SALT LAKE CITY — The Most Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, has witnessed an incredible amount of change over his 40 years of ministry.
He's seen women serve as priests for the first time, congregants struggle over same-sex marriage and the church expand its understanding of evangelism, watching in amazement as worshippers overcame their differences to work toward compromise.
"There’s a consensus to be compassionate," he said. "We don’t have to all agree, but we can agree — even when we disagree — not to be disagreeable."
This approach to conflict has served Bishop Curry well in recent years, as he has transitioned from leading the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina to heading up the entire denomination. He was elected presiding bishop in June 2015 during the Episcopal Church's general convention in Salt Lake City, and he will serve in that role until 2024.
As the face of the Episcopal Church, Bishop Curry spends much of his time traveling and speaking. His job duties include searching for common ground — both within his church and in society at-large — on some of the most contentious issues of the 21st century: immigration reform, religious freedom and racial justice.
People won't always be able to find a perfect compromise but getting to know each other as humans is a much better approach to conflict than shouting and name-calling, he said. Even as he's proclaimed the importance of speaking publicly about faith, he's emphasized the value of good listening.
Bishop Curry, 64, was raised in Buffalo, New York, as an active member of the Episcopal Church. His dad was a priest, and he encouraged his son to find ways to serve marginalized people, such as poor families, throughout his life. As a teen, Bishop Curry decided to follow in his father's footsteps and become a priest.
He attended seminary at Yale Divinity School, where he received a Master of Divinity degree in 1978. Later that year, he was ordained, and he served at the parish level in North Carolina, Ohio and Maryland before taking over the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina in 2000.
This week, the Deseret News met with Bishop Curry during a break from his responsibilities as a guest at the Episcopal Diocese of Utah's annual convention. He shared his thoughts on how the election of President Donald Trump changed his ministry and how evangelism makes the world a better place.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: In June, you'll celebrate the two-year anniversary of your election as president bishop. Has the job matched your expectations?
Bishop Michael Curry: I knew that, on a very practical level, the job would involve a great deal of travel, and it's certainly lived up to my expectations.
When I was the bishop of a diocese, I got in a car and went to 920 different churches. Now, instead of a car, I almost always have to get in a plane.
The biggest task for a presiding bishop is to be the church's most visible and primary ambassador to itself and to the wider world. That means you have to go wherever the people are.
DN: When you were elected, you spoke about the importance of evangelism and your interest in spreading the "Jesus movement." How has that work gone?
MC: I think I'm evolving as the church is evolving.
One of the things that I'm aware of is that we hear the word evangelism and think automatically about someone telling somebody something so that they'll change. But the truth is that evangelism is as much listening as it is sharing.
It involves two people actually sharing their lives with each other. They share their stories and a new story gets written.
That's what evangelism is. It helps all of us find our way into a deeper relationship with God. And if there's a deeper relationship with God, there's going to be a deeper relationship with each other as well.
That's the bigger picture of evangelism. It's more than just telling you how to get to heaven.
DN: Are those the kinds of conversations that can solve the problem of declining church attendance?
MC: You know, I don't think evangelism has a direct impact on either increasing the membership of a church or decreasing it. There may be indirect spin-offs but the motivation has got to be helping someone's relationship with the living God.
That's the way of Jesus; he helped people get back into a relationship with God and, in turn, with each other.
And whether the church grows because of that is irrelevant. But I do believe that when we really do what we're supposed to be doing in terms of evangelism, other people might be interested.
If we truly help each other find our way into a deeper relationship with God, it will impact our culture profoundly. We'll engage with each other differently, and that can be world-changing.
What really matters to God is how people actually care for each other. To have a Christianity that actually reflects that would be a game-changer.
DN: Speaking of game-changers, we're only a few months removed from a very contentious presidential election. How has the current political moment impacted your ministry?
MC: It's caused me to try to articulate how we create a shared space where people with profound differences can engage each other. How might we actually learn from each other and move to a better place together?
One of the contributions that the Episcopal Church can make to public discourse is to raise again the importance of value-based engagement and discourse rather than issue-based discourse.
Issue-based engagement is polarizing. But if we try to identity the values that we share either as Christians or as Americans, it creates a common space where we can come up with creative solutions that none of us thought of before. That approach has much more potential.
DN: But you've been outspoken on issues like immigration policy and marriage equality. How do you move from shared values to contemporary political debates?
MC: Well, with immigration, for example, I've been in conversations with people who could actually influence some of this policy stuff. And I asked them to start with the values we share.
If you say you’re a Christian, let’s go to our religious tradition. What does Jesus teach us that might inform this discussion? It might not tell us what policy to enact, but there could be a biblical principle on which the policy could be based.
What are some of those principles related to the immigration debate? Well the idea of welcoming the stranger is all over the place in the scripture.
I have actually found that it is possible to have that conversation and then to go to the practical policy steps. Again, that doesn’t mean we’re going to agree, but it may mean that we'll land at a more humane place.
DN: What about when there's a debate in which the two different sides won't even share the same table? For example, LGBT rights activists and religious freedom advocates are really struggling to compromise right now.
MC: That's when it's constructive to have the kind of conversations that allow me to really hear about the core value that's driving your perspective and for you to hear what's driving mine.
That approach de-escalates conflict. It may not change my opinion, but it humanizes my opponent.
When we get to that point, we have the capacity to actually have a conversation that might help us find overlaps in values. We're on a human level and we may see a way forward that respects both of us.
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