WASHINGTON (AP) — The Washington National Cathedral, where Americans have gathered to mourn tragedies and celebrate new presidents, will soon begin hosting same-sex weddings.
Cathedral officials tell The Associated Press the church will be among the first Episcopal congregations to implement a new rite of marriage for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members. The church announced its new policy Wednesday.
As the most prominent U.S. church, the decision carries huge symbolism. The 106-year-old cathedral has long been a spiritual center, hosting presidential inaugural services and funerals for Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader, delivered his last sermon there in 1968. The cathedral draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
The Very Rev. Gary Hall, a longtime same-sex marriage advocate who took over as the cathedral's dean in October, 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."
Celebrating same-sex weddings is important beyond the Episcopal Church, Hall said. The move is also a chance to influence the nation.
"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.
A series of recent developments helped lead to the cathedral's announcement Wednesday.
Last July, the Episcopal Church approved a ceremony for same-sex unions at its General Convention in Indianapolis. That was followed by the legalization of gay marriage in Maryland, which joined the District of Columbia, the cathedral's home. The national church made a special allowance for marriage ceremonies in states where gay marriage is legal.
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.
Budde said Hall was a catalyst for change in the church's marriage tradition.
"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.
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.
It will likely be six months to a year before the first gay marriages are performed at the cathedral due to its busy schedule and its pre-marital counseling requirement. Generally, only couples affiliated with the cathedral will be eligible. Church leaders had not received any requests for weddings ahead of Wednesday's announcement.
Hall does not expect any objections within the National Cathedral congregation, but he said the change may draw criticism from outside. It may be divisive for some, just as it was to preach against racial segregation or to push for the ordination of women, Hall said.
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?"
The New York-based Episcopal Church is the U.S. body of the 77 million-member Anglican Communion. The House of Bishops voted last year 111-41 to authorize a provisional rite for same-sex unions. Some congregations have left the church over its inclusion of gays and lesbians over the years.
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.
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group, applauded the cathedral's change 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.
Associated Press National Writer David Crary in New York City contributed to this report.