The call of the minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was never meant to be a popular gig with the world. “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you," Jesus taught his disciples (John 15:18-19, ESV).
So when I saw that the Washington National Cathedral's dean the Rev. Gary Hall was the subject of a puffy 29-paragraph profile by the Washington Post's Sally Quinn -- "A clergyman intent on engaging the masses"* -- it was safe to assume that Hall's views by heavily accommodating to the wider culture while throwing historic Christian teaching under the bus. Hall failed to disappoint, nor did Quinn, who naturally presented Hall as an engaging, thoughtful, and cool cleric who was a religious leader in tune with liberal urban Washingtonians.
The Post's "On Faith" feature editor opened her story by gushing over how hip and counter to stereotype the Episcopal churchman is, noting that before he went to seminary he was a comedy writer and how one of his "favorite hangouts" is a trendy French restaurant in Northwest Washington, D.C.:
The Very Rev. Gary Hall, new dean of Washington National Cathedral, started out as a comedy writer for Steve Allen. He got the gig, he says, through his parents. Hall’s father was an actor in Hollywood, his mother a costume designer. And the connection he forged through them with the comedian-turned-“Tonight Show” host made a lasting impression on Hall’s approach to ministry.
“Steve was a big influence in my life,” Hall says.
Now 64 years old, Hall has white hair, an angular face and thin-rimmed glasses. He looks, well, like a traditional Episcopalian. But he doesn’t talk like one. He is friendly and funny, smart and very, very frank. Boy, is he frank. Don’t be fooled by the white collar he wears. On a scorching summer day, Hall strides into Le Zinc, a French restaurant close to the cathedral and one of his favorite hangouts, in an Oxford blue shirt with white clerical collar and seersucker jacket. He settles down to lunch and a long conversation that culminates in a description of what he calls “bar theology.”
“Part of being a priest,” says Hall, “is being a cultural anthropologist.” Pastors, he thinks, should devote time — perhaps once a week — to going around to bars and engaging customers in conversations about religion. This is the thinking behind the Arlington Catholic diocese’s regular “Theology on Tap” — conversations, often clergy-led, in bars that are among the diocese’s most popular programs.
That's fine in and of itself. It's appropriate to give readers a taste of a profile subjects personality, particularly so in a Style section front pager. But the next paragraph was the hinge of the whole article, using Hall's relaxed "cultural anthropologist" priest-in-a-bar shtick to give Hall a platform for proselytizing Post readers with his liberal theology:
His easy wit (Hall used to write jokes in high school) combined with a comfort in taking public positions on such controversial contemporary issues as same-sex marriage and gun control were among the reasons Hall was picked for the most senior position at the cathedral. And he sees the evolution in his own thinking as relevant to the future success of the church.
From there Quinn turned back to Hall's personal story, which of course was a springboard to have Hall hold forth on pre-marital sex, which the Bible and traditional Christian teaching condemn as fornication but which Hall dismisses as no big deal:
So how do you get from comedy writer to dean of the cathedral? Not on a straight path, it turns out. Hall’s parents (father Catholic, mother Lutheran) were not practicing Christians. “They had become alienated from the institutional church,” he says. “I was nothing.”
After a brief stint at Yale, where the young Californian felt out of place, Hall moved to Berkeley and married his girlfriend there. But Yale’s legendary chaplain William Sloane Coffin continued to influence Hall’s choices, sparking his interest in the civil rights movement and the progressive clergy who backed it.
Hall decided to go to seminary and ended up at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. “All the people I admired, the intellectual progressive clergy, went there,” he recalls. Hall graduated but refused to become ordained until women could be, deciding instead to answer mail for a bishop in California until women were finally able to be ordained. During seminary he got divorced after six years of marriage. He also met his current wife, Carol, a librarian, there. She was married to another seminarian. “It’s not as tawdry as it sounds,“ he laughs. “A priest and a librarian,” he says drolly. “We’re like a fun couple.”
Life experiences informed Hall’s unconventional views on marriage. (His parents were married seven times between them.) “We have this cartoon in America where you grow up, get married and stay the same person,” he says. “For the church to say, ‘No sex before marriage,’ is not realistic,” he argues, explaining that he has married at least 500 couples, only about five of whom did not live together beforehand. He believes that for the church to say it wants to celebrate marriage and honor marriage, the church needs to give some guidance on “how to live a life of faithfulness and integrity.”
Under Hall’s leadership, the cathedral announced it will start performing same-sex marriages. “Our position [the Church’s] has been don’t ask, don’t tell. We’ve been more about etiquette than ethics.”
Of course, life experience can shape our views on a number of things, but Christian Scripture teaches that our life experiences and our personal opinions are to be challenged, adjusted, and correct by the teachings of Scripture.
Jesus certainly thought very highly of marriage -- teaching it was designed from the beginning to unite one man and one woman for life -- and taught it was adultery to lust in one's heart for a woman. Jesus also taught it was adultery to divorce one's wife and trade her in for a younger model like a rich urban Episcopalian might a sports car. Indeed, Jesus thought so highly of marriage and so strongly about sexual sin's perniciousness that he warned his followers that lusting in one's heart for a woman was adulterous.
It's worth noting that the apostles whom Jesus commissioned also thought highly of marriage and St. Paul wrote that Christians should not enter into marriage with a non-Christian.
Yet here we see Hall proudly recounting his divorce and remarriage, admitting he doesn't really care about the spiritual health of the couples whose wedding he officiates, and reveling in his openness to blessing same-sex unions.
Those are all marks of a churchman acceptable to liberal secular readers of the Post, but there should be no pretending that Hall is living up to his calling as a Christian minister.
But wait, there's more. Hall is not simply loosey-goosey on sexual ethics, he's a proudly self-confessed "non-theist Christian," holding a view of Christ that is, at best, downright puzzling and at worst, heretical:
The owