There’s only one real way to drive to Buckingham Palace. You start off at Admiralty Arch and drive down the long Avenue known only as “The Mall”. At the bottom, right in front of Buckingham Palace, stands the Victoria Memorial. At this point you need to decide whether to go left or right. Left takes you around the Memorial on what is effectively a roundabout and you swing effortlessly through the Palace gates. Of course, if they’re closed there is no access. In days gone by that meant you would have to carry on round the roundabout and beat a hasty retreat back up The Mall.
But who would want to do that? Who, if invited to enter the Palace itself would drive all the way down The Mall, only to swing deliberately around the Victoria Monument and then race away back up to Admiralty Arch?
The answer is Bishop Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop (PB) of the Episcopal Church, who preached with such impact at Saturday’s Royal Wedding. Opinions have been varied. What seems to be the consensus view is that he shook things up and the mainstream media certainly seem to have been impressed and not a little smitten, even excusing his perhaps over-lengthy (more of that later) homily.
But was it really that great? I don’t think so.
And should he even have been there? Nope.
And why open up this post with travel directions to a royal palace? Patience.
Before I get into it, let’s say some positive things.
I loved that the service sought to honour the bride’s heritage. The church ought to be a place where there are no racial divides at all and so it was wonderful to see so many different shades represented, particularly those from an African background. That was right and proper.
We also need to acknowledge that Curry is a gifted communicator. He knows how to pull in a crowd and he wasn’t afraid to do it. Oh that more wedding sermons were able to be the same! There’s something refreshing about an animated preacher surprising the congregation who were expecting something a little more akin to Rowan Atkinson’s famous bumbling priest in Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Having said that, the sermon was too long. Not that preaching for almost 14 minutes shouldn’t be done at a wedding, especially if the preacher is as capable of holding his audience as Curry clearly is. But that last section about fire? How did that possibly add to the argument other than introduce a new and confusing concept right at the end (and without any Biblical warrant at all)? A note to rookie preachers; once you’ve said what you want to say then close it out and sit down. That last 2 minutes was unnecessary and made him look self-indulgent.
But that’s not what I’m particularly concerned about. There are far more dangerous things cooking here.
How on earth did Curry get invited to do this? How did he get to crash this particular party?
Of course on one level there’s an obvious answer; we’ve already noted the welcome desire to acknowledge the bride’s African American heritage and Curry is the most prominent African American Anglican that there is. In that regard it was a no-brainer, granted.
But there’s more going on here. Curry is the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church (TEC). TEC are the “official” Anglicans in the USA and have for the past 20 years pursued a policy of affirming same-sex relationships with a zeal that has been unsurpassed around the global Anglican community. It was TEC’s actions in consecrating Gene Robinson that led to what the Primates (the leaders of the Provinces of the Anglican Communion) described as “a tear in the fabric of the Communion”. Did they pull back and seek to mend the tear? Quite the opposite.
In 2016 the Primates met (after many similar meetings) to address TEC having approved same-sex marriage liturgy in it’s General Convention. Who led that movement and then sought to defend it to the Primates? Curry.
The Primates at that meeting (which many conservatives were loathe to attend since similar attempts to persuade TEC to repent had brought neither response from TEC nor a willingness to uphold discipline by various Archbishops of Canterbury) agreed the following:
…given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.
Who was asked to implement this?
We have asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint a Task Group to maintain conversation among ourselves with the intention of restoration of relationship, the rebuilding of mutual trust, healing the legacy of hurt, recognising the extent of our commonality and exploring our deep differences, ensuring they are held between us in the love and grace of Christ.
Of course, Curry preaching at the wedding is not a technical breach of this agreement but it is certainly against the spirit of it. And had the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Task Group (what work have they actually done?) asked around the Communion they would have known what upset this would all cause.
So for clarity let’s sum up the situation:
- TEC is asked to withdraw from various Communion activities in order to signal their distance from other Anglicans as a result of their doctrine of marriage. This is also intended to make them reconsider their position.
- TEC carries on regardless with implementing same-sex marriage.
- Curry is rewarded with the pulpit at the Church of England’s most visible public event since the 2016 Primates’ meeting (and probably for many years to come). And, irony of ironies, it’s a marriage service.
But David, I am told, you don’t understand the politics! It must be so hard to be Justin Welby with all these complex factors in play!
