May 31, 2018
The Royal Wedding between Prince Henry and American actress, Meghan Markle, is over. The pageantry is completed; the ladies’ hats returned to their boxes, and the horses from the drawn carriages secure in their stables. Thankfully, U.S. announcers have silenced their kitschy attempts at British sayings, like “a spot of tea,” “cheerio,” or “tally-ho,” with fake British accents. Unexpectedly, it appears the deepest post-wedding memory for the globe is less the afterglow of a happy couple holding hands and more the sermon of an African-American minister who took many by surprise with a barn-storming message about the power of love.
Bishop Michael Curry became the 27th bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church in 2015, and the first African-American to hold the position. Much of the world did not know Curry. But, they do now. NBC called his message at the Royal Wedding the “sermon heard around the world;” ABC labeled it “soul-stirring;” and, CNN predicted it would become “star-making.” Entertainment Tonight said it “stole the show,” while Today decreed it the “most tweeted moment of the wedding.” Even the magazine Teen Vogue weighed in, posting a series of reader gifs, including one entitled “Bishop Curry Leaving the Building,” which shows an energetic African American preacher, with Bible in hand, running across a sanctuary, morphing into a fighter jet and flying into the sky.
The reactions internationally are just as praiseworthy. Diana Evans, of The Guardian, said she believes the sermon at the wedding will become a historic landmark for preaching.
For any of us hoping for a more just and humane world, it is instructional to watch the world’s reaction to Bishop Michael Curry’s 14-minute sermon. Although most of the preaching at weddings are reflections on romantic love, Curry brought slavery, world hunger, poverty, critiques of capitalism, and war into an upbeat presentation of the power of love to refashion our “tired old” world. His message and delivery is not all that unique, and occurs in many places of worship every week, although the reaction to it might make us think otherwise. So, why this outsized reaction? Clearly, Curry addressed something many of us needed to hear.
For those familiar with the American preaching tradition of the black church, the bishop struck familiar chords from the black church experience and black liberation theology, masterfully blending metaphor, story, image, humor, and keen insight on the emotional reactions to common human experiences. He delivered the message with a distinctive rhythmic and rhetorical cadence and a heartfelt connection to the congregation that collectively Rev. Otis Moss III has called “blue note preaching.” Perhaps this appealed to so many because we need such preaching.
In his book, Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World: Finding Hope in an Age of Despair, Moss defines this distinctive form of communication a combination of the “moan” of the blues with the “shout of the gospel.” Moss explains such preaching grew from the black experience of gazing through the window of the American project of democracy, yearning and weeping “on the other side of the windowpane” for “gifts” like “freedom,” “free agency,” “autonomy,” and “humanity.” Blue Note preaching renames an “existential darkness; it is a way of seeing, a strategy of knowing, and a technique to empower.”
Moss names such preaching after a famous music production label and jazz club in New York City, and describes it as a distinct way of celebrating an easily overlooked reality: many of the ashes in our world were once a beautiful bouquet, and there is a kind of beauty even in the ashes themselves, just as blues music is designed to speak of the struggles and heartaches of life with such an energizing rhythm and beat that those listening want to tap their feet even though they are listening to lyrics of pain, suffering, defeat, and discouragement. Blue Note preaching leads us to an experience of empowerment and joy without asking us to deny anything about the difficulties we are facing. Counterintuitively, a deeper embrace of the harshness of our existential experience can help us discover a new strength within us to not only endure but to rise above the toughest challenges in life.
Blue Note preaching believes that ultimately right will beat might; good will vanquish evil; truth will win out over lies, and the meek shall inherit the earth. But, it also recognizes this is an interminably slow process, often leading to crushing setbacks that can test our faith. Tim Hansel, an athlete and motivational speaker who had a climbing accident at a young age and lived every day in excruciating, chronic pain, captured the mystery of this gritty, eyes wide open, reality-based yet infinitely hopeful long-term view of life in the title of his 1985 book, You Gotta Keep Dancin’. His book describes how he lived meaningfully, joyfully and hopefully not only despite the pain but sometimes because of it.
The tradition of Blue Note preaching helped the African-American population endure the pain of 258 years of slavery (1619-1877), 87 years of Jim Crow laws (1877-1964), and 54 years of the rocky and incomplete implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which has culminated in the frustration bubbling out in the Black Lives Matter movement. Maybe one of the reason’s Bishop Curry’s sermon captured the attention of so many people is because our world has descended into such turmoil we need some old-fashioned Blue Note Preaching. But, this sermon may have touched so many because of the context and audience of the address, both drenched in historic symbolism.
