In January 2013, the Washington Post reported that if the Very Rev. Gary Hall had his way as new dean of Washington National Cathedral, “the Cathedral would be less a ‘museum’ and ‘more a place with a mission.’”

Although it seemed like an off-the-cuff remark, long-time members of the Cathedral community knew that Hall was subtly declaring his intention to embrace the Cathedral’s rich history of prophetic witness and activism.

“When we chose Gary Hall, we anticipated he would be an advocate in the Cathedral’s pursuit of social justice, and that he would use the Canterbury Pulpit to preach about the Christian faith as it influences American culture and political life,” said Alexander Platt, vice-chair of the Cathedral Chapter, who led the search committee that called Hall in the summer of 2012. “From the beginning, we were confident that he would lead the Cathedral with courage and boldness.”

Hall didn’t wait long to get started.

Following the death of 28 people during an elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn.—20 of whom were first-graders—Hall first spoke out against gun violence in a rousing sermon on December 16, 2012, calling on the nation to embrace stricter gun control measures. The congregation interrupted his sermon once with applause and greeted its conclusion with a standing ovation. His now oft-quoted phrase—“I believe the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby”—has drawn much admiration from people in favor of greater regulations on the sale and ownership of guns, even as it has aroused the ire of those who view new measures as a threat to their Second Amendment right. The dean’s strong stand from the pulpit put the Cathedral in national headlines for days; in January, Hall was the only faith leader invited to participate in a Capitol Hill press conference at which Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced a renewed ban on assault weapons.

For Hall, however, his role as a national spokesperson is part of a ministry focused on Gospel-based mission and activism that he hopes can further inspire the Cathedral’s supporters within Washington, the wider Episcopal Church, and across denominational lines throughout the country. In the weeks since he first invoked the “cross lobby,” the Cathedral has distributed thousands of cards to worshipers and visitors urging them to contact their legislators in support of the assault weapons ban, universal background checks, and other measures designed to prevent both mass shootings and curb the epidemic of urban gun violence. In partnership with the Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of Washington, and others, Hall has become active in coalitions of fellow faith leaders working on the issue. In early March the Cathedral hosted an interfaith gathering in partnership with Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence, inspiring grassroots faith groups to get to work in their own communities.

Advocating for Equality

Calling people to action against gun violence in the wake of the Newtown killings has not been Hall’s only effort in making the Cathedral more prominent in its advocacy for equal justice. Hall’s first major pronouncement as dean, in concert with a decision by Bishop Budde on behalf of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, let it be known in early January that the Cathedral would begin performing same-sex marriages.

“As a kind of tall-steeple, public church in the nation’s capital, by saying we’re going to conduct same-sex marriages, we are really trying to take the next step for marriage equality in the nation and in the culture,” Hall told the Associated Press. A long-time supporter of the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people in the life of the Church, Hall has said he considers marriage equality the great civil rights issue of the twenty-first century.

The decision was hardly surprising within the Episcopal Church or the Cathedral community. Hall is co-editor of a 2011 volume of essays that lay out a Christian case for LGBT equality, and the Episcopal Church had approved a rite for same-sex blessings at its General Convention in July 2012. Still, response from around the country was quick, strong—and sharply divided. The Cathedral’s main phone line and the email inboxes of staff were flooded for days following the announcement. The National Organization for Marriage denounced the decision while the Human Rights Campaign called it a milestone. The Cathedral’s number of followers on Facebook increased by more than 200 in just one day.

Among the dozens of supporters who wrote to express their gratitude to the Cathedral was Fred Karnas of Arizona, 64, a Baptist whose parents were married in the Cathedral in 1947. In an email, Karnas wrote, “For the sake of my children and future generations, I could not be more pleased with the courageous decision you have made.”

An Enduring Ideal

Hall is not the first dean to lead the Cathedral in taking prophetic action that excited controversy. The Very Rev. Francis B. Sayre, Jr., fifth Cathedral dean, flew to Alabama in March 1965 to join Dr. King on the final leg of the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Looking back today, Hall argues, no one would criticize his predecessor for standing up for civil rights; but in 1965, it was a hugely divisive move. Sayre’s decision to invite King to preach in 1968 was similarly controversial.

The Rev. Canon Michael Hamilton, who served with Sayre beginning in 1964 and went on to lead Cathedral programming for nearly four decades, recently reflected on that period. “The Cathedral could do something else that the parishes couldn’t, which was deal with the big national and international issues,” he said. “Under Frank [Sayre’s] encouragement—‘think big’—we expanded the traditional or at least the historical mission of the Cathedral for 25 years.”

