Discovering the Power — and the Limits — of the Pulpit

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Rev. Gary Hall, dean of Washington National Cathedral. 
National Journal
Courtney McBride
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Courtney McBride
Oct. 14, 2013, 4:52 p.m.

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.

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