Therapy and theology
The owner of the restaurant, now closed, comes over to schmooze. Hall seems totally comfortable, as if hanging out is his favorite sport — as if he could spend until the wee hours at a bar hashing over the meaning of life.
He tells of sitting next to the renowned atheist Richard Dawkins at a dinner and discussing God. Hall told Dawkins, “I don’t believe in the God you don’t believe in either.”
“That kind of atheism, though, is bankrupt. It’s like picking a fight with a cultural image no theologian would buy into. I don’t want to be loosey-goosey about it,” he says, “but I describe myself as a non-theistic Christian.”
And he goes on to expand on the concept.
“Jesus doesn’t use the word God very much,” he says. “He talks about his Father.”
Hall explains: “Where I am now, how do I understand Jesus as a son of God that’s not magical? I’m trying to figure out Jesus as a son of God and a fully human being, if he has both fully human and a fully divine set of chromosomes. . . . He’s not some kind of superman coming down. God is present in all human beings. Jesus was an extraordinary human being. Jesus didn’t try to convert. He just had people at his table.”
At this point, Hall leans back in his chair, a rueful smile on his face.
“This is like therapy,” he says. “I should lie down on the couch.”
Gary Hall has been dean of the National Cathedral for less than a year. He has taken on a huge job: The church is in need of money, and Episcopal congregations across the country are shrinking.
Facing the challenge
“We’re in a period where people under 50 don’t see the church as a credible place to explore their questions about God.” Instead, they see the church as obsessed with “survival and squabbles.” Interestingly enough, he says that young people these days seem to be drawn to monasteries for spiritual retreats.
More important, Hall says, is the fact that “the culture that built the church is dying” — the upper-class WASPs. And in D.C., he says, “we face the same profile culturally as Republicans — an aging white church in a large black population, a denomination for a particular ethnic group. We’re still hemmed in by being a Colonial church.”
Hall equates the Episcopal Church with a scene in an old Elaine May movie, “A New Leaf” with Walter Matthau, in which the butler says to his master: “I admire you. You’ve managed to keep alive traditions that were dead before you were born.”
The challenge, then, is how to bring people back. He says, “what we don’t do well is folk music and guys in Hawaiian shirts. What we do is we have this transcendental space. The cathedral, in a way, the building, is our biggest problem and our biggest resource.”
He says he sees change ahead. “We’ll have an urban progressive liturgical church and a more suburban conservative church. We’ll cut across denominations.”
Hall believes he has more in common with leaders of reform Judaism, who also focus on things like marriage equality and gun control, than he does with some of the more conservative members of his own tradition. “I can’t see that we’re not going to realign.”
According to Hall, a friend of his says that “when we come together, it will be around spiritual practices.”
And that conversation could happen in a bar.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Kathy Hall’s name as Carol.