Analysis of a speech by Bishop Michael Curry

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I hadn’t planned on watching the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, but during a break from work, I decided to skim the news. And there it was: a link to the live stream of the event. “I’ll just take a quick look,” I thought.

Well, it so happened that I started the stream just as Meghan’s car was pulling up to St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. Long story short, my wife and I didn’t stop watching until 90 minutes or so later when Harry and Meghan were husband and wife and hopping into a carriage.

I’m glad I watched. It was a beautiful and highly unconventional service for a variety of reasons that you can easily read in one of the thousands of articles written about the event. (The Kingdom Choir’s rendition of Stand By Me was a highlight.)

But the part of the ceremony that particularly caught my attention—and the attention of millions around the world—was the sermon of Bishop Michael Curry.

The 65-year-old preacher from Chicago and the first black presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church delivered an electrifying sermon, the likes of which no Royal Wedding had ever seen before.

You can watch the entire speech in the video below.

What I liked about the speech

  • I loved his passion for his message. You could tell he was right into it. To take just one example, at 1:44: “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. There’s something right about it.”
  • He was authentic. It would have been easy to give a restrained homily given the occasion, given that he was in England and given that the Royal Family was present. But Curry remained true to himself. By several accounts—and by looking at some of the reactions in the video—not everyone was comfortable with his style. But good on Curry for not trying to be someone he isn’t.
  • I liked the quote from Martin Luther King Jr. at 0:34, particularly because it is not one of the better known quotes from that great man.
  • Curry varied the rhythm of his speech, sometimes going fast and sometimes slowing right down with long pauses. He varied the volume of his voice, sometimes rising to a crescendo and sometimes coming down to a whisper.
  • He used humour:
    • “Two young people fell in love, and we all showed up.” (3:45)
    • “Jesus did not get an honorary doctorate for dying.” (6:40)
    • “And with this I will sit down. We got to get y’all married.” (10:00)
    • “Fire makes it possible for us to text and tweet and email and Instagram and Facebook and socially be dysfunctional with each other.” (12:00)
  • I appreciated Curry’s willingness to incorporate the issue of slavery in the pre-Civil War United States into his sermon, especially given that Meghan Markle is biracial and her mother, Doris Ragland, is a direct descendant of slaves. In fact, Markle’s mother’s surname comes from the name of the slave owner of her ancestors.
  • Curry used a number of powerful rhetorical devices in his speech:
    • Anaphora – “Fire made it possible to cook food and to provide sanitary ways of eating, which reduced the spread of disease in its time. Fire made it possible to heat warm environments and thereby made human migration around the world a possibility, even into colder climates. Fire made it possible, there was no Bronze Age without fire, no Iron Age without fire, no Industrial Revolution without fire.” (10:48)
    • Epistrophe – “Think and imagine a world where love is the way. Imagine our homes and families when love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods and communities where love is the way. Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce when love is the way. Imagine this tired old world when love is the way.” (7:38)
    • Asyndeton – “My brothers and sisters, that’s a new heaven, a new earth, a new world, a new human family.” (9:38)
    • Metaphor – Fire was the metaphor that ran throughout the sermon. It was summed up in Curry’s paraphrasing of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin at 12:20: “[I]f humanity ever harnesses the energy of fire again, if humanity ever captures the energy of love, it will be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.

What I didn’t like

  • The speech went on too long. Bishop Curry himself recognized at 10:00 that he needed to wind up so that the ceremony could proceed, but then talked for almost four more minutes. Shorter is better and the speech could have been trimmed without diminishing its effectiveness. Indeed, a shorter speech could well have been more effective. Just think of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg AddressUpdate: After this post was published, I read that Curry said, “It was planned and I thought it was going to be six minutes.” If the timing was planned, it is almost a certainty that everyone involved in the organization of the wedding would have known and would have expected a six-minute sermon in order to keep to schedule. It is not good public speaking etiquette to go over your allotted time, especially when you are just one part of a larger event.
  • I didn’t like the rhetorical question at 11:32 in which he asked whether anyone came to the service in a car. Of course they did. He could have shortened that whole section by saying something like, “Many of you came here by car today; I flew to England from the United States in a plane. Without that controlled, harnessed fire, many of us wouldn’t have been able to be here.”
  • I don’t like it when a speaker tells the audience to nod your heads (11:37) or repeat a phrase. That style has never sat well with me. I’ll go as far as asking audience members to raise their hands if I am trying to gauge, for example, how many people are familiar with a concept. But that’s about it.
  • While I appreciated that Curry’s message of love was for everyone present (and the millions watching on TV or the Internet), it would have been nice for him to mention Harry and Meghan by name, at least once. After all, it was their day.

