The Washington National Cathedral had been ready to embrace same-sex marriage for some time, though it took a series of recent events and a new leader for the prominent, 106-year-old church to announce Wednesday that it would begin hosting such nuptials.
The key development came last July when the Episcopal Church approved a ceremony for same-sex unions at its General Convention in Indianapolis, followed by the legalization of gay marriage in Maryland, which joined the District of Columbia. The national church made a special allowance for marriage ceremonies in states where gay marriage is legal.
Longtime same-sex marriage advocate the Very Rev. Gary Hall took over as the cathedral's dean in October. Conversations began even before he arrived to clear the way for the ceremonies at the church that so often serves as a symbolic house of prayer for national celebrations and tragedies.
The Episcopal bishop of Washington, the Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, authorized use of the new marriage rite in December for 89 congregations in D.C. and Maryland. Each priest then decides whether to marry same-sex couples.
The cathedral's congregation and leadership include many gays and lesbians. The church was just waiting for the right moment and the right leader.
"This was something that was brewing in the cathedral. We were really waiting for him," Budde told The Associated Press. "It would have been inconceivable for the Cathedral to call somebody who was not in favor of full equality for gay and lesbian people."
Hall, a former rector at churches in Michigan, Pennsylvania and California and a seminary dean in Chicago, had been a leader in developing liturgical rites for same-sex blessings in the Episcopal Church. Budde said Hall was a catalyst for change in the church's marriage tradition.
Cathedral officials said the church will be among the first Episcopal congregations to implement a new rite of marriage adapted from the blessing ceremony for gay and lesbian couples that was approved last year by the Episcopal Church's national governing body.
Official Episcopal law still defines marriage as between a man and a woman, so the cathedral says it will be performing weddings that combine civil marriage ceremonies under local law with a blessing from the church. They will use the new language approved for same-sex couples instead of the marriage ceremony from the Book of Common Prayer. Only one major U.S. Protestant group, the United Church of Christ, has endorsed same-sex marriage outright.
Some congregations have left the Episcopal Church over its inclusion of gays and lesbians over the years.
Hall said performing same-sex marriages is an opportunity to break down barriers and build a more inclusive community "that reflects the diversity of God's world."
"I read the Bible as seriously as fundamentalists do," Hall told the AP. "And my reading of the Bible leads me to want to do this because I think it's being faithful to the kind of community that Jesus would have us be."
As the nation's most prominent church, the cathedral has long hosted presidential inaugural services and funerals for Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his last sermon there in 1968. It draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
The move is also a chance to influence the nation, beyond the Episcopal Church.
"As a kind of tall-steeple, public church in the nation's capital, by saying we're going to bless same-sex marriages, conduct same-sex marriages, we are really trying to take the next step for marriage equality in the nation and in the culture," Hall said.
Observers noted the powerful symbolism the massive Gothic cathedral carries in American religious life from one of the highest points in the nation's capital. The change comes just before the Supreme Court will hear debate in two cases involving gay marriage in March.
Including gays and lesbians in marriage reflects the growing sentiment of many Americans "that this is simply a matter of equality," said Randall Balmer, chairman of Dartmouth College's department of religion and himself an Episcopal priest.
"What I think religious groups do best is they put people in proximity with one another," he said. "My sense is that it's much more difficult to condemn homosexuality if you know that the son of your best friend in church or someone who worships in the next pew from you is gay."
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group, applauded the cathedral's change Wednesday as a milestone.
"Today, the church sent a simple but powerful message to LGBT Episcopalians — you are loved just the way you are, and for that we embrace you," said the Rev. MacArthur Flournoy, the deputy director of HRC's religion and faith program.
The conservative National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriage, said the cathedral's change was "disappointing but not surprising," given the direction of the Episcopal Church. In light of the cathedral's national prominence, spokesman Thomas Peters called the marriage announcement "an opportunity for people to wake up to what's happening."
"It reminds us that marriage is really an all or nothing deal," he said. "Does America want to retain its marriage tradition or fundamentally give it up?"
Same-sex marriage is now legal in nine states and the District of Columbia. Legislators in Illinois and Rhode Island are set to take up bills to possibly join them.
The first same-sex wedding performed last month at West Point's Cadet Chapel drew some protests from conservatives. The National Cathedral is even more visible.
Budde, the Episcopal bishop, said there is a long tradition of changing views in the church on racial equality, slavery and the role of women.
"When I was born, girls couldn't be acolytes. Now I'm bishop of one of the largest dioceses in the country," she said.
Budde said the cathedral is confident and certain of its decision but realizes it causes difficulty for other fellow Christians.
"This is a big deal, and we're moving with as much graciousness and humility as we can," she said.
Gay weddings will be allowed immediately. But it will likely be six months to a year before the first marriages are performed due to the cathedral's busy schedule and its pre-marital counseling requirement. Generally, only couples affiliated with the cathedral are eligible.
The cathedral hosts about 16 weddings a year. Church leaders had not received any requests for same-sex weddings ahead of Wednesday's announcement.
Hall said he does not expect any objections within the cathedral congregation, but the change may draw scrutiny from the outside.
He said he sees marriage as a human issue, not a political issue.
"For us to be able to say we embrace same-sex marriage as a tool for faithful people to live their lives as Christian people," he said, "for us to be able to say that at a moment when so many other barriers toward full equality and full inclusion for gay and lesbian people are falling, I think it is an important symbolic moment."
Associated Press National Writer David Crary in New York City contributed to this report.
Washington National Cathedral: http://www.nationalcathedral.org
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