Correction: Earlier versions of this article, including in Wednesday’s print edition of The Washington Post, gave the wrong first name for Pew Forum researcher David Masci.
Washington National Cathedral — the seat of the Episcopal Church, one of the world’s largest cathedrals and the host of the official prayer service for the presidential inauguration later this month — has decided to start hosting same-sex weddings.
In some ways, the announcement that is expected Wednesday morning is unsurprising for a denomination and a diocese that long ago took up the cause of marriage equality. But the cathedral’s stature and the image of same-sex couples exchanging vows in the soaring Gothic structure visited by a half-million tourists each year is symbolically powerful.
Even though it is known that the Episcopal Church, a small but prominent part of American Christianity, has been supportive of equality for gay men and lesbians, “it’s something for us to say we are going to do this in this very visible space where we pray for the president and where we bury leaders,” said the Rev. Gary Hall, who became dean of Washington National Cathedral in the fall. “This national spiritual space is now a place where [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] people can come and get married.”
As attention, political capital and lobbying dollars have been focused on fights over civil marriage, organized religion has been slow to embrace rights for same-sex couples. The vast majority of houses of worship don’t host blessings or weddings for people of the same gender.
The Episcopal Church, with 2 million members, has been something of an exception, with leadership supporting the ordination of gay clergy and blessings for same-sex couples even as dozens of parishes broke with the denomination over the issue.
The Washington diocese, which includes the District and the Maryland suburbs, has more than 80 parishes, most of which host same-sex blessings. National numbers weren’t immediately available, but longtime observers estimated that more than half of parishes across the denomination host the blessings.
Episcopal clergy in Washington have been overseeing blessings for commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples since about the 1980s. The tradition-loving denomination has recently become more open to same-sex marriage officially as well. This summer, it approved a rite for same-sex blessings; previously, clergy adapted the rite used for heterosexual couples.
The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, which consists of eastern and northern Virginia, allows each congregation and clergy to decide on their own if they wish to hold blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples. Congregations that want to allow the ceremonies must apply to the bishop. There is a lengthy process requiring theological education and broad consensus within the congregation in order to move forward.
Hall said he would have approved the marriages at the cathedral soon anyway but was encouraged by having the formal rite, which he said gives same-sex couples a theologically proper ceremony.
The “heterosexual marriage [ritual] still has some vestiges of patriarchy, with woman being property. There’s hope in same-sex marriage that it is a teachable moment for heterosexual couples. The new rite is grounded in baptism and radical equality of all people before God,” said Hall, who has been blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples for decades. “I’d like to use it for heterosexual weddings because I think it’s so much better than our marriage services.”
David Masci, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum who has focused on the issue of same-sex marriage and religion, noted that it is the mainline Protestant denominations in American religion — among them Episcopalians, Presbyterians and United Methodists — who have experienced the most turmoil about the subject. The larger faith communities — the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention and most of the nondenominational Christian world — “aren’t even considering these sorts of things.”
He said it’s impossible to predict where the issue is headed, but he noted that younger evangelicals generally seem more open on the topic of homosexuality than middle-aged or older ones.
Mark Regnerus, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, predicted mainline Protestant groups (including the Episcopal Church) will remain in a small slice of organized religious life that embraces marriage equality.
“This doesn’t bring in people. It just solidifies the idea that this is what the Episcopal Church believes and people inside who are conservative are simply more likely to leave or break away,” he said.
The cathedral’s decision is the second time in recent weeks that Washington’s new Episcopal leadership has made headlines. Hall and Washington Bishop Mariann Budde, who arrived in the fall of 2011, were among the religious figures who quickly called for gun-control legislation after last month’s massacre in Newtown, Conn.