WASHINGTON — 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 the 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 of Columbia 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.