by Wendy Besel Hahn
The night before the royal wedding, a friend sent me a 22-page PDF of the ceremony program. I laughed to think of all my non-religious, mom friends voluntarily sitting through a long church service to see Meghan Markle marry Prince Harry.
Saturday morning, I joined one friend at her house for an early morning viewing party. We snacked on muffins and bacon while the ceremony began in the background. I anticipated a stodgy lecture about Jesus befitting the crowd at St. George’s Chapel, but when Bishop Curry took the pulpit to preach, I knew we were in for a progressive message. Maybe it was the invocation, “Liberating and life-giving God,” or the verses from Song of Solomon, arguably the most erotic book of the Old Testament. Certainly it happened by the time Bishop Curry evoked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words about the redemptive power of love. In his sermon, Bishop Curry outlined a theology that represents for me the only message Christianity ought to espouse—God is love. His eloquent remarks ended with this benediction: “May Gold hold us all in those Almighty hands of Love.” Somewhere in those intervening thirteen minutes, Bishop Curry delivered a message of love and social justice that explains why I take my own children to church.
I’ve ruffled feathers on more than a few older church ladies when I’ve announced I don’t bring my kids to church to teach them to be “good people.” My kids’ secular school curriculum values diversity and teaches respect and cooperation better than most Sunday school or Vacation Bible School curriculums out there. So why church? Why drag tired kids out of bed or away from television on days they have off from school?
Western culture values youth, beauty, and wealth. Advertisers spend money convincing us we aren’t good enough the way we are. Our teeth could be whiter. Our skin, clearer, and our wallets, fuller. Yet Bishop Curry shared the concept of humans being “made by the power of love.” We have inherent value. There isn’t a more counter-cultural message out there. It’s the message I want my own children to receive when they worry about their performance in school or on the soccer field. Human dignity is innate; Bishop Curry’s message is an anathema to the message of the current American administration, which only values other countries or individuals based on what they can do for us.
While preaching at St. George’s Chapel in front of the royal family, Bishop Curry cited lines from the slave spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead,” which promises “to make the wounded whole” and “to heal the sin sick soul.” He also repeated the concept of love being more powerful than death. In doing so, Bishop Curry didn’t need to mention school shootings or racist attacks on individuals and entire populations of people. He acknowledged the presence of evil and oppression while reassuring listeners of a healing source. Despite our best efforts, we screw things up. There are hypocrites, including me, on every pew in every church. We don’t always treat our neighbors as fellow beings made by love (as the spiritual implied about slave owners who often claimed the mantel of Christianity in enslaving Africans), but there is an infinite source of love who does. The downtrodden, the oppressed, the poor, the victims of any number of death-dealing forces in our society are among those redeemed by love. This message undercuts the “Gospel of Wealth” many American evangelicals preach, which enables Christians to celebrate their status as “blessed” while ignoring those “less fortunate.” I heard a version of this sermon while visiting another church with my children last Easter. A pastor, whom I suspect voted for Trump, offered a message of Jesus being a “winner” and invited people to be on Jesus’s team. In the car after the service, I told my children, “God doesn’t have teams.”
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Bishop Curry promised the power of love can create “a new heaven and a new earth.” This is not some apocryphal event in the distant future during which God comes down to slay unbelievers after we destroy the planet with our neglect and misuse. As beings made from love, we have the power of love to affect change. I believe in climate change. The church I attend with my family is home to scientists who study how human activity negatively impacts our ecosystems. One put it this way: “We are given the power and responsibility to care for our earth and improve upon it.” I’m fortunate to have these adults as examples for my kids. My daughter, who loves nature and science, has visited one woman’s lab to see how she uses microbes to cleanse water polluted through the fracking process. Love means curbing our excessive use of non-renewable energy to conserve the planet.
As a Lutheran, raised in Mormon-dominated Utah, whose mother sent her to Catholic school, I’ve attended a lot of different Christian churches and seen the best and worst of what they have to offer. I’ve known pastors who counsel women to stay in abusive relationships or preyed on women who have sought guidance. I’ve encountered people who were excommunicated for their sexual orientation. I’ve seen a priest invoke the threat of hell to keep his male students away from the opposite sex only to molest a boy in his care. Organized religion, like any power structure, can protect the powerful and exploit the weak. I get why people stay away.
Organized religion wasn’t the topic of Bishop Curry’s sermon though. He wasn’t out to raise funds for any humanitarian missions or to fill the coffers of man-made cathedrals. Instead, he celebrated Love: the essential Christian belief in God as the ultimate source of love and the pure expression of that love. He spoke about love having the power to change the world. During places in his sermon, I could exchange “Hope and Change” for “Love” and hear Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign message. Indeed, the homily made me long for those days. As much as I follow politics and invest energy in calling members of Congress and attending marches, I believe a redemptive power resides in God, not politicians. I find solace in Bishop Curry’s ability to speak God’s truth those in political power.
Bishop Curry took the royal family, their guests, and international television audience, to church at St. George’s Chapel on May 19, 2018. He did so again at a #ReclaimJesus rally and candlelight vigil in front of the White House on May 24, 2018. That’s the “church” of radical love and inclusion. It’s the place I struggle for glimpses of inside my own congregation. It’s why I sometimes arrive home late after attending church meetings and kiss my sleeping kids goodnight. It’s the reason I could claim church while sipping mimosas in my friend’s living room.