Equality Forum is the world’s largest annual LGBT civil rights summit, featuring discussions on topics ranging from politics to art and from youth culture to business. This year, its religious colloquy brings together several of the nation’s leading clergy to talk about same-sex weddings—and the spiritual needs that follow. PW spoke with the Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of the National Cathedral, ahead of his Philly visit.
The Very Rev. Gary Hall has been the dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., since the beginning of the year, and he’s already made some big changes. Most notably: America’s national church now allows same-sex marriages. It’s a decision that’s sent shockwaves through some communities but has, as far as we can see, not led to the Rapture. (Yet.) Hall will be participating in this week’s Religious Colloquy at the Equality Forum; PW spoke with him about his recent moves as dean, and what it means for the United States and the Episcopal Church.
You recently decided to take the issue of gay marriage on, head-on, at the National Cathedral. What led you to that decision?
There’s my own track record on the issue and then there’s the cathedral’s process. I’ve been a proponent of same-sex marriage at least 20 years. I worked in the ’90s on this stuff at All-Saints Church in Pasadena, California, a progressive church in that part of Los Angeles. Los Angeles has a very large gay and lesbian population, it had an AIDS service center. I got to know a lot of gay and lesbian people well, personally, which I hadn’t before. And during my time there, that parish decided to do same-sex blessings. We aren’t talking about marriage yet. So, I’ve been involved in same-sex blessing and a couple of same sex marriages, really, over the last 20 years. But I had a book of essays about it.
On the public side, it’s that in 2012, thanks to all this activity that I and others did, the Episcopal Church authorized a liturgy, a ritual for same-sex blessings. And in the areas where marriage was legal, nine states plus the District, it could be locally adapted for marriage. The cathedral is an Episcopal cathedral, it’s part of the Episcopal diocese of Washington. So same-sex marriage has been legal in Washington for a while. Maryland just passed a referendum in November saying same-sex marriage is legal now. So all parts of our diocese were where same-sex marriage was legal.
The bishop and I met and said we’re going to start allowing same-sex marriage everywhere, in that diocese in January, and the cathedral would also do it. It was part of a long process in the Episcopal Church. We’ve had controversies over openly gay bishops and all that kind of stuff. We worked through those. Our denomination has come to a place that’s made it possible. And at our general convention in 2015, we’ll probably take up the marriage question. It was a pretty easy decision. What surprised me was how much reaction to it there was. The national cathedral is an Episcopal institution that is also perceived as a nonsectarian nondenominational church for the country. We actually got a lot of response—overwhelmingly positive, but some negative . . .
I think it’s just the issue of equality. Personally, I’m committed to it because I believe in the equality of all people. It’s not just a church issue but a people issue.
You mentioned meeting people in California in the LGBT community. When you hear the conversation coming from Washington, it seems like when lawmakers have that same experience—when they actually, consciously meet gay people face to face—they, too, begin getting on board. How important have you found the exposure to the LGBT community to be in your own life and in Washington?
It’s huge. Before I went to work in Los Angeles, I had gay friends and everything, but I didn’t really know a lot of gay people intimately. It never occurred to me to be for same-sex marriage. I just had never addressed any of those issues personally. And so it was really coming to know out gay and lesbian people, being their priest, being at their weddings. There were an awful lot of people dying of AIDS in those days, and going to AIDS funerals, I saw the way these couples loved and supported each other. That just really changed me.
I think it is relational. You know, the Episcopal Church in 1973 decided to allow re-marriage after divorce. There’s a lot more scriptural arguments against divorce than homosexuality. Jesus, very clearly, prohibits divorce in three of the four gospels. But everybody knew divorced people.
I think it’s the same thing with the gay issue. It’s like Rob Portman: You can feel one way abstractly about homosexuality. But when you actually know gay people and bisexual and transgender people—and you know they’re human beings, just like you are if you’re a straight person—I think it does change things. I think it’s just increasing, the people coming out over the last 30 years, straight people having to deal with the fact that people they know and love are gay, including their own children sometimes, has really been the thing that has moved it forward more than any argument.
There is an intellectual, scientific side to this thing, but often I think what’s been persuasive with this stuff is the relational part. I think that’s exactly right.
Even so, as recently as the last decade, there was a huge religious argument against gay marriage, and it took form at the ballot box in 2004 especially. When you’re talking to other Christians, besides what you just said about Jesus paying more attention to divorce than anything else, is there another persuasive argument you make?
Well, first of all, you’re right about the ballot box, but I think one of the things we learned during the civil rights movement is that the majority is not entitled to deny rights to the minority. That’s why we have courts, to stop the majority from trying to disenfranchise people it disagrees with. Even if everyone in America was against gay marriage, that still doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the right thing for us to do. So, I think it’s important that our system does try to allow minorities to have some rights that the ballot box can’t decide.
Another thing I would say, in terms of Christians, is that the Bible doesn’t have one unified understanding of marriage. A lot of the Christian right people want to say, well, marriage is between one man and one woman, and that’s the way it is in the Bible. Well, if you read the Bible, it really isn’t that way. There’s polygamy in the earliest books of the Bible. Abraham had two wives, and there were several polygamist relationships in the Bible. Then, there was what we called levirate marriage where if a man died, his brother would take over not only his children, but marry his widow. The idea of marriage has evolved over time in the Bible, and then I would say that the evolution of marriage has evolved over time in the Bible.
Even heterosexual marriage is something that you would see very differently a thousand years ago than we do now. The woman in our church used to have to promise to obey her husband. And in fact, when the bride is given away by her father, that’s a vestige as actually transferring the bride as property to the groom. Nobody now would say—except a crazy person—that a woman has to obey a man, and no one would say that a woman is a man’s property. But we were saying that as recently as a couple hundred years ago in the church.
The other thing I would say to Christians is that marriage is fundamentally a secular institution. The church didn’t start doing weddings until about 1000 A.D., and so it’s not like—marriage is not a big issue in the scriptures. It’s a big issue for us culturally. I can’t point to anything in the Bible [to say] gay marriage is a good thing. But I can point to certain things in the Bible that suggest that it’s within our ability as the church to redefine how we understand marriage. Because we’ve been doing that since the very beginning. So this sounds like the logical next step in the evolution of marriage.
Have you ever thought of giving a TED talk on this?
I just think that people who are trying to say that marriage has always been this one way since the beginning are just demonstrably wrong. I think that marriage is something that the church has said is really a useful resource for people to live their family and sexual lives faithfully with another person, and I think that if that’s good enough for me as a straight man and my wife as a straight woman, then I also believe it’s good for a same-sex couple. I have come to know a lot of same-sex couples pretty well, and their marriages have all the same joys and stresses of straight marriages.
And speaking of that, have you been able to conduct any same-sex weddings at the Cathedral yet?
Not yet. We have a long lead-up time because our building has the tours and special services we have there . . . we have to plan weddings there way in advance. We have pretty strict guidelines—you have to have some connection with the Cathedral. We’re trying to enforce the same policies; we’re trying to be neither more strict or lenient for same-sex couples than we are for straight couples. It will probably be about six to eight months before we do one.
Equality Forum’s National Religious Colloquy: Thurs., May 2. 7pm. Free. UArts Connelly Auditorium, 211 S. Broad St.
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