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National Cathedral Dean On Guns, Church & Gay Marriage


Now we turn to our regular weekly conversation on faith and spirituality. We call it Faith Matters. While the world's attention has been focused on the selection of the new Catholic pope, there have been developments in the Anglican church as well. A new leader was installed yesterday as the archbishop of Canterbury. His name is Justin Welby and for the first time ever, the new leader was enthroned by a female cleric.

On this side of the Atlantic, the Episcopal church, which is part of the Anglican communion, is also making changes. Today we meet the new leader of the Washington National Cathedral. It is one of the most prominent Episcopalian institutions in the U.S. It has a special place in the life of the nation because it's the place that presidents and other dignitaries lead the nation in mourning after tragic events like the September 11 attacks. The funerals of president and other national heroes are also usually held there.

Now the National Cathedral is at the forefront of a campaign for tighter gun laws. It's also taken a leading role in advocating marriage rights for gays and lesbians, and at the center of all these discussions is the relatively new dean of the cathedral, the Very Reverend Gary Hall. He is the 10th dean and he is with us now.

Reverend Hall, thank you so much for joining us.

GARY HALL: Oh, it's a real pleasure.

MARTIN: You took your post in October.

HALL: Right.

MARTIN: Particularly given that you have very quickly jumped into two of the pressing issues of the time...

HALL: Right.

MARTIN: ...I wanted to ask just, first of all, about what you make of the level of dialog that we have about those issues.

HALL: Boy, that's really an interesting question and I think it's an open question. The cathedral really - one of the reasons I came here was the cathedral's mission statement is to be the spiritual home for the nation. And one of the ways in which it's historically understood that is that it lives in the tension between advocacy and convenings, but it's also, at the same, been a place where we can try to convene conversations across ideological boundaries.

Now, you're right, though, we live in a city that's very polarized politically, where people don't want to even be seen with people of the other party because they don't want to have a bad reputation. But also we're in this era of people only looking at opinions on the Web that they actually already agree with.

I realize myself that I have to do some work to expose myself to conservative points of view because most of the stuff that comes towards me is pretty progressive and so...

MARTIN: In line with what you already think.

HALL: Yeah. And I think if you only get your information from one point of view, you're pretty much locked into that point of view and I think the jury's out on whether we as a culture can have those conversations, but I hope that the cathedral really can be a place to do that.

MARTIN: Well, talking about that, focusing on the issue here, you have been part of a continuing movement calling for changes in gun policy.

HALL: Right.

MARTIN: You have said that in part you hope that the cathedral and the people who worship there and the people who follow your leadership will see that as a way to counter the influence of the gun lobby.

HALL: Right.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask, first of all, you know, what is it that you would specifically like people to do? And how is that in line with your mission?

HALL: Well, what we're asking people to do is essentially sign on to a fairly comprehensive agenda which, before it got politicized, I would say by the NRA, was a fairly common sense, middle of the road agenda, which is legislation calling for an assault weapons ban and a high capacity ammunition magazine ban, calling for universal background checks, calling for stricter laws in gun trafficking. And then also really addressing questions of mental health and then also the culture of violence, and that is still a fairly consensual middle of the road agenda.

MARTIN: Well, presumably you aren't in the world of polling per se. You're in the world of what's right and what one presumes led by core principles and so...

HALL: Right.

MARTIN: ...my question to you is, how did you determine that this is consonant with the core values of the church?

HALL: Well - let me start with that. That's an important question. Christianity, like all faith traditions, spends a lot of its energy asking the question about suffering and the meaning of suffering. And how do we respond to innocent people suffering? And in fact, Jesus died at the hands of violence, so we, from the beginning, it seems to me, have been enmeshed in the question of violence as a faith tradition, whether we want to be or not.

And then the church itself has perpetrated violence, just to be honest about it, in its own history too. So you can't be a person of faith without coming to terms with the question of violence.

It does seem to me that - because I am a Christian it seems to me that my call is to stand with and for victims of violence, and I'd say that most of the people in our life pretty much agree with that, although some people feel that the 2nd Amendment is sacrosanct and shouldn't be messed with.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I am speaking with the dean of the Washington National Cathedral, the Very Reverend Gary Hall. It's our weekly Faith Matters conversation.

You also made news earlier this year when you announced that the cathedral will host and sanctify same-sex marriages. The Episcopal General Convention adapted rights for the marriages, but each individual parish had to decide on its own whether or not to use it, and I was interested in what led you to this, this decision.

