All the pomp and circumstance expected were there: the queen, the royals, the pageantry of the British Empire.
Then came the Most Rev. Michael Curry. Born in Chicago. Black. Reading from the Song of Solomon, the book in the Bible that talks candidly about love. Fire. Passion.
“Its flashes are flashes of fire. A raging flame, many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it out,” sounded Curry’s voice in the cavernous St. George’s Chapel, where 500 years of British monarchs lie buried.
Curry, 65, then did something that some pastors call “shifting gears,” said the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia.
It’s a style, Tyler said, where you “start slow, get higher, catch fire, then retire.”
Essentially, he turned up the volume:
“When love is there, then no child will go to bed hungry. When love is there, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history, and the earth will be a sanctuary.”
To the Rev. Renee McKenzie, pastor of the George W. South Memorial Church of the Advocate, an Episcopal church in North Philadelphia, “It’s taking a hammer into the basement of the master and slowly destroying the house brick by brick.”
“It really was a black service,” she said. And Meghan Markle, now Duchess of Sussex, was “claiming her blackness.”
It wasn’t just the pastor reflecting African American traditions. The cellist was the Afro-wearing, 19-year-old Sheku Kanneh-Mason. The black gospel choir sang songs made famous by black Americans — “Stand by Me,” a hit of Ben E. King in 1961, and spirituals like “This Little Light of Mine.” And there was a black Anglican female priest, who wore the shaved hair of the Black Panther women warriors.
“It just represents the diversity of who we are,” McKenzie said. “We are not a monolithic people. We come at culture from all different directions.”
It was hard for wedding watchers not to notice. The royal wedding is “blacker than the Oscars,” people wrote on Twitter.
— Karine Jean-Pierre (@K_JeanPierre) May 19, 2018
Kudos to the #RoyalWedding for being blacker than the Oscars.
— Anand Giridharadas (@AnandWrites) May 19, 2018
Some commented that Curry stole the show, even drawing in once-uninterested people to their TVs to see what the energetic preacher had to say.
“From the music, the preaching, to the content of the message — not just the style,” said Tyler, “that was a black church sermon.”
Barbara Dianne Savage, a professor of American social thought at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in an email: “It was the ‘black Episcopal church’ that was on display.”
Savage is a member of Philadelphia’s African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, where she said Curry has preached many times. (In fact, the Rev. Martini Shaw, pastor at St. Thomas, attended the wedding.) The church, now located near City Avenue, was founded in 1792 by Absalom Jones, a contemporary of Bishop Richard Allen, who founded Mother Bethel.
Savage noted that Curry, as head of an overwhelmingly white denomination, “was asked to preach to represent the Episcopal Church in the United States, but his preaching — although he is Episcopalian, and therefore part of the Anglican tradition — borrows from his familiarity with black preaching traditions.”
McKenzie, whose church is giving sanctuary right now to an undocumented immigrant family of a mother and four children, said Curry’s bravery to speak not just to the “particular” of a love between a couple getting married but to the “universal” love of mankind is “what Episcopalians do.”
Curry’s sermon about the earth being a sanctuary was a message to powers in England and the United States, said Tyler. The countries of the West built their wealth and empire on the people and natural resources taken from the countries that people are fleeing now, he said.
It seemed everyone was seeing universal messages in what Curry said.
“This is much bigger than a wedding. It’s about ultimately getting justice and equality for our people. And anyone who is about helping to get justice should be celebrated,” said McKenzie. She worried that there might be a backlash, just as there was after Barack Obama was elected president, but she still felt hopeful.
“I think it’s something significant when the Anglican Church and the queen of England has the capacity to demonstrate that they’re trying to be open and inclusive and they’re willing to move in that direction.”