All in all, I was impressed by Curry. Harry and Meghan seemed impressed too. At the very end of the video (13:30), Harry turns to Meghan and says, “Wow!”

Harry and Meghan liked the speech

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About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
This entry was posted in Analysis of a Speech and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Analysis of a speech by Bishop Michael Curry

  1. Kerry Johnson says:

    I found it extremely difficult to find any critics of the speech out there. To me it’s telling of kind of a cult following when that happens, especially in the emotionally charged atmosphere we are dealing with there.

    With that in mind I’d like to come right out and say I was not a big fan. I felt that the big compliments out there, that ” he stole the show”, or that he “all but upstaged Harry and Meghan” are the very reasons I did not care for it. He very much overstepped by going 2x as long as he should have, and his mannerisms and rhetoric strayed too far from the focal point, which should have been Harry and Meghan, their love and their future. For me, it was just a little bit “in your face”. In other words, he had something he wanted to say and the people were going to hear him out, regardless of the overall spirit of the occasion.

    Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved many of the things others loved…his message of the power of love, the Source of that love, the fact that he was there as an African American. I loved his enthusiasm. I just thought it was overdone, and the expressions on faces told that story, not necessarily the story of being under the conviction of his words.

    By contrast, I thought “Stand By Me” was a perfect fit for the service.

    Kerry

    Like

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thank you for the detailed comment, Kerry. I share many of your views on the sermon. I loved the message and the passion but did not like that he went on so long or that he did not personalize the message – at least once – for Harry and Meghan. However, I have seen several people criticize the speech (in part because of the reasons that you and I have mentioned) so the views are not all one-sided. Thanks again for being part of the discussion. It is important to air different points of view.

      Like

  2. Derek Williamson says:

    People always have something to say wow why

    Like

  3. Raymond Bain says:

    John –

    Thank you for flexing my intellectual muscles!

    The advisory, “get a grip”, is far from a comment on the quality of one’s grip.
    Moreover, I’d dare not be so presumptuous as to comment on the quality of your grip.

    For some reason, I keep thinking a sermon and a speech are inherently different.

    I also keep thinking public speaking is different from preaching.

    As such, preaching and public speaking are not to be measured by the same measuring device.

    If you have thoughts on the the speech/sermon issue, I will be honored if you will share those thoughts with me.

    Thanks John.

    Raymond

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    • John Zimmer says:

      Hey Raymond. I appreciate the response. It’s all good and I always enjoy a discussion on issues like this, even if it is hard to do it justice via back-and-forth comments.

      My view on speeches and sermons is as follows: All sermons are speeches but not all speeches are sermons. To expand on the point, all speeches (including sermons) share common characteristics:

      – There is speaker.
      – There is an audience.
      – The speaker speaks about a subject.
      – There is a message (or there should be) that runs through the speech.
      – The message should be relevant in some way to the audience.
      – The speaker should be able to articulate why the message is relevant to the audience.
      – The speaker should have an objective for the audience; in other words, when the speech has ended, the audience should think differently about something and, ideally, be moved to take some kind of action.
      – The audience wants to be captivated and interested.

      There is more that can be said, but if we stop there and look at the list above, every one of those items would apply equally to sermon or a business presentation. Of course, the subject matter would be different and would be more or less important to an individual depending on his or her personal circumstances.

      So to that extent, I do think that a sermon can be measured by the same yardstick. I have heard over a thousand sermons in my lifetime. Many good; most not good. Nobody likes a boring sermon, but an inspired sermon can bring about great change. Perhaps you have had the experience of hearing many sermons. I bet there were some you loved and some that almost put you to sleep.