Although more attention has sometimes been paid to the inspiring edifice of the Cathedral building itself, the Cathedral’s mandate to be a champion for Gospel values was integral to its founding vision. “This is a new sphere for a Cathedral to fill, which will make it distinctly an American Cathedral,” wrote the Rt. Rev. Henry Yates Satterlee, the first Episcopal bishop of Washington and “master builder” of the Cathedral, in 1901. “The very fact of the necessary and complete separation of Church and state and the ignoring of all religion in the written Constitution of our country emphasizes the need that the church should bear unfaltering witness for Jesus Christ at the seat of government.”

The Rt. Rev. James E. Freeman, one of Satterlee’s successors as bishop of Washington (1923–1943), carried the founding vision forward. An October 1927 issue of Time magazine with his image on the cover said, “Episcopalians call Bishop Freeman ‘the twentieth-century prophet of the Church, a leading exponent of prophetic ministry.’” Freeman was an outspoken critic of anti-Semitism, unusual for his time, and an advocate for religious liberty. He participated in an interfaith rally in December 1938, covered by the Washington Post, “to promote the conviction that religion is essential to true democracy and to express profound sympathy with victims of intolerance and cruelty in all parts of the world.” The rally was presided over by Rabbi Abram Simon of Washington Hebrew Congregation, with which the Cathedral still enjoys a strong relationship today.

During a record tenure of nearly three decades as dean, Sayre not only carried forward the legacy of his predecessors; he ensured that the Cathedral’s prophetic legacy would outlast him. He hired the Rev. John T. Walker, a leading black Episcopal priest, as the Cathedral’s canon missioner in 1966. When Walker was elected bishop suffragan in 1971, he became the first African-American bishop of Washington, D.C. Walker became diocesan bishop in 1977 and, following Sayre’s retirement in 1978, became dean of the Cathedral as well.

Throughout his service, Walker was an indomitable voice on issues of racial reconciliation in Washington and across the world. He was a leader in the fight against apartheid in South Africa and a close friend of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In 1985, he was arrested in an anti-apartheid protest in front of the South African embassy in Washington, D.C.

Under Walker’s leadership, the Cathedral also joined the movement to address HIV/AIDS and to minister to those infected while consistently rejecting the notion that the disease was God’s way of punishing gay men and drug users. In 1986, he convened a conference to discuss the role religion could play in curbing the epidemic. In 1988, the Cathedral displayed the aids Memorial Quilt and hosted an interfaith service for aids victims, beginning a tradition that has recurred five times.

Bending toward Justice

Remembering his tenure in a 2000 interview, Sayre wondered about the ultimate effect of the Cathedral’s prophetic stands. “Our pulpit became the place where the pertinent issues in the capital city were preached about often,” he said. “Controversial issues were often preached at the Cathedral.… But whether the Church has the power to change the soul of the nation is a question never answered by anyone.”

Hall finds himself heir to the Cathedral’s legacy of Gospel activism at a time when the nation is less religious than at any time in its history. Some

wonder how to engage people in their twenties and thirties and the growing number of Americans who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” In today’s world, does a national church’s mission mean anything beyond its own walls?

The new dean believes so. “Neither God nor the First Amendment wants us to issue religious dictates on behalf of the country. We shouldn’t confuse ourselves with the national churches of countries with established religions,” Hall has said. “Our mandate is to be a witness for Christian beliefs and values in the midst of this city that is both the federal government’s seat of power and home to staggering inequality. And when we join with people of faith across America’s diverse religious landscape, we actually can aspire to change the soul of the nation.

“One of the ways we are called to do this,” he continued, “is by speaking to legislators, decision-makers, voters, and lobbyists—and refusing to be complicit in the systemic injustice, poverty, racism, and violence that infects our culture.”

Hall’s theology echoes Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Jon Meacham’s assessment in his 2006 book, American Gospel, of religion’s role in American life. “The great good news about America—the American gospel, if you will—
is that religion shapes the life of the nation without strangling it,” Meacham writes. “Belief in God is central to the country’s experience, yet for the
broad center, faith is a matter of choice, not coercion, and the legacy of the Founding is that the sensible center holds.”

Although the Cathedral’s prophetic stands have at times been judged radical by critics of the day, history confirms that leaders such as Freeman, Sayre, Walker, and those working with them have held the center in their fights for justice and equality. To use the image that King made famous in his sermon from the Canterbury Pulpit, they have helped bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.