Much has been written about every aspect of Prince Harry’s wedding to Meghan Markle. Her modern Givenchy dress, her mother’s natural hair, the presence of a gospel choir, have all received columns (and screen inches).
But one of the most striking elements of the royal wedding was also among the most unexpected: the fiery, impassioned, and theologically-charged sermon of American Episcopalian bishop Michael Curry.
Quoting everyone from Martin Luther King, Jr., to controversial Catholic twentieth-century theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, referencing African-American spirituals and black enslavement in America, Curry’s sermon was a far cry from what might be seen as the “traditional,” aristocratic Anglican sermon you might expect from a royal wedding. Running at nearly fifteen minutes, the sermon emphasized the power of love. But the love Curry described wasn’t just the romantic love you might express at a wedding. Rather, Curry was drawing on the rhetoric of liberation theology — a 20th century theological tradition inspired by Marxist thought — to characterize love as a necessary, chaotic, and political force. Love, for Curry, provides hope in the face of social injustice, even as it provides a blueprint for overturning it. Quoting the Biblical Book of Amos, Curry said:
When love is the way -- unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive, when love is the way. Then no child would go to bed hungry in this world ever again. When love is the way. We will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever flowing brook. Wen love is the way poverty will become history. When love is the way the earth will become a sanctuary. When love is the way we will lay down our swords and shields down by the riverside to study war no more. When love is the way there’s plenty good room, plenty good room for all of God’s children.
This kind of rhetoric is unexpected at the royal wedding for a number of reasons.
According to past royal protocol, addresses given at royal weddings are customarily given by senior members of the Church of England. While the US-based Episcopal Church is a member of the wider Anglican Communion (which includes the Church of England and sister Anglican and Episcopal churches worldwide), customarily only British priests are invited to preside over royal occasions.
But, more importantly, the Church of England has, in recent decades, often been accused of being religiously disengaged: a church that is more of a cultural shibboleth than a theologically dynamic religious institution. (In her book Watching the English, Kate Fox tells a popular apocryphal joke about a woman who instructs her daughters, who notes that the family has no religion, to simply put down “C of E” on school intake forms). A full 16 percent of Church of England priests aren’t sure there’s a God (and 2 percent identify as outright atheists). Active membership in the Church of England, meanwhile, declined, halving in the past two decades. For many, the Church of England’s anodyne theology have rendered it an irrelevant institution, an institution that — like the Royal Family itself — is comfortingly familiar, but ultimately irrelevant.
But Curry’s sermon was a fierce, inspiring example of the Anglican tradition at its best.
It was theologically rich: highlighting not just the centrality of Christ’s death as the ultimate example of love, but the way in which love can counter oppression: love as a form of resistance. For an affair as necessarily anodyne as a royal wedding, the message was surprisingly political and surprisingly, well, religious.
Curry isn’t new to controversy. Curry has long been a vocal advocate for LGBTQ rights and racial justice. He came to prominence in 2012 when he gave a sermon of the importance of being a “crazy Christian” — in other words, arguing that the radical demands of Christian love, and truly loving one’s neighbor, necessarily put Christians at odds with restrictive, bourgeois societal norms. In that sermon, writing of abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, Curry celebrated the ways in which her faith made her willing to buck social norms. “She was supposed to marry well, raise well-bred children, participate in a few charitable activities and be fondly remembered by all who knew her. That was the life she was supposed to have.” Rather, he said, “following Jesus means changing the world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends. And sometimes that means marching to the beat of a different drummer...Sometimes it means speaking up when others shut up. Sometimes it means being different -- even being crazy.”
The message could not be more at odds with the studied neutrality of the Royal Family.
Curry’s message, of course, was hugely symbolic of the role Meghan Markle might play within that family. As a divorced woman, an American, and as a biracial woman, Markle has received outsize media scrutiny and, at times, hostility from within the royal family itself, as Vox’s Anna North points out. As someone who shares both Markle’s Americanness and her heritage as a person of color, Curry’s presence at the wedding is symbolic of the ways Markle and Harry are publicly working to affirm her identity within the marriage.
But ultimately, Curry’s significance was far greater than as a bell-weather of what to expect from Meghan Markle’s marriage. Rather, Curry used one of the biggest and most visible platforms in the world to revive an Anglicanism rooted in social justice, religious engagement, and a ferociously political faith in the radical power of Christian love. As mainline, historically progressive Protestant traditions hemorrhage members worldwide, ceding Christian media visibility to the evangelical and Catholic right, Curry just made Episcopalianism go viral.
You might say Curry just made the Anglican communion great again.