Liberal Episcopal Church elites often seem determined to fulfill caricatures of themselves. The Very Rev. Gary Hall, new dean of Washington's prominent National Cathedral, does so fulsomely, gregariously, wonderfully in a recent Washington Post profile by Sally Quinn. They met in his favorite French restaurant near the magnificent Gothic edifice, which hosts so many solemn pageants of American civil religion.
Hall has made a splash in town by focusing on gun control and same sex marriage. He hosted a press conference soon after last year's tragic school shootings in Connecticut. And he's opened the cathedral for homosexual nuptials. Liberal Episcopalianism strongly emphasizes sexual liberation, and for Hall that liberation includes heterosexuals too.
“We have this cartoon in America where you grow up, get married and stay the same person,” Hall told Quinn. “For the church to say, ‘No sex before marriage,’ is not realistic,” claiming he has wed over 500 couples, only about five of whom were not already cohabiting, statistics exponentially beyond the national average. He wants the church to model “how to live a life of faithfulness and integrity" while evidently embracing the new permissiveness.
It's all about moving with the times.
“If the Cathedral wants to survive as institutional,” Hall surmised, “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."
Part of Hall's duties has been restoring the Cathedral's considerable and expensive earthquake damage. It's long been a place of quaking political activism, always left wing, since Dean Francis Sayre, grandson of Woodrow Wilson, vociferously intoned against the Vietnam War from its intricately carved stone pulpit. But Hall seems intent on some theological reconstruction too.
"I describe myself as a non-theistic Christian," Hall confided to Quinn, echoing infamous retired Episcopal John Shelby Spong, who once routinely regaled an approving Phil Donahue and other talk shows with his provocative disbelief of Christian orthodoxy. “Jesus doesn’t use the word God very much,” Hall insisted. “He talks about his Father.”
Hall asked: “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.”
So does this "non-theistic" Cathedral Dean believe in a personal deity who uniquely reveals Himself in Jesus Christ, as Christianity traditionally teaches? Maybe another interview with Quinn is needed, but Hall sounds skeptical.
Hall is justifiably worried about the exodus of young people, though he assumes it's pervasive for churches rather than especially true for shriveling and aging liberal old-line Protestant denominations like his own. “We’re in a period where people under 50 don’t see the church as a credible place to explore their questions about God," he said, although there are in fact many thriving congregations with young people. They just aren't Episcopalian. Some of them, especially in Washington, are Anglican, having quit the old Episcopal Church because of views like Hall's.
"The culture that built the church is dying," Hall observed. "We face the same profile [in DC] 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 speaks as though it's still 1975, when today Washington is experiencing a dramatic demographic shift, with many older blacks leaving for the suburbs, and many white yuppies rapidly gentrifying much of the city.
Socially liberal, educated young whites seeking urban life should be ripe pickings for Hall's brand of cerebral activist religion. But in fact, they aren't. The city's thriving churches, as nearly everywhere else, are evangelical or Catholic, of whatever race. “We’ll have an urban progressive liturgical church and a more suburban conservative church," Hall declared, apparently unaware of the robust theologically conservative churches that surround his Cathedral, often quietly renting space from less vibrant, more liberal congregations. "We’ll cut across denominations," he predicted, implying an equivalence between liberal Protestantism and the rest of traditional Christianity that doesn't exist.
Liberal Protestants have believed for much of the last century that they irrepressibly represent the future and nearly everyone else should jump aboard or be left behind. So perhaps Hall nods to some reality by at least acknowledging a grudging coexistence between orthodox Christianity and his brand of progressive heterodoxy. But it's still somewhat delusional to think it's an even match in numbers or vitality.
And it's sad that the new Cathedral Dean cannot realize that the vast space of his temple will not be filled physically or spiritually with the emptiness of "non-theistic Christianity." Thriving churches nearly always are agreed upon a God who is there and speaking far more decisively than many Episcopalians are often willing to tolerate.