The wedding occurred in St. George’s Chapel, a part of Windsor Castle, which is a crossroad of idealism and some of the worst examples of human cruelty and privilege. According to an old Celtic legend, King Arthur, the leader of the idyllic and fantastic land of Camelot, once lived at the location. Windsor is also the site of the conferences that led to King John’s signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. This document declares for the first time that everyone lives under the rule of law, even a monarch, and states that all individuals have rights, including the pursuit of justice and the right to a fair trial. It is a founding document of modern democracy, and when King John signed the Magna Carta in the meadow of Runnymede, the towers of Windsor framed the horizon. On the other hand, King Henry VIII completed the roof of St. George’s Chapel, while he using Windsor castle as a prison for a large number of religious and political leaders resisting him, and in 1563, Queen Elizabeth I hid at the castle during the Black Death epidemic, hanging anyone coming to the castle for refugee from the rampant death occurring across the British Isles.
Bishop Curry did his Blue Note preaching on a profoundly meaningful piece of real estate. But, the symbolism is much deeper. Curry is the descendant of slaves and sharecroppers, as is the bride’s mother, Doria Ragland, which means a woman whose ancestors were embondaged, is marrying into Britain’s Royal Family. The same family that once not only supported the slave trade but in many ways defined it. Windsor Castle is a mere 200 miles southeast of Liverpool, England, the city that once made its wealth by building slave ships. It is estimated that 1 ½ million slaves were transported across the Atlantic on 5,000 voyages made with Liverpool ships.
An 18th and 19th-century member of the English aristocracy who would have appreciated the rich symbolism dripping from this wedding is William Wilberforce (1759-1833), a wealthy party boy with little ambition who had a spiritual awakening after he entered Parliament and became the leading voice for the abolishment of slavery. Wilberforce, who received spiritual guidance from John Newton, a former slave trader turned preacher and the author of the song, Amazing Grace, knew the patience, tenacity, and strength of spirit required to make any meaningful change in the world. Wilberforce introduced bills in Parliament to abolish slavery that failed in 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805. After years of struggle, the Slave Abolition Act passed in 1833, 28 years before the start of the American Civil War, and a month after Wilberforce died, although he heard it was assured of passing three days before his last breath.
A descendant of slaves preaching at the wedding of a descendant of slaves marrying a prince who is the descendant of a family and political system that profited from slavery makes a great storybook ending. But, of course, Blue Note preaching reminds us that our work at creating a better world is never finished. According to the Global Slavery Index’s 2016 research findings, there are still 45.8 million humans living in slavery across 167 nations. About 58% of those people are found in just five nations: India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan. In addition, Alliance 8.7 estimates that 151.6 million children in the world, ages 5-17, are involved in child labor, with a little less than half working in hazardous jobs, mostly in agriculture.
Finding the energy and hope to respond to such human suffering is overwhelming, which is one of the reasons we need the wisdom of Blue Note preaching. Otis Moss had a late night encounter with his six-year-old daughter that helped him understand the mystery of this tradition of communication coming from those who once lived in slavery.
During a very challenging and fearful time in his life, when the news media camped out in front of the church and his congregation received more than 100 death threats a week, Moss awoke at 3 a.m. to a strange sound in the house. After looking through different rooms, he found his daughter, Makayla, spinning around in circles in a darkened room. He scolded her and told her to go to bed, but she insisted: “No, look at me, Daddy. Look at me.” Just as he felt a surge of anger at her disobedience, Moss felt as if God was speaking to him through his little girl:
“Look at your daughter!” he imagined God saying to him. “The darkness is around her but not in her. She’s dancing in the dark.”
Moss learned from Makayla what generations of slaves learned through Blue Note preaching; William Wilburforce discovered in a lifelong struggle to change slavery laws, and Tim Hansel found in his struggle with chronic pain: you gotta keep dancin’.
The world does change for those who can internalize the message of Blue Note Preaching and keep dancing in their efforts to create a better world. Despite the millions of children caught in child labor, for instance, the research of Alliance 8.7 estimates the total number has dropped 94 million since 2000! Suffering and chaos are all around us, but so is hope and faith and action.
Perhaps Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at Windsor Castle attracted so much attention because we all need to remember that no matter how dark it seems, there is a constant in history: the power of love not only can change the world, it still does.
St George’s Chapel / Windsor photo by Cristian Bortes