Now 64 years old, Hall has white hair, an angular face and thin-rimmed glasses. He looks, well, like a traditional Episcopalian. But he doesn’t talk like one. He is friendly and funny, smart and very, very frank. Boy, is he frank. Don’t be fooled by the white collar he wears. On a scorching summer day, Hall strides into Le Zinc, a French restaurant close to the cathedral and one of his favorite hangouts, in an Oxford blue shirt with white clerical collar and seersucker jacket. He settles down to lunch and a long conversation that culminates in a description of what he calls “bar theology.”
“Part of being a priest,” says Hall, “is being a cultural anthropologist.” Pastors, he thinks, should devote time — perhaps once a week — to going around to bars and engaging customers in conversations about religion. This is the thinking behind the Arlington Catholic diocese’s regular “Theology on Tap” — conversations, often clergy-led, in bars that are among the diocese’s most popular programs.
His easy wit (Hall used to write jokes in high school) combined with a comfort in taking public positions on such controversial contemporary issues as same-sex marriage and gun control were among the reasons Hall was picked for the most senior position at the cathedral. And he sees the evolution in his own thinking as relevant to the future success of the church.
“I came from no place to real, established Orthodox Anglicanism,” he explains. “Now that I’m older, I’m moving back toward wearing the institutional part of Christianity lightly.”
“If the Cathedral wants to survive as institutional,” he goes on to explain, “it has to be transitional. It has to be the spiritual hope of the nation. It has to be about faith in public life and interfaith collaboration.”
So how do you get from comedy writer to dean of the cathedral? Not on a straight path, it turns out. Hall’s parents (father Catholic, mother Lutheran) were not practicing Christians. “They had become alienated from the institutional church,” he says. “I was nothing.”
After a brief stint at Yale, where the young Californian felt out of place, Hall moved to Berkeley and married his girlfriend there. But Yale’s legendary chaplain William Sloane Coffin continued to influence Hall’s choices, sparking his interest in the civil rights movement and the progressive clergy who backed it.
Hall decided to go to seminary and ended up at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. “All the people I admired, the intellectual progressive clergy, went there,” he recalls. Hall graduated but refused to become ordained until women could be, deciding instead to answer mail for a bishop in California until women were finally able to be ordained. During seminary he got divorced after six years of marriage. He also met his current wife, Kathy, a librarian, there. She was married to another seminarian. “It’s not as tawdry as it sounds,“ he laughs. “A priest and a librarian,” he says drolly. “We’re like a fun couple.”