Michael Curry's sermon: Why the critics don't get it

Have we reached peak Michael Curry yet, in terms of That Sermon? Surely not; it was only Saturday, after all.

Passionate, funny, wise and visionary, it's certainly polarised opinion. Most people loved it. The only people who didn't were atheists and highly conservative Christians – the former because, well, they would, and the latter because it 'didn't preach the gospel' – or variations on that theme. All that stuff about the 'power of love' was just wishy-washy liberalism, and what do you expect from someone who believes in gay marriage?

ReutersBishop Michael Curry preached at the Royal wedding – some said for too long.

Aside from the depressing tendency of Christians to be negative about everything that makes people happy, I think – with respect, of course – that this shows how little the critics understand about how these public occasions ought to work.

In their minds, there's a preacher and a captive audience – so why wouldn't he (it's always a he) hit them with the Full Gospel, complete with penal substitutionary atonement and an altar call? Anything less is a dereliction of duty (the charge levelled against Bishop Curry by some of the more strident commentators).

The point, however, is that the audience was indeed captive. They chose to be there, certainly (hey, who'd turn down an invitation like that?). People choose to turn up to other weddings, and to funerals, too. They turn up to christenings, not because they are religious, but because they're supporting the family (the same is often true of godparents, I believe).

We use the expression 'captive audience' rather lightly. It's not really a good thing to be a captive. It means choices are restricted; there's an element of compulsion.

And that is not what the gospel is about.

Preachers should be grateful if they're able to speak to people who wouldn't usually hear their message. But they should not abuse that privilege. Their captives should not be compelled. These occasions are a time to be evangelical, but they are not the time for evangelism – and there is a difference. You can preach good news without preaching for a decision. You can present Christ winsomely and truly without labouring the audience's total depravity. They are an audience, not a congregation.

So the model for a sermon on a public occasion like this has less to do with Billy Graham and more to do with Wisdom – or rather, it occupies the space between the two. There's quite a lot in the Bible that is not really gospel, in the fullest sense of the word, but is really, really useful for living. Take Proverbs, for instance, or Ecclesiastes. You don't have to be a believer to profit from them.

Neither should you have to be a believer to profit from a sermon, particularly at a time like the Royal wedding. Of the millions who heard it, most probably weren't. But when they heard Bishop Curry reflect on the many waters that cannot quench love (the Song of Solomon, another Bible book that's pretty gospel-light), and say: 'There's a certain sense in which when you are loved and you know it, when someone cares for you and you know it, when you love and you show it, it actually feels right', they heard a truth that was real in their own experience.

When he soared into an appeal for them to imagine a world where 'love is the way', he was speaking to the non-believer in a way that was far more powerful than a sterile, formulaic plea for them to repent of their multifarious sins. And in each case, he was setting his understanding of love in the context of God, and saying, 'This vision of ultimate goodness you have because you're human is there because of God.'

That's the skill of the preacher – lost, I'm afraid, on many of his critics. He spoke into the real experience of his hearers and connected that with the gospel of Jesus Christ. He used his bully pulpit without bullying from it.

God bless Michael Curry, I say.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods

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