L.A.-born Episcopal leader brings his liberal views to Washington
WASHINGTON — A bearded young comedy writer espousing progressive views in Hollywood in the early 1970s might not have surprised anyone. But when the same man, who is now the Very Rev. Gary Hall, started advocating the same views from the Washington National Cathedral’s pulpit, people noticed.
Shortly after Hall became the Episcopal cathedral’s 10th dean in October, the church’s leaders announced the cathedral would start performing same-sex marriages. The ensuing wave of news stories surprised Hall, who said he has been blessing same-sex relationships since 1990, when he was a priest at Pasadena’s All Saints Episcopal Church.
“I thought it was no big deal,” Hall said at a recent reception for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people at his home on the cathedral grounds. Hall was the first dean to host an LGBT event on the grounds.
The unlikely path to the priesthood for the Los Angeles-born son of an actor and a costume designer started in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when he had shoulder-length hair and rode a motorcycle on the California coast. These days, the slim, clean-cut 63-year-old, married to the same woman for 35 years, says he is fighting the same anti-discrimination fight he fought then, but with different victims.
Hall describes himself as progressive in general, but he carefully selects the issues he champions as dean. So far, those issues have been same-sex marriage rights and gun control.
In March, Hall spoke in favor of same-sex marriage to a crowd outside the U.S. Supreme Court, where the nine justices heard arguments over whether gay marriage should be legal in California and in the nation. The crowd was largely pro-gay marriage, but not far from where Hall spoke, activists quoted the Old Testament to say gays and lesbians deserve punishment and death.
Hall likes to remark that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality. Further, he adds, the Bible describes a “long trajectory” of marriage, from polygamy to a one-man, one-woman arrangement in which the woman promised to obey the man. Hall views same-sex marriage as the next step in an evolution beyond those models.
The Episcopal church has been debating gay marriage for about 20 years, Hall said. He said that for the church, embracing same-sex marriage ultimately means “practicing what it preaches, which is that God loves everybody.”
But not all Episcopalians are on board. There have been splits in recent years within the church over gay marriage and gay members of the clergy, with conservative churches in Alabama, Virginia and South Carolina breaking off from the main body.
Some outside the church also have taken issue with Hall’s political forays, saying the institution that has held presidential funerals and observed national tragedies such as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, should avoid picking sides on divisive social issues.
To Hall, politics is a sometimes-necessary tool to fulfill the Bible’s moral decrees. “We get accused of bringing politics into the church,” he said. “And what I would say is, there are times when the church needs to act, needs to mobilize, to use the political system to argue for what it believes are its issues.”
In Hall’s own life, politics preceded religion. His father was actor Huntz Hall, who starred in the Bowery Boys films. His mother was Leslie Hall, who was a costume designer for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” His household was political and not religious, he said. He was class president at John Burroughs High School in Burbank.
Hall became interested in religion during his freshman year at Yale University, where he participated in antiwar and anti-discrimination protests. At the protests, in 1967 and 1968, he listened to William Sloane Coffin, a Presbyterian minister and social activist, talk about opposing the Vietnam War. On a Sunday in 1968 soon after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Hall went to Coffin’s church. It was Easter.
“Something about trying to process King’s death drove me to church,” Hall said.
He continued attending services after he transferred to UC Berkeley his sophomore year. He lived on the corner of Castro and Market streets in San Francisco, where, he said, he was one of the neighborhood’s “few straight people.” Around then he started work in the comedy business, writing jokes for television personality Steve Allen. He was influenced by Bill Scott, an Episcopalian who wrote and voice-acted in “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.” Ultimately he found that life unsatisfying and set out to do more serious work.
He obtained a master’s of divinity degree in Cambridge, Mass., and became an ordained minister. One of his first positions was as a vicar in Malibu, where he also surfed. He has served at churches across the country, including an 11-year tenure at All Saints in Pasadena that ended in 2000.
Now, while he tackles major social issues of the day, Hall is also overseeing a $20-million repair project at the cathedral, which was damaged in an earthquake in August 2011. Under the previous dean, the Very Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III, financial difficulties prompted the cathedral to close a greenhouse and a residency program for clergy and to eliminate 30 staff positions. Hall spends at least two days each week fundraising.
Another challenge Hall sees ahead is increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of the Episcopal church. Whites make up much of the Episcopal population around the country but are expected to be a minority in the U.S. in the not-too-distant future, Hall said.
He looks to the Episcopal population in Southern California as something of a model for the national church.
“The average church in Southern California has a range of racial and ethnic members that is really very different from the rest of the country, and something where the rest of us want to get to,” he said.
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