      One of the other readers (MaryO) has implicitly suggested that I analyze some other sermons. I have made a note and hope to get to it one day.

      Hope this is helpful. Cheers!

      Like

  4. PaulL says:

    Interesting to see a homily judged as an ordinary public oration. Bishop Curry, however, did not forget that this was a church service first, and a state occasion second. In the context of the sacramental joining of two lives in the sight of God and the people present–there to pledge themselves to help the couple carry out the promises they are making to each other–the Primate spoke deftly and pertinently, exempliftying in his delivery the love that his words were celebrating. The length of his homily was about standard for sermons in the Episcopal Church, and his words were perfectly tuned to the Scripture lessons and the anthems. I actually thought the Primate was a bit subdued; he can be a much livelier preacher than that.

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    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks for the comment, Paul. To be clear, I wrote the post to analyze the sermon, not judge it, in order to see what other speakers my learn from it.

      I agree that it was not an “ordinary” public oration, but then again, one could say the same thing about commencement addresses or the State of the Union speech or a eulogy or a an address to the United Nations or a TED Talk or… At the end of the day, it was a speech and, like all speeches, there were good things about it as well as things that could be improved.

      I thought that his words and his message and his passion were terrific (as I noted in the post). I still maintain that, if the plan was for him to speak for six minutes, he should have spoken for six minutes, not 14 minutes. The length of the homily might have been standard for a sermon in the Episcopal Church, but he was not in the Episcopal Church. If he wanted 14 minutes, he should have asked for 14 minutes at the outset.

      The reason that I have focused on the length of the sermon as an area for improvement is because too often, too many speakers go over their allocated time and audiences do not like it. Having said that, I want to be clear that I still found the sermon to be powerful and inspiring.

      Like

  5. Excellent and through analysis–as always. Greatly appreciate your clear thinking, analysis, and your writing ability. Well done.

    Like

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thank you, Rashid. It was a truly dynamic speech. The fact that the Bishop went on so long has generated some interesting discussions, here and elsewhere. But it was inspiring to hear someone speak with such passion.

      Like

      • Dear John:

        Thanks again. Appreciate your classy and focused responses to the many comments here. Well done again. This is why you are widely respected and admired.

        I’m completely with you on your thinking with “time”. If a speaker is allotted xx minutes, then it is the speaker’s >100% responsibility to finish in xx minutes. Period. Going over allotted time, however well intentioned and inadvertent, is also being (unintentionally and inadvertently) disrespectful to the audience and to the event organizers. Specially if there is no Q&A, discuss & debrief, or group exercise involved. There is no nice way to talk oneself out of this. Planning for time and staying on time is one of the least appreciated and underrated disciplines in public speaking. You were right to include it in your analysis and commentary.

        Talking about sermons, one of my very favorite speeches is “We Shall Overcome” by Lyndon Johnson. You may want to consider this speech for future analysis and commentary. After hearing it I began to think of this masterful oration as “a Sermon and a Sledgehammer”. I even made a short video version of it to demonstrate the power of oratory. It also has an unusual and fabulous back story. It was written in 8 hours by Richard Goodwin, who was in his early 30s. It has even been reported that “Goodwin held on to a speech until the last moment, to prevent the speaker from messing around with it.” https://youtu.be/1-C2miztRfw

        Thanks again. BR … Rashid

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        • John Zimmer says:

          Thank you, Rashid. Much appreciated. And thanks for expounding on the issue of timing. And what a great story about Johnson’s speech. I will take a closer look thanks to your pointing it out. Thanks for being so generous with your knowledge.

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    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks for sharing the link, Denis. I happen to agree with many of Curry’s unconventional positions, but this blog is not the place to discuss their merits.

      Having said that, the issue that you have raised does have a direct link with Curry’s speaking insofar as it affects his ethos or credibility in the eyes of his audience. For some, the Bishop’s credibility will be enhanced; for others, it will be diminished.

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  6. MaryO says:

    Good points, but a sermon is not merely a speech. In particular, this was a sermon preached by an African-American bishop, coming out of a religious, spiritual and rhetorical tradition that has its own integrity. You may not like the “call and response” facet, but it is part of the tradition. I note that your page doesn’t have analyses of any other sermons.

