South Carolina Episcopalians
An Independent Journal of News & Commentary for Anglicans
not affiliated with the Episcopal Church or its dioceses
May 23, 2018
Michael Curry & The Dream of God
My first experience of freedom from my parents' watchful eyes happened in 1969 when I was 16-years-old, spending the summer in Washington DC. As I eagerly tested many boundaries, I was not yet bold enough to skip church and risk my parents - even 500 miles away - finding out.
So the first Sunday on my own, I found my way to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill. I was late for the 11 o’clock service and swiftly ushered into the last remaining seat during a reading of what seemed like the entire Book of Deuteronomy.
Next to me was an older African American lady in a blue beret who welcomed my arrival with a wide toothy smile, and welcoming nod of the head. She made sure I knew where we were in the service and how to find things in the prayer book.
Newly minted from small town South Carolina, I was suddenly thrilled to be worshiping in my first “integrated” congregation – even though there was only one black person there among a sea of white people.
My only disappointment in the Order of Service was that the preacher was to be the senior warden. Bracing for a painful recitation of Church business and a likely plea for money, I noted the nearest exits.
Fortunately, I stayed put. What happened next changed my life forever.
Affirmation of Love
As we rose to sing the sermon hymn, the woman next to me casually left her seat, ambled across the nave, and quite confidently climbed up into the pulpit. She pulled from her pocketbook several pages of carefully written notes, and launched into an extraordinary address to the congregation.
With a deep and stirring voice, she proceeded to scold no less than two centuries of Christians for missing the mark in understanding the Bible.
“For Heaven's sake, the Word of God is not a book! It is none other than Jesus Christ and we must never forget that,” she said. She told us we were wrong to treat the Scriptures as some sort of God dictionary, moral instruction guide, or how-to-get-saved manual.
The Bible story, she argued, is "an Affirmation of Love" ... God’s love for us and all in Creation. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ was a gift from a loving and vulnerable Creator beckoning his wayward Creation to return to its true nature.
Every time we participate in a selfless act of love - or of justice that springs from love - we are participating in the life of God, she insisted firmly (or "shouted", as some Brits might say).
If this sounds a little like Michael Curry at the Royal Wedding, it would be no accident.
The woman at church that Sunday was Verna Dozier, a rising theologian and influential lay leader in the Episcopal Church. When I met her, she was recently retired as a school teacher who, many would say, was on the road to becoming a modern-day prophet.
Her Baptist upbringing in the nation’s capital had exposed her to some of the most influential theologians and black preachers in the country. Her keen mind, deep faith, and healthy skepticism of all things "religious" had compelled her to challenge barriers of race and gender to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in new ways and in new places.
When she decided to join the Episcopal Church she said, "it was one of the most thrilling moments of my life.” According to Verna, "They did not expect me to check my mind at the door."
Becoming an Episcopalian in the 1950s empowered her as a woman, an African American, and Bible-loving Christian to embark on an extraordinary spiritual journey that would touched the lives of thousands.
For the next 37 years, my life was profoundly affected by Verna’s friendship and mentoring… just as it affected many others including a young Michael Curry.
Bishop Curry has said repeatedly that Verna was central to his decision to become a priest. She profoundly influenced his theology and, at her funeral in 2006, he described her as “My Moses".
At the mention of her name at Grace Church Cathedral last January, he lit up, excitedly pointed to the vestments he was wearing and said, "None of this would have happened with her!"
The Dream of God
Last Saturday the Presiding Bishop left many all over the world longing to know more about him and his work. Fortunately, for us, Bishop Curry has published a number of books and articles, made many online videos, and preached sermons all over. He seems to be everywhere.
However, there is also Verna’s book entitled, The Dream of God. It is a huge clue to understanding Bishop Curry. When he was elected Bishop of North Carolina, one of the first things he did was to order a copy of it for every member of his new diocese.
Those who have read it see very clearly how our Presiding Bishop was shaped by Verna in his ministry. In this book, she takes us to new places in our journey with God, places we know are there but often require a guide to be fully comprehended.
I encourage you to get your own copy of the book and take your time reading it.
For years I have ordered used copies for groups that have asked me to speak to them about Verna’s life and work. There are still copies available online. I have yet to find a used one that was not filled with previous owners’ handwritten notes that have never failed to help me see something new in Verna's words.
Fortunately, participants in EfM (Education for Ministry) this year were able to read the book, and explore together its meaning … so there may be some copies floating around your parish or even in parish bookstores.
A challenging and encouraging spirit
In her final years, Verna's standard response to any question about her well-being was that God had not "graced me with an early death." In truth, she had much more to give this world and was frustrated that the physical limitations of age were preventing her from continuing.
Her work did not end when she departed this life.
Without diminishing the brilliance of Michael Curry, I imagine Verna's voice was not far from St. George's Chapel last Saturday, challenging him and encouraging him forward... in much the same way she did years ago for a very naive teenager who was late for church.