The Very Rev. Gary Hall, new dean of the Washington National Cathedral,… (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON…)
Ambitious and outspoken, the new head of Washington National Cathedral has attracted more attention over the past few weeks than previous cathedral deans have for decades.
The Rev. Gary Hall’s announcement that the cathedral, the seat of the Episcopal Church, would host same-sex weddings and his immediate embrace of gun control in the hours after the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., have made him a regular on national television. On Thursday, Hall will be the only representative of the clergy speaking at a Capitol Hill news conference where Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) will introduce a bill that would ban dozens of assault weapons.
One recent morning, Hall zoomed around town to three television appearances in an hour, triggering stares in network studios as he sat in his priest’s collar getting his makeup done while the usual pundits and politicos came and went.
His sermon two days after the Newtown shootings — “The gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby,” he said — got a rare standing ovation.
“You have to know how stodgy this place is,” he said, referring to the cathedral. “And it wasn’t like ‘bravo’ for an opera singer; it was: ‘Thank God someone is finally using the pulpit to speak about something we care about.’ ”
It was partly Hall’s comfort in the media spotlight and with controversy that landed him the job in the fall of transforming the cathedral from a dimming star struggling to boost its profile and fundraising to a hot spot for community activism and debate. Newtown dropped the gun-control issue into his lap months later.
But as someone drawn to religion in the ’60s by activist antiwar, antisegregation chaplains raring to make a scene, he believes he can use this. He can use it to hold the church up as the place that provides justice and hope in the dark times. That message fueled a generation of progressive religion and activism, and Hall is among those who hope it can again today.
On Sunday, Hall made that connection explicit when he preached about gun violence from the pulpit at the cathedral, from which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his last Sunday sermon before he was shot dead in Memphis.
“In the spirit of Dr. King, I want to say that opposing gun violence may have political implications, but it is not primarily a political issue. It is a religious issue,” Hall preached. “If we want to stand with Jesus and with Martin Luther King, we’ve also got to stand with those who, like them, die by means of violence. And that means we who follow Jesus and stand with King have to stand against guns.
Yet even on a roll, Hall knows the challenges facing this clergy-led crusade.
He worries about the limits of news conferences in a world where it’s hard to get people’s attention. He knows clergy, like Americans, are divided on the efficacy of gun restrictions. He agonizes about the mostly white pastors at these recent gun control events. PICO, a major faith-based advocacy group, wrote in a letter to Vice President Biden that the “main question” clergy are asking is whether White House-backed measures will focus as much on urban violence as on sprees like the one in Newtown.
Hall understands that some think white America is late to this issue.
“Black clergy in this area have said zero about [Newtown]. We need to build relationships,” he says.
But right now, he knows there is momentum.
As leader of one of the country’s most prominent churches — and the site of Tuesday’s official inaugural prayer service, complete with the Obamas — Hall is being interviewed daily about measures he and a team of clergy leaders are promoting.
Ushers handed out 10,000 call-your-lawmaker cards to worshippers over the Christmas period. Hall and the Washington diocese’s bishop, Mariann Budde, traveled to Johns Hopkins University this week for a summit on gun control. They are soliciting criticism from gun-owning Episcopalians, hoping to broaden their pool of allies.
Hall is advocating for something striking to keep the subject on people’s minds. He likes the idea of wrapping the towering Gothic cathedral in black crepe in memory of gun violence victims. Or ringing its massive bells each morning to toll the number of deaths each day. Something that gets people’s attention.
“What I want to do is more like guerilla theater,” he said.
Budde, like Hall, knows that for now there’s a limit to the impact two white mainline Christians can have when they’re new in town (she came in late 2011). But they also know they have a community packed with influential members who are, whether Democrat or Republican, largely open to Hall’s argument that it’s time for a change on gun policy.
“Our plan is to mobilize people who never go first but are willing to go second,” Budde said last week after a packed news conference of clergy calling for a list of new gun measures.