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A surprisingly religious royal wedding: Bishop Curry’s uncivil religion

A surprisingly religious royal wedding: Bishop Curry’s uncivil religion

Bishop Curry’s subversion of England’s civil religion raises big questions about the direction of the Church, argues Simon Perfect.

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Bishop Michael Curry, the leader of the Episcopal Church in America, has become a global sensation after his captivating address at the royal wedding. As expected he talked about love – but not just love between the bride and groom, or between people, but crucially and at length about God’s love for his creation, shown through Jesus’ death on the cross. It is this kind of love that has true power to change the world and bring about justice. “When love is the way”, poverty will become history; the earth will become a sanctuary; we will study war no more.

It was powerful and uplifting and took the audience by surprise – not least because of his exuberant gestures and apparent disregard for the script (on iPad). But while many viewers, myself included, were deeply moved, it was clearly too much for some people. Too long, too informal for a strait–laced context, or just plain bizarre. The Daily Mail made a big deal of photos showing various Royals struggling to keep a straight face (the Queen remained tight–lipped).

For me, though, what was most striking about it all was that this wedding should have been the biggest expression of England’s civil religion – the public rituals that bind the community together into a national narrative, ultimately reinforcing the authority of the state. But right at that point, Bishop Curry’s address refused to be civil – or at least, not in the way we anticipated. British viewers were expecting something comfortably familiar, restrained and religion–lite. As with many weddings in the Church of England today, I imagine many people were expecting religious language to be ‘seen but not heard’, overlaying a basically secular meaning. Religious language was supposed to be a traditional way of conveying a neutral message of celebration, suitable for the diverse global audience. It was not supposed to have meaningful content itself, content with deep implications for everyone watching.

In other words, we were expecting quiet platitudes about the joys of marriage, with an easy–to–overlook Christian veneer. Instead we got, as Archbishop Justin Welby put it, “raw God”. What does this say about the direction of England’s civil religion?

Bishop Curry’s address is a symbol for a shift going on in the Church of England. The Church still understands itself as being the national church, there for everyone regardless of faith or lack of it, and indeed this is the role it continues to play across the country through its social activism. But at the same time, partly in response to its declining numbers and in recognition of the fact that Anglicans are becoming a minority (albeit one with many constitutional privileges), the Church is flexing its missional muscles and becoming more vocal about its message.

As this shift continues, there will be big questions ahead about the future of English civil religion. In future royal ceremonies, will Kings Charles and William countenance such an unashamedly Christian, evangelistic address as Bishop Curry gave on such a global stage? What about the increasingly secular and multifaith British public? And more importantly, will the Church be able to balance its task of serving the whole nation with its task of calling people to God? Just a few days ago, Archbishop Welby said that disestablishment of the Church of England would not be a disaster – since the fate of Christianity in Britain is in the hands of someone far more capable than the Anglican bishops.

Bishop Curry also symbolises the other great tension within the Church, between conservative and liberal views (which Curry holds) on social issues like same–sex marriage, and underneath that, between very different ways of understanding the authority of Scripture. The division showed itself in responses to Curry’s address. While many conservative Christians no doubt applauded it, others attacked it as a con. Gavin Ashenden, the former chaplain to the Queen, said the sermon wasn’t at all raw God, but was merely “Christianity-lite” – in his view, a Christianity that appeals to socially progressive politics but does away with conditions for salvation – repentance of sin and dependence on Jesus’ atonement.

And across the spectrum of Christian persuasion, some will have felt there was too much sentimentalising of love and not enough challenge to existing power structures and crushing materialism. The words were open enough so that almost anyone could find something in it to validate their own position. For some, the problem was that for all Curry’s talk of the power of love rooted in God, unexpected as it was, his address was still a revised form of civil religion. A form more willing than before to deal vocally with Christianity’s message of God’s love, but not going far enough – or not able to go far enough – in preaching disturbing truths unto power.

So the Church of England seems to be at a crossroads regarding its role in civil religion. Should it use its privileged position in Establishment performances to be less civil and more vocal in its message? Or would that lead it to emphasise one understanding of the Gospel over another, exacerbating divisions among its members and undermining its capacity to welcome the whole nation?

For now, though, let’s be glad that this royal wedding will be remembered for much more than the bride’s dress. If in the future people remember this wedding as ‘the one where that crazy preacher talked about love’, that can be no bad thing. 

 Image by Tony down–under from flickr.com available in the public domain.

Simon Perfect

Simon Perfect

Simon joined Theos in 2014. He is a freelance researcher and a Teaching Fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where he leads campus–based and distance–learning courses exploring Muslim communities in Britain and in other minority settings. @simplymrperfect

Posted 22 May 2018

Bishops, Britain, Future of Churches, Monarchy

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