HALL: Well, I've been involved in this issue for about 20 some odd years, since about 1990, when I joined the staff of All Saints Church in Pasadena, California. All Saints has a large gay and lesbian population and it also at that time had an AIDS service center and we had a lot of people dying of AIDS. So I got to know gay and lesbian people in a way I hadn't before that and got to know them pastorally and personally and then the gay and lesbian community came to the church and basically began to say if you want to call gay and lesbian people into faithful Christian living, you need to give us the tools with which to live out the Christian life.

And I hadn't been there in the '80s. You know, I wasn't personally there about that issue, but because of my personal relationship with gay and lesbian folks and then really just going to school on the issue, I became persuaded that same-sex blessings at the time were the important thing to do. And then over time I've become gradually - because of, again, my experience of doing these blessings and of knowing more and more openly gay and lesbian people and really working on and studying the issue, I became an advocate. I've been a pretty vocal advocate for same-sex marriage in the Episcopal church for the last decade.

MARTIN: It seems that this issue has been particularly painful for a number of the mainline Protestant denominations.

HALL: Right.

MARTIN: I mean it just seems as though there's just been a lot of anger and hurt over this issue. The leadership of the church seems very settled on this question, but it just seems like members of the grassroots - if you can call it that - a lot of them are not, and I just wondered, over time do you feel that the passions are cooling? Are people moving toward consensus?

HALL: Well, I certainly do, although because a lot of those folks have opted out of our church, they're not part of the conversation with us anymore and so we're left with a denomination where there's a very strong consensus about same-sex blessings. We haven't totally come to the same-sex marriage thing as a denomination, but in this diocese it's legal and so we do have same-sex marriage because in D.C. and Maryland same-sex marriage is legal, so that's why we've gone to marriage, but the whole church isn't there yet.

MARTIN: Have you actually conducted any weddings yet?

HALL: Not yet. Largely because there's just a long run-up. We just announced the policy in January and there's just a long run-up in terms of premarital counseling and all that kind of thing.

MARTIN: For everybody?

HALL: For everybody. Yeah. And we have the exact same policies for straight couples and for gay couples, so...

MARTIN: No skipping the line.

HALL: No. Yeah. We're equal opportunity oppressors in terms of our policies, which are very strict in terms of your relationship to the cathedral or at schools, but I would say that - you know, generationally, I'd say the other side of this is that younger evangelicals are now finding themselves at some distance from their parents in the evangelical world because generationally I mean my son, who is 34, and people younger than him have a very hard time understanding what the issue is about homosexuality. And I think we're just moving to a time when this issue will just seem like a non-issue.

MARTIN: That leads me to the final thing I wanted to ask you to reflect on. There seems to be a split among faith leaders about whether the shift away from organized religion, particularly among the younger people, people that people call millennials...

HALL: Right.

MARTIN: ...is it fueled by the conservative views of many denominations, as you suggest, which people feel I just don't relate to that, that has nothing to do with me; but other people say it's the opposite, it's that the progressives don't stand for enough. It used to really mean something to say I'm an Episcopalian. I'm a United Methodist. This is what I stand for. This is what it means in the world. So it's two very different views of what's going on. I just want to ask, what's yours?

HALL: Well, I actually have a third view. I think younger people look at the church and they are actually pretty spiritually serious. What they're not interested in is in what I call the culture of Sunday morning. I think they're alienated from the culture of the church. They look at the church - and all of our churches, I would say - and they see us as places that are not open to a real serious engagement with God, that you go to your normal church on a Sunday and the church seems to be obsessed with its own internal problems or its own practices.

And it's interesting. Now monasteries are discovering that they are now a kind of way in for people to Christianity. People are going - young people are going on these retreats to monasteries and then they enter the liturgical life of the community and then they want to know something about the life of faith.

And so monasteries used to be places where you go to retreat from the world, but in fact they're places that young people are coming to to sort of ask questions because they seem really prayerfully serious.

And I think a lot of our churches don't seem credible places to pursue a spiritual life, and I think we've got work to do and one of my hopes for the cathedral is that we, over time, can be seen as a spiritually serious place where people can enter and learn about God and pray and give their lives in faithful action.

MARTIN: That was the Very Reverend Gary Hall. He is the tenth dean of the Washington National Cathedral. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Reverend Hall, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

HALL: Oh, you're very welcome. A great pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.