The Very Rev. Gary Hall became the dean of Washington National Cathedral on Oct. 1, 2012, and has had a whirlwind first year. Hall wasted no time entering the public debate on a variety of social issues, from race to gun violence to LGBT rights.
Hall said that during the search process that ended with his appointment, church officials expressed a "desire to have the pulpit once again be a place where the issues of the day were addressed." He is keenly aware of his institution's prominence and strives to "use the cathedral's symbolic presence in American culture effectively." Possessed of a broad national platform, Hall has seized the opportunity to address questions with implications far beyond his congregation.
While some of the challenges he has faced are common to anyone assuming a new post, Hall conceded that others are unique, as the National Cathedral "embodies a lot of what I would call creative tensions."
One of these is geographic—the cathedral is the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, but it is also "the place where we come together as a nation to celebrate and to mourn," a venue for inaugural prayer services and for congressional and presidential funerals.
The second is religious—the cathedral is simultaneously home to an Episcopalian congregation and aims to serve as a "spiritual home for the nation," welcoming Americans from any number of faith traditions.
Among his major goals for the cathedral is the development of an identity built around three core issues: the intersection of faith and public life, interfaith work, and advocacy for veterans. In Hall's view, the first task involves "bringing public leaders and public intellectuals together to talk about how the faith community can impact public policy in America."
Interfaith work requires an understanding of the cathedral's role as a national institution, and the advocacy work involves building upon the church's historical commitment to honoring veterans and continuing to serve as a voice for them.
In his first year, Hall has delivered fiery sermons on gun violence, taken part in press conferences urging lawmakers to pass new firearms regulations, and rallied outside the Supreme Court in support of same-sex marriage. He took part in the interfaith service at Shiloh Baptist Church commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He plans to direct the cathedral in an examination of issues of race in the United States, paying particular attention to the "long history of institutional racism" in the Episcopal Church. Farther afield, Hall aims to engage faith leaders in advocacy for LGBT rights around the world.
Hall does not view himself as courting controversy. "The positions that I've spoken out on—race, sexuality, and gun violence—are not morally ambiguous for Christian people," he said. To his surprise, there has been no significant backlash for advocacy for LGBT equality. The cathedral has only begun to delve into issues of race, but Hall says that "everybody is at least notionally supportive right now."
By contrast, there has been blowback from his outspokenness on gun violence. In the weeks following the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., Hall said, there was a sense of "shared purpose," but the involvement of the National Rifle Association ultimately "politicized" the issue.
"I'm not trying to really rock the boat," Hall said, "but I am trying to sort of stand where I think Jesus wants a public church to stand." He is careful to contextualize his advocacy efforts, explaining that there are many other issues on which he has declined to preach. "I've spoken about what I would call public theology issues, but I would make a distinction between that and what I would call just reflexively political issues.
A native of Hollywood, Calif., whose parents worked in show business, Hall laughed when he was asked how he is adjusting to life in Washington. He says that he feels quite at home in Washington, which has "the exact same culture as Hollywood," another one-industry town with the familiar dynamics of fame and power.
That said, he is still establishing himself outside the cathedral, working to build relationships with members of local government and to determine the cathedral's role in the District of Columbia. He was deeply involved in community organizations in Detroit, and aims to focus his energies in Washington on public and early-childhood education.
Hall, 64, has previously held a variety of roles, from parish priest to school administrator. Prior to arriving at the National Cathedral, he served as rector of Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Before that he was president and dean of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., and was rector of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pa.
Hall and his wife, Kathy, a retired librarian, live in the dean's residence, Bratenahl House, which was once home to famed columnist Walter Lippmann, and later, to Sen. Eugene McCarthy, D-Minn., who ran his presidential campaign from the house. The couple has a son, Oliver, who lives in California.
This article appears in the October 15, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.