Nonsense. He’s the Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s more than possible for him, behind the scenes, to respond to the idea of the invitation (which is never made public before first being sounded out by those who need to have an input) by contacting the Palace and saying “I think this invitation would bring some embarrassment to Her Majesty in her role as Governor of Church of England at this time, given that Bishop Curry holds such a contentious view about marriage and has been a primary source of continued division in the Anglican Communion”.
But no, instead we get this:
Here is the man who is currently leading an entire province of the Anglican Communion away from Jesus’ clear words on marriage and leaving such carnage in his wake as he continues the scorched earth policy of his predecessor (in sueing any parish that wishes to leave for all their property) and yet we have the following:
To preach at this wedding would have been a great way to affirm a massive act of repentance on the part of TEC corporately and Curry personally. But without that repentance it leads to another result; TEC are now absolutely clear that there will be no ongoing consequences for their decisions. They can carry on regardless and still receive the highest honours and affirmations. And the rest of the Communion ought to be clear too. Welby has sold out completely.
It is of course a massive victory for Curry and TEC. They’ve been making hay all weekend long (as any decent PR team will do). It’s hard to imagine a better way to curry favour in the Anglican establishment than to get this preaching gig.
And Welby has been currying favour as well. Hopefully now there is absolutely zero doubt which side he is going to align with as the fabric of the Communion rips into two. I can’t think of anything that would more effectively galvanise those gathering in Israel for GAFCON next month than the events of this past weekend. As Welby continues to seek to appease the wolves who devour the flock, it’s also clear whose favour he is seeking.
And all of this before the sermon was even preached.
Wasn’t this a gospel sermon? Didn’t Curry talk about love and Jesus and his sacrifice?
Well sort of. But actually no, not at all. At least not in a Christian way. It was a car crash (of sorts). Let me defend this bold statement.
Curry is a theological liberal. But he’s a smart one, in that he knows how to hide the liberalism. The previous PB (Jefferts-Schori) wasn’t so canny; she just preached her heresy outright. Curry is more sophisticated, but no less of a false teacher for it. Whereas Schori adopted the naïve approach of just blurting her poison out, Curry is more classical in his approach. But like many other theological liberals you can spot what’s going on. You just have to know the modus operandi which is that you take care not to affirm things. So you’re much less likely to hear Curry articulate clear heresy (apart, of course, from the heresy of saying that Jesus is wrong and that his word can’t be trusted). And you’re much much much less likely to hear him talk about certain core doctrinal truths.
Like that fact that Jesus’ death on the Cross pays the penalty for our sin which we would otherwise have to pay ourselves. And the fact that Jesus was physically and bodily raised from that same death and so gives us confidence that his death was efficacious and that we, too, will be raised.
You know, the stuff which Christians affirm is at the heart of the gospel.
But which Curry doesn’t.
But when you become aware of the M.O. you then get to spot it as it happens. And Saturday’s example was a classic instance.
Now what does somebody hope to achieve at a wedding sermon? If you had billions of people watching then what would you want to make sure you said clearly?
You could talk about love, but then so would the Mormon stake president next door.
You could even speak about Jesus’ death on a cross as a sacrifice, but then so could the leader of the local Kingdom Hall full of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
No, surely you want to take them to the fullness of Jesus’ death and exactly what it achieved? Surely your deep desire is that they understand the totality of God’s favour shown to underserving sinners in the Cross? That’s the gospel, isn’t it? Not simply the mention of God’s love and the cross of Jesus but an explanation of what it’s actually all about? That’s the great palace at the end of the road that we’re driving along as we preach the sermon. Take us down that road, preacher, and eventually park the car inside those incredible gates so we can see Jesus in all his splendour and be urged to trust him.
Otherwise go and join the Mormons and the JWs and the rest of them because you’re speaking about exactly the same things.
Now, of course, you don’t have to be clunky about the way that you do it. You can start with a “grabber”; something to catch people’s attention. How about Martin Luther King? He’s a nice foot in the door; a public Christian leader and a notable black figure from history. Ticks all the boxes (if you’re prepared to put aside some of the awkward stuff about his own heresy and serial adultery – and let’s do that for the sake of the argument). You’ve got to start somewhere as you leave Admiralty Arch and point the car down The Mall.
So we got MLK and those famous themes from 1John:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God, and those who love are born of God and know God. Those who do not love do not know God. Why? For God is love.
Then we drive closer to the palace so we talk about Jesus as he gives us the summary of the Law. Again, all good stuff. I can see the Victoria Memorial now in the distance, framed with the outline of Buckingham Palace but rapidly growing in size. This is a great drive all heading in the right direction. What’s the problem?
