With regal procession, ancient ritual and rousing gospel melody, the people of St. James' Episcopal Church, a historically African-American congregation on West Baltimore's Lafayette Square, bid farewell last night to its beloved rector, the Rev. Michael B. Curry.
Curry, 46, who has served at St. James for 12 years, will embark on a new ministry next month as bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina. He will become the first African-American to lead an Episcopal diocese in the southern United States.
Last night's service took place in the church that was restored under Curry's leadership after a devastating fire in 1993. The building is a graceful blend of traditional church design with subtle African motifs that has garnered several architectural awards.
Wearing white vestments with red stoles, bishops and priests from other parishes were situated in the sanctuary in front of hundreds of worshipers. Curry was clad in the simple black cassock and white collar of a priest. A back altar was covered with white lilies from Sunday's Easter liturgy.
Recounting Curry's accomplishments, the Rt. Rev. Robert W. Ihloff, the Bishop of Maryland, told the congregation that their spirit would go to North Carolina with their rector.
"You know as well as I know that Michael was shaped by the people in this place over the last 12 years," Ihloff said. "This is a very special parish."
History of congregation
The history of St. James, the first African-American Episcopal congregation south of the Mason-Dixon Line, was a subtext of last night's celebration of Curry's ministry. The sermon was delivered by the Rev. Jesse F. Anderson Jr., rector of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia, which is St. James' mother church. The Baltimore congregation was founded in 1824 by the Rev. William Levington, a free black who had been ordained at St. Thomas.
Anderson and Curry have become friends over the years as the churches exchanged choirs. Curry, renowned for his preaching, occasionally preached to the Philadelphia congregation.
In answering the call to be bishop of North Carolina, Curry faced a dilemma, Anderson said of his friend.
"Do I remain at St. James where I am comfortable, loved and well-fed? And where there is still work to be done?" Anderson said of the questions facing Curry. "Or do I heed the word of God, which I teach and firmly believe?"
For his sermon, Anderson took as his text the Gospel of Luke, chapter 9, where Jesus asks his disciples, "Who [do] you say that I am?"
"Who is the new bishop of North Carolina?" Anderson asked. "Who do people say that he is?"
Exuberant preaching style
For some in his new diocese, the experience may be unsettling, for Curry's exuberant style of preaching and fondness for gospel music might strike some as "un-Episcopal," he said.
But the people at St. James last night had no such fear.
"To St. James," Anderson said, "you the man! The man we must now share with the rest of the world and the church.
"Who does the country and church say that he is? One of, if not the best, preachers in the Episcopal Church," Anderson said as the crowd rose to its feet, applauding.
Then Curry rose to formally relinquish his office.
"I have, with God's help and to the best of my abilities, exercised this trust, accepting its privileges and responsibilities," he said. "It is now time that I should leave this charge, and I publicly state that my tenure as rector of St. James' Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, Baltimore, Maryland, ends this day."
He approached St. James' registrar, Lucy Swain, and handed her the church registries.
"I now turn over to your care the canonical register of services, the registers of baptisms, confirmations, burials and holy matrimony," Curry said.
Turning to Jacob DeWitt Howard III, the junior warden, Curry said: "I now return the keys to the church given me at my installation as rector."
'I now depart'
Finally, turning to Ihloff, who will be Curry's mentor in his new office, he handed over a silver wand, "which is the symbol of the office I now depart."
Ihloff placed the wand on an altar dedicated to George Freeman Bragg Jr., a St. James' rector who served the church for nearly 50 years before his death in 1940.
"The rector's wand will remain on the George Freeman Bragg Jr. altar," Ihloff said, "until the induction of the new rector of St. James."