The Presiding Bishop of the US Episcopal Church is the best preacher in the Anglican world. How will he use his pulpit?
I have just been conducting a deeply unscientific survey into attitudes towards the forthcoming Royal wedding; in other words I have been asking everyone I meet and know what they think about it. There is not, I have to report, much enthusiasm around, though everyone wishes the couple well, I hasten to add. The lack of public interest is perhaps inversely proportional to the amount of media coverage, though. Many people complained that it was hard to avoid reading, hearing or watching reports about the wedding. But this survey, as I said, is unscientific; perhaps it only proves that the people I mix with are deeply unrepresentative of the general population.
I myself will be watching the ceremony as it unfolds, though not the endless before and after coverage. The wedding service in Saint George’s chapel will be worth seeing for several reasons. There may be some great music; the chapel is a beautiful building; and it will be interesting to see how the Church of England rises to the challenges of staging such an event.
And yes, there are challenges: celebrating a religious ceremony in and for a largely irreligious nation is difficult. A large segment of the population will be watching a wedding with little realisation that they are watching a religious celebration as such; its religious nature may well seem to them some sort of add-on done purely for show. But every challenge brings with it an opportunity; and here the chance is to get the watching nation (and the numerous watchers abroad) to arrive at an appreciation of religion as something more than just ‘heritage’.
It is clear that the Archbishop of Canterbury sees this as a chance both to express and elicit some living breathing faith. Hence the unusual step of inviting the Presiding Bishop of the US Episcopal Church to preach. Archbishop Welby clearly thinks that the wedding represents an excellent pulpit, and so he wants the best preacher in the Anglican world to speak.
I will be very interested to see what Bishop Michael Curry makes of his opportunity. Will he set Britain and the world on fire? Or will his sermon be just another voice of one crying in the wilderness? Naturally, I hope for the former. But I do note that the British, who love their Queen more with every passing year, routinely ignore the evangelical content of her Christmas broadcasts. This is not because it is easy to ignore – far from it, for her religious intent is unmistakable – but rather because the language of traditional low church Anglicanism no longer makes much sense to many people in this country. We hear our monarch speak of God and salvation, and by and large shrug in incomprehension. In that famous phrase, we “don’t do God”. We have forgotten how.
This is, of course, something of which many in the Anglican Church are acutely aware. Needless to say, a similar situation exists in the Catholic Church in this country, and other countries too. Religious literacy is fast disappearing, and we need to express the eternal verities in a way that makes sense to this generation, without – and this is the key bit – compromising the integrity of those verities. For the path of compromise, apart from being wrong in itself, is also the path of futility: there is nothing more cheesy or repellent than a bunch of trendy clerics trying to get down with the kids. Trust me, I used to be young myself, and I can remember all the cringeworthy initiatives that were once set before me and my coevals.
Will Bishop Curry be inspiring or cringeworthy? Let’s hope for the former. In the meantime, whatever happens, this wedding will tell us rather a lot about ourselves, if we watch with attention. Don’t miss it!