    Like

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thank you for the comment, Mary. And fair point on the “call and response”. I do know that it is a big part of the tradition for many African-American preachers. That’s why I said that the style has never sat well with me. But I should have been clearer. I like your idea of analyzing other sermons. I will have to put that on the “To Do” list.

      I will say that, in my view, sermons — and I have heard well over a thousand sermons in my lifetime — are still speeches. Yes, they are a special kind of speech, but then again, the same could be said for lots of different kinds of speeches.

      Like

  7. Lisa says:

    I have been talking about this speech since the day of the wedding. Being a Christian, I was so glad and overwhelmed with joy by the message of the gospel. I was happy to see those uneasy people in their seats. The Bishop reached a lot of people that will never step foot in a church but will go to a wedding or watch it on YouTube. I think this time was a true blessing! Yes, it is about two people coming together and getting married AND the love that was mentioned was for ALL of us to take a part in. If we only heard the words coming out of his mouth and apply them to our lives. There will be a day when it doesn’t matter that it came from an African American Bishop and he spoke way too long. Let’s just love one another without judgment or criticism. After all it was what Harry and Meghan wanted at their wedding…right?

    Like

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Lisa. Thank you for the comment. Like you, I loved Bishop Curry’s message and I loved the passion with which he delivered it. And yes, it was nice to see him shake things up a bit at the wedding. You are right about what could be if people just applied his words to their lives. Sadly, Bishop Curry is far from being the first person to talk about such things. Perhaps one day, we will act on such words.

      Nevertheless, one of the issues with him going too long is that a lot of people were turned off by it. Yes, he reached millions with his message, but had he remained focused and shorter, I suspect his impact would have been even greater. A speech does not have to be long and repetitive to make an impact. Think of the Gettysburg Address: 272 words; 10 sentences; two minutes. And still one of the most quoted and revered speeches of all time.

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  8. Pingback: A sermon for a prince and his bride | Brinker Toastmasters

  9. Toni says:

    Interesting John to have this sermon analysed this way. Thanks for sharing.

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  10. It’s good that you picked out both likes and dislikes. I too found it passionate and engaging, yet as you say it could’ve been shorter (to be more powerful).

    Like

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks, Craig. I’ve since read that it was originally supposed to be six minutes. If that’s so, it is not cool to go overtime by almost eight minutes. Great speech or not.

      Like

  11. Tony Burgess says:

    I am an Episcopalian so this is my Presiding Bishop of my Christian Denomination and I loved it. I do agree it went a bit too long but you know he will never get that chance again. I have heard a lot of sermons in my nearly 49 years of life and that was among the finest. It also fits within the couples life which is about loving and caring for others as they do themselves and their family and friends.

    Like

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks for the comment, Tony. It was indeed a great speech and I appreciate that he will almost certainly never have the chance to do something like it again. Still, it is never about the speaker; it is always about the audience. And though I am sure that his heart was in the right place, he could have (and should have) trimmed it. It likely would have been even more powerful. Also, I have been reading that the sermon was supposed to be six minutes; if so, going for 14 minutes was not a good thing to do. But we all live and learn.

      Like

      • Raymond Bain says:

        Get a grip guys.

        The speech was awesome!

        A six-minute speech, even on the same general topic, would be different from the 14-minute speech given.

        Eight minutes of “something” would clearly be absent.

        And it might be that eight minutes of “something” that gave the 14-minute speech the ultimate power it possessed.

        As a matter of fact, I ain’t ever been fond of critics.

        My fondness tends to the creators upon whose creations the critics wish to impose their personal rules and templates.

        Like

        • John Zimmer says:

          Thanks for the comment, Raymond. I assure you that my grip is just fine. And I agree with you about critics. Nobody ever built a statue to a critic and I frequently read Teddy Roosevelt’s The Man in the Arena speech.

          I enjoyed Curry’s sermon immensely but this is a blog about public speaking and when I analyze a speech, I look for the things I liked and the things that, in my view, could be improved. People are then free to agree or disagree as they like and as you have demonstrated. But I stand by my assessment that the sermon went on too long and could have shorter without losing its impact. Nevertheless, it was a great speech for many reasons.

          Like

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