‘I’m here with you as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth.’ That’s how Presiding Bishop said he introduced himself at a recent meeting of Christians and Muslims in Washington, D.C., convened to address gender-based violence in Liberia.
He went on to recount Jesus’ Parable of the Sheep and the Goats at the Last Judgment and said in the meeting, which included both Islamic Relief and Episcopal Relief and Development, that when Jesus said, ‘As you did it one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me,’ ‘brethren’ means the family of God, which is all of humanity.
Curry told this story in response to the first question posed to him after his April 18 keynote address at the 21st Global Episcopal Mission Conference, organized by the Global Episcopal Mission Network (GEMN) in Puerto Rico: ‘How do we talk about Jesus without scaring people in our local and global mission work. Do we have to talk about Jesus, or is it enough to talk about the Christian way of life?’
‘We need a reengagement with Jesus of Nazareth,’ Curry said, noting that even Kahil Gibran, in his 1923 book The Prophet, distinguished between Jesus of Nazareth and the Jesus of Christians, which Curry called a cultural non-specific Jesus. ‘Jesus in the gospels is not a floating Jesus,’ he said.
For Jesus in the gospels, love is the core and the center of life, Curry said, highlighting the Sermon on the Mount and the Parables of Sheep and Goats, the Prodigal Son, and the Good Samaritan as key criteria of Jesus’ call to discipleship. ‘Jesus calls us consistently to a higher way of being,’ he said.
Questions put to Curry in the afternoon were selected and edited from questions developed by seven discussion groups after his morning address. Asked to undertake the selection task, I chose questions most pertinent to mission and evangelism and those that expressed concerns shared among a number of groups.
‘Since the Jesus Movement is obviously so alive around the world, especially in the Majority or Two-Thirds World,’ ran the second question, ‘and since so many Episcopalians feel we have more than enough to do in our own backyards, is it still important for the Episcopal Church to go beyond its border to send missionaries and engage in other forms of international mission?’
‘Yes, it’s more important than ever to be in relationship and partnership with our brothers and sisters around the globe and to pursue relationship with them,’ the Presiding Bishop said. He did not explain why it’s ‘more important than ever,’ but one might presume he was referring to controversy between the Episcopal Church USA and other provinces of the Anglican Communion, and also perhaps to growing inter-religious tensions around the world.
In spreading the gospel, Curry said, ‘it’s important that we send missionaries and that others send missionaries to us, so that there is mutuality.’ He recalled a Companion Diocese Relationship with the Diocese of Costa Rica while he was bishop of North Carolina: ‘People want to do something to help, but it’s imperial without relationship.’
In light of his expressed priority on mission and missionaries, Curry was asked, ‘How can the church better support and highlight the work of missionaries, who often work sacrificially in situations of isolation and sometimes danger?’ The group asking this question had said, ‘Missionaries feel isolated from the larger church,’ and had cited the USAmerican bishop of one missionary as having not even known that the Episcopal Church sends missionaries.
‘I think you’d get a mixed response,’ Curry said, ‘if you asked an average group of Episcopalians whether our church has missionaries.’ He recalled conversations in the Diocese of North Carolina where he was called upon to defend the diocese’s financial contribution to the churchwide budget: ‘I’d talk about ERD and the Federal Ministries, lots of things, but what really caught people’s attention was when I talked about our missionaries and Young Adult Service Corps volunteers.’
Curry then asked for responses from the audience at large about how to improve the visibility and support for missionaries. Reviving World Mission Sunday (the Last Sunday after Epiphany) was one suggestion, and reviving the Church School Missionary Offering was another. One respondent put the onus on missionaries themselves – ‘People need to tell their stories’ – perhaps unaware that many missionaries do tell their stories in parishes and dioceses and maintain blogs, which both GEMN and the Mission Personnel Office at the Episcopal Church Center publicize.
‘How do we redeem the language of “mission” in a new era, recognizing the history and abuses of the past?’ was another question put to the Presiding Bishop. Evoking the hymn line, ‘new occasions teach new duties’ (from James Russell Lowell’s hymn, ‘Once to every man and nation’), Curry commented, ‘We’re not in the same mission moment – there are continuities but also discontinuities. Today’s mission moment has less in common with the 1950s or the medieval period than it does with the 1st century.’ He elaborated by noting that the age of Christendom, when Christianity was buttressed by cultural consensus and legal and quasi-legal support, has passed.