Before we know it we’ve arrived at that statue and the car begins it’s wide sweep in a clockwise motion around it. We’re on one side of the Memorial, the Palace is on the other. And we can tell we’re close because we hone in on what’s so important…
“‘There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole, there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.’
“And one of the stanzas actually explains why. They said: ‘If you cannot preach like Peter, and you cannot pray like Paul, you just tell the love of Jesus, how he died to save us all.”‘
“Oh, that’s the balm in Gilead! This way of love, it is the way of life. They got it. He died to save us all.
And again, none of this is wrong. But note what’s happening. We get no content to the assertion that “Jesus died to save us all”. Saved from what? How? One brief mention of a sin-sick soul but nothing more than that. No clarity on the key central issue of the gospel but plenty of the words that ought to be used about it.
But no matter, we’re turning the car around the memorial and the Palace gates are there. Just a deft dink of the steering wheel back towards the left, onto the Palace forecourt, and we’ll gracefully park this ride…
But the car doesn’t turn left. It keeps going clockwise round the Memorial. It turns past Constitution Hill and doesn’t even run alongside the Palace but eventually steers back onto The Mall and starts moving away from the very place it was meant to stop.
So we go back to talking about “love” again. A generic love that will make the world a better place. I look for Jesus in the rear-view mirror but I’m already too far gone to see the Palace anymore as the limousine races back to the North-East. Admiralty Arch comes into view up ahead and suddenly (with a temporary distraction as we watch the exhaust somehow belch some fire) I’m back where I started; Martin Luther King.
And where does the car come to a halt? Well we know where it should have stopped – inside the Palace gates with our focus clearly on Jesus. But here is the final actual call to the newly-married royals, way up the other end of The Mall.
Dr King was right: we must discover love – the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world, a new world.
Classic liberal works theology. The favour of God, his grace to us in Jesus, thoroughly curried into something with an entirely different taste; Harry and Meghan must make the world better by their love. Far away to the South-West at the Palace there was something far better; a Jesus who changes the world in the greatest act of love ever committed – his own propitiatory death. And it wouldn’t have been hard to get there and park there! 1John goes there as the end point of the verse that Curry quotes (1John 4:9-10)! The rest of the Bible goes there. The map isn’t hard to follow. It’s one wide straight road, for goodness sake, with the final destination clearly visible!
But Curry didn’t do that, did he? He drove the car all the way down there, waved at the palace as he went past and took us all the way away again.
So why were so many enamoured with it? Well we wanted it to be good. Perhaps we weren’t wise to how they drive in the States.
But also I think there was something else going on. Evangelicals who defended Curry did so by filling in the gaps. They watched him drive down the Mall and around the Victoria Memorial and they imagined him completing the journey in the right way. They didn’t properly comprehend that he deliberately didn’t turn in. He had no intention to.
It wasn’t that “you can’t do everything in a sermon like this”. He didn’t do the main thing! He didn’t park the car. Nor was he burdened by a sense of propriety given the occasion. He clearly had no problem being restrained by the social conventions of the day.
Those of us who have watched Curry and his ilk operate for years knew exactly what was coming. We’ve seen it all before. Schori, of course, would have immediately taken the vehicle off-road and gone safari in St James’ Park (look it up!). Curry is a more skilled chauffeur. But the end result was the same. Crash.
Let me put it another way. If a skilled golfer consistently plays enormous drives, makes exquisite approach shots that land the ball within a foot of the hole, but then misses the final putt every time there comes a point where you realise he’s not actually trying to get the ball in the hole. It doesn’t matter how skilled he is with his clubs, he’s not playing the same game and all of a sudden all the stroke play begins to take on a different character.
Eyes on the Road
So where to from here? The sermon is preached and the damage is done (and more damage than perhaps we first realised). Well we make the best of what we have.
So the Apostle is right to encourage us
Phil. 1:18 But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
But of course this rejoicing doesn’t stop us from being clear on the motives and false teaching.
And we then seek to tell of what the journey should have been. So Michael Jensen gives us an excellent example here. He artfully navigates around the hot topics and the carefully corrects the last disastrous failure to park the car. It’s a really helpful example for those of us who will be having conversations this week with people who were drawn in by Curry’s preaching. Just because Curry didn’t park the car, doesn’t mean we can’t.
Which means that despite how awful the whole thing was, we can make the best of it. But let’s not do that and ignore just what a car crash this whole thing was from the moment the invitation was made all the way up to the sermon itself. To deny that would be a tragedy. It would mean we’re all driving blind and that only leads to more crashes.