curry is both a representative of liberal Christianity as well
as a particular exponent of a preaching style grounded in the black
church and experience. 

Speaking for thirteen minutes about “the power of love, the power,
the redemptive power of love” for which we can “discover that we
will be able to make of this old world a new world,” Bishop Curry
evoked Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Jesuit mystic and
paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, medieval poetry, and the
Negro spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead.” Delivered with the
rhetorical flourishes of the African American preaching tradition,
including liberal use of anaphora, repetition, Hebraic parallelism,
call-and-response, and improvisation (as the official record of the
sermon differs from the video), it was a homily both impassioned and
erudite. Based on the faces of the assembled British royals,
aristocrats, and celebrities, it was also clearly something that
hadn’t quite been heard at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle

One imagines that Queen Elizabeth II, or Prince Phillips, or Prince
Charles have rarely listened to an injunction that “Jesus began the
most revolutionary movement … mandating people to live that love …
to change not only their lives, but the very life of the world
itself.” Many have commented on the symbolic import of Markle, the
descendant of American slaves, marrying into the royal family – and
that is true. But equally powerful is hearing Bishop Curry evoking the
memory of “some old slaves in America’s antebellum south who
explained the dynamic power of love and why it has the power to
transform,” spoken here among nobility descended by those who
inaugurated the slave trade, who grew rich on imported southern
cotton, who contemplated supplying aid to the Confederacy. Such a
sermon is a victory of justice, but also of love. 

What those congregants heard was arguably the greatest sermon of the
21st century, not just because of the apparent novelty of seeing this
particular preaching style enacted in this stuffy place, but because
Bishop Curry’s message demonstrated the still regenerative and
creative power in liberal Christianity, and in the mainline
Protestantism which we so often predict the impending demise of. The
Anglican Church was not as incongruous a place to hear this message as
some pundits might assume; the _via media _or middle way of the 16th
century Elizabethan religious sentiment which set the contours of the
denomination allowed for diverse experiences of the faith, even more
so the latitudinarianism of seventeenth-century Episcopalianism, which
was tolerant of a multitude of religious expressions. Contra to jabs
about Anglicans being God’s “frozen people,” Whitfield was known
for the passion of his preaching and he was a minister in the Church
of England. In many ways Bishop Curry works within that particular
tradition, bringing some of that fire back home. 

But if the claim that this is the greatest sermon of the century hits
the ear oddly, it may be because unlike women and men of Whitfield and
Wheatley’s day we no longer expect to hear much artistry in
preaching. So divided is the gulf between denominations and between
the secular and the faithful, that it’s scarcely even possible to
name another contemporary sermon which may speak to both the faithful
and the faithless. 

For past generations the sermon was a genre of ultimate concern. Ours
is a long way from the culture described by religion scholar Jon
Butler where “Ministers read long sermons lasting from forty-five
minutes to two hours.” As such, artistry was paramount, and in the
Anglophone tradition alone one could point to the baroque artistry of
Launcelot Andrews or the metaphysical speculations of John Donne in
the 17th century, the plain style minimalism of American Puritans like
John Winthrop, Samuel Danforth, and Increase Mather in that same
century, even the hell-fire gothicisms of Jonathan Edwards in the
18th. In the last century there is not just the powerful preaching of
those in more evangelical traditions, but also unequivocal examples of
liberal religious sermonizing from Paul Tillich to Reinhold Niebuhr,
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to Father Fulton Sheen. And of course
there was Martin Luther King, Jr. 

But while even comparatively secular people would have been familiar
with those figures in the past century, religion in general and
Christianity in particular have unfairly come to be seen by many
secular progressives as only the provenance of the reactionary. Which
is why there is the profound import of Bishop Curry’s sermon, for
when I say that his is the greatest of the 21stcentury it is a claim
made with an asterisk by it, for I am fully aware that every day there
are beautiful encapsulations of progressive faith made by ministers
throughout the world. The Rev. William Barber II has probably given
half-a-dozen sermons this week which would might qualify as the most
powerful of this century. Rather, what makes Bishop Curry’s homily
so exemplary is the sheer scope of his audience. Millions around the
world, many either areligious or perhaps conservative Christians, who
heard such a profound example of liberal Christianity. One of the
canons of classical rhetoric is delivery; that being the case, Bishop
Curry (excuse the language) had a hell of a platform. 

 Because in asking his audience, and us, to envision a “world were
love is the way” and to imagine “governments and nations …
business and commerce when love is the way” and to “Imagine this
tired old world when love is the way, unselfish, sacrificial,
redemptive,” Bishop Curry proved that there is still something to
liberal Christianity – that the mainline Protestant denominations
still have prophetic power. Bishop Curry of course knows that – he
lives it. But for the rest of us, watching this happily meddlesome
priest within the very halls of power, it was a sublime oration.
Especially since ours is a world and a moment where with perilous
rarity do we hear about love on the international stage. Bishop
Curry’s sermon served as a much needed, beautiful reminder of that

_Ed Simon is the Editor-at-Large for _The Marginalia Review of
Books_,a channel of _The Los Angeles Review of Books_. A frequent
contributor at several sites, his collection America and Other
Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post Religion 
[https://www.amazon.co.uk/America-Other-Fictions-Radical-Post-Religion/dp/1785358456]will be
released by Zero Books in November of 2018. He can be followed at
his website [http://www.edsimon.org/] or on Twitter @WithEdSimon

	* [https://portside.org/node/17297/printable/print]







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