‘The church must present the face of Jesus of Nazareth,’ Curry continued. ‘The Jesus Movement must bring the institutions of the church into the Jesus Movement. The institutions will either follow the movement or be left behind.’ As a parallel, Curry pointed out that popular movements are currently changing the Democratic and Republican parties, while cautioning that he was not expressing any political opinion about these movements, the candidates or the parties.
‘How do we engage young people to grow the diversity in the church? Curry was asked. ‘How do we transform the current look of the Jesus Movement to better reflect the diversity of the Kingdom of God, especially with regard to recruiting young people into God’s mission?’
‘If every Episcopalian is being intentionally formed in discipleship to Jesus, then they will enter the Jesus Movement,’ Curry responded. ‘When formation brings people into a closer relationship with God in Christ, they will be led to go out in Christ’s name.’
The final question posed to the Presiding Bishop was: ‘Could you share a story of sharing your love with someone different from yourself and from whom you felt distant or alienated? What got you through that?’ Curry responded with a story from his days as a rector in Baltimore, when he and his colleagues were trying to address street violence and the drug trade. Someone he knew was dealing drugs approached him for a private conversation, and it turned out that the person not only wanted to exit the drug trade but to turn his live over to Jesus. Remarkably, the outcome was baptism, though conducted privately for safety reasons.
Each of the seven discussion groups generated anywhere from 5 to 13 questions for the Presiding Bishop. Including the questions above that were posed publicly to him during the designated dialogue time, the questions provide a snapshot of how the mission-activist community responded to Curry’s address and of the issues on their minds.
Some questions addressed issues of global and local mission:
How do we move from local mission to international mission?
How do you suggest Episcopalians resolve the tension they feel between evangelism and social action internationally?
Do you have suggestions for demonstrating acts of love as we engage in outreach locally and/or globally?
How do you see how we do mission changing?
How can we keep mission in the forefront?
There’s often tension between local mission and global mission, so how can we infuse concern for global mission in the local church?
What are the differences between the various words being used nowadays – missional, missioner, missionary?
What is the church doing to increase the number of grants for developmental mission work and programs?
What does mission, especially daily mission, look like for the regular church goer who is not employed by the church?
How can the church in mission improve the lives and join the struggle of Spanish-speaking people?
How can we overcome financial disparities between communities and build better relationships?
How does our institutional structure support developing parish-to-parish companionships, or get in the way of these relationships?
Mission in inter-religious settings was highlighted in two questions, and two dealt with extremism:
How do we share God’s mission [with people of other religions] while being particular about Christianity?
How can we link with people in the community who are Christ-like but not Christian? Can we learn from them?
How do we mobilize actionable love to deal with extremism of all kinds?
What verses or prayers or divinely inspired tools do you recommend to inspire us to continue to love when love is responded to by hate?
A couple of questions concerned missionaries specifically:
How do we help missionaries understand cultural differences better?
How do we let people who want to become missionaries know that it’s safe [if indeed it is safe]?
A number of questions were asked about Curry’s discussion of what he calls the Jesus Movement:
How can the ‘Jesus Movement’ become more than rhetoric?
How do we infuse/inspire local congregations to see the Jesus Movement leading them out of their doors?
How specifically can we live out our call to be participants in the Jesus Movement?
How do you envision our institutions encouraging and sharing the Jesus movement better?
How can the church as an institution serve the Jesus Movement, and not the other way around?
How will/does the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society as an institution support the Jesus Movement?
How do congregations learn to speak in the same prophetic voice we hear coming from Bishop Curry, so that new, interested people will find the same message when they visit?
Anglican Communion conflicts were mentioned in one question and implied in another:
How do we begin the process of reconciliation with Anglican dioceses that have broken relations with the Episcopal Church?
How do we open dialogue and go about fixing broken relationships?
Some questions addressed personal spirituality:
In this broken world, how do we continue to work?
How do we keep ourselves nourished and fed so that we don’t get burned out?
How do we create spaces for ourselves and others to stop and quiet our minds to listen to God?
Was there an ‘Aha!’ moment that let you know you could continue on to become our Presiding Bishop
What is your secret to keeping going and staying so energetic?
Can you give us an example of what ‘childlike’ looks like? [The Presiding Bishop had distinguished being ‘childlike’ in entering the Kingdom of God from being ‘childish.’]
How do we reconcile with God so that we can reconcile with ourselves and reconcile with others?
One question addressed the current political climate in the USA:
How can we inspire our political leaders to demonstrate in word and deed Jesus’s love and to work for the common good?