Second thoughts about that Royal Wedding sermon

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Michael Curry delivers royal wedding address

When Nadia Comaneci scored perfect 10’s in gymnastics during the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, the world took notice. That, we all plainly saw, is how it’s done.

When Bishop Michael Curry preached at Windsor Castle during the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the world took notice. That, we have been told, is how it’s done.

Except, pray God, it isn’t. And it is important that preachers not take Bishop Curry’s sermon as anything like the standard for their own sermons as gymnasts all over the globe indeed went on to emulate Ms. Comaneci.

To be fair, Bishop Curry’s assignment was a challenge: to give enough religious content without becoming unintelligible and to speak in a way appropriate to the most formal of occasions without boring the audience in the chapel . . . and around the world. He certainly charmed many, both near and far, as the resulting complimentary commotion has evidenced.

But now that that happy storm has calmed, it’s worth a sober second look. What, exactly, did Curry say that was worthy of such effusive praise?

I can’t tell.

He seemed to be saying that love is important, that it can be powerful, that it comes ultimately from God, and that the world would be better off if everyone loved each other. Indeed, quoting both Martin Luther King, Jr. (to be expected) and Teilhard de Chardin (who hasn’t been quoted for a generation), he averred that love would revolutionize the world and bring in the Kingdom of God.

So far, so good. Who could disagree? Indeed, as the candid shots of distracted audience members demonstrated, who would even find this particularly interesting?

One wonders about the point of the sermon. To remind us that love is a good thing? To say so seems rather redundant at a gigantic wedding. To assert that love is powerful? Well, sure, it is—except when it isn’t. Love wasn’t powerful enough to keep together the parents of either the bride or the groom, as the poignant shots of Ms Markle’s single mother and Prince Harry’s father and second wife drove painfully home.

To teach us that love is self-sacrificial? Fine, although the sermon at this point made a reference to Jesus dying for us and he “didn’t get anything out of it,” while Hebrews 12:2 clearly indicates that he did.

So what, one might ask, is keeping all these beautifully dressed people in this gorgeous place from loving each other and, indeed, the whole world? And what would love look like if indeed it were practiced with justice and charity?

Well, our preacher says, just imagine.

That’s a good thing to do: to hold up an ideal to provoke us to recognize how far short of it we fall. Very well. Now what?

And that’s the big question to be asked of any sermon. Suppose the preacher is entirely successful and convinces the audience of everything he says. What is supposed to happen next?

Nothing in particular, it seems, except some general increase in love. Perhaps particular audience members of tender conscience will think of people they could and should love better, and redouble their efforts to do so. But aside from brief good feelings about how wonderful love is and how different everything would be if everything were different, it’s hard to see to what result the sermon was directed.

Just this past week, my wife and I watched the episode of the second season of “The Crown” on Netflix in which Queen Elizabeth seeks not just one, but two, private audiences with Billy Graham during his famous preaching tour of 1954. Graham also preached the love of God, but he went on explicitly to address our lack of love. He was direct about sin being the problem and salvation being the solution.

By doing so, the American preacher discomfited the prim and the proper, the genteel and the decent, as doubtless would Bishop Curry have done at the royal wedding. But Graham also offered what the more recent American preacher did not: an explanation as to why we don’t just love each other, and the way to find the power of love that Bishop Curry was so hopeful we would somehow find.

Is it too much to ask that a world-class preacher on the world’s biggest stage would include at least a clue as to how to achieve the ideal he so charmingly set out? Is it too much to ask that someone so adept in the music of gospel preaching would offer a few more of the gospel’s key lyrics?

Nadia Comaneci nailed her routines in a breathtaking way and became justifiably symbolic of excellence in her field. But Bishop Curry? What standard of preaching do we have nowadays that such a sermon could prompt such a friendly furor?

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).