Up-Beat Bishop of American Episcopal Church to Deliver Sermon

Royal weddings are already exciting for lots of reasons, but Prince Harry’s wedding to American actress Meghan Markle on May 19 promises extra spectacle. What sets it apart is a grand union of American royalty—a TV actress with strong (and sadly deleted) social media game—with Britain’s much-loved monarchy.

But, being a wedding, it’s also technically a sacrament and a church service. And, as such, it’s one of the rare occasions the Church of England gets to show off all its pomp and splendor for a massive public audience. Millions of wedding watchers will remember that the Church of England exists at all and that Queen Elizabeth II is, officially, its head.

And entirely thanks to American divorcee and princess-to-be Meghan Markle, they’ll see a Church of England more open to change than ever before: Markle and the Windsors have chosen Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the American Episcopal Church to give the sermon at the wedding. The Church of England’s top cleric, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, earlier this year baptized and confirmed the bride-to-be and will deliver the actual sacrament of marriage.

But Curry, the Episcopal Church’s first African-American leader, will get the most screen time of the presiding clergymen at Saturday’s service. And he’ll bring his popular and appealingly open-hearted ecclesial brand. The charismatic former bishop of North Carolina, Curry’s a far cry from the academic, old-style Anglicans to whom English aristocrats are accustomed.

A 2012 sermon of Curry’s went viral, by Episcopal Church standards anyway, when he proclaimed, “We need some crazy Christians!” Jesus’s contemporaries thought he was crazy, “Those who would follow in his footsteps, those who would be his disciples, are called and summoned and challenged to be just as crazy as Jesus.” That sermon became a book, and the bishop of North Carolina became the bishop of the whole country.

He’s the perfect choice for the Harry-Meghan nuptials, an event already full of “firsts” for the royal family: The fact that Canterbury baptized and confirmed Markle so recently reflects another notable break between her and everything the English royals have ever done before, noted veteran religion writer Richard Ostling. Curry’s presence, he added, further “underscores the fact that this is not your typical royal wedding.”

Another dimension of this wedding’s break from precedent stands out above all. “The Anglican Church has been slower than most Protestant churches in allowing remarriage after divorce,said the Rev. Robert Prichard, an historian at Virginia Theological Seminary, in a recent phone interview.

Prince Charles recently remarried in a civil ceremony rather than a church service for this same reason. The Church of England allows remarriages now but has not, until Saturday, extended the allowance to royalty. The remarriage prohibition famously deprived poor Princess Margaret of her one true love, the divorced Peter Townsend, as The Crown on Netflix has lately reminded us. And it was key to King Edward VIII’s 1936 abdication, when he chose the divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson over his duty to crown and kingdom.

Divorce and remarriage aside, having an American preach at a royal wedding at all is a relatively radical thing itself. It would have been legally considered treason not too long ago, by the temporal standards of church history anyway.

For the first 75 years of the Episcopal Church in the United States, its clergy were forbidden by English law to preside at any service in England. “That didn’t change until 1867, at the first Lambeth Conference,” Prichard says, referring to a communion between the branches of the Anglican church that finally established a framework for clerical interchangeability. A law against it had persisted till then, “to prevent back-door ordination,” he said. America might have offered a pathway to priesthood for clerics who couldn’t make the cut in England, like med-school rejects who seek for a lower barrier to entry in tropics.

In this sense, Curry’s preaching at the wedding celebrates how far our two countries have come since the 19th century, “He’s joining in a tradition of doing things in England that was not always possible.” Liturgically, too: The Anglican marriage service didn’t even include a sermon until the prayer book reforms of the late 20th century.

And, as Richard Ostling sees it, Curry’s crossing the pond to preach simply “ties into the whole Markle phenomenon.” It’s another way for the Windsors to welcome her. Ostling wonders whether the Archbishop of Canterbury—a more modern cleric than his predecessor—or the Windsors themselves first proposed the idea of the invitation from Prince Harry and Markle. The archbishop tweeted an appreciation of Curry and the couple’s choice, but it’s unlikely he didn’t have a hand in the decision behind the scenes.

All of this matters politically, he said, while the question of whether to sanction gay marriages looms large in world Anglicanism, a loose federation the Episcopal Church and the Church of England both belong to. “This will be one of the most watched church services you can imagine,” Ostling said. And so public a display can’t have been orchestrated without some concern for global church politics: “Curry would come into Britain to the left of the Church of England on the gay issue.” The Church of England has stayed neutral so far, between the staunchly conservative Nigerian Anglicans and the more liberal American and Canadian Episcopal churches. Whereas Curry is an outspoken advocate for liberal causes.

Whatever the political dimensions of the epic Anglo-American ecclesial crossover, it’s likely lost on no one that Bishop Curry will play better on TV than any Canterbury in history could. Though it will be no less “high church splendiferous” than usual at St. George’s Chapel, Ostling qualified, “A nice American Southern-style preacher will give it a little pizzazz.” That’s much-needed pizzazz, I’d add: A spark of revolutionary spirit the Church of England’s gone without almost since its founding. Which, despite the centuries of prudish prohibition, did after all spring from one willful royal’s desire for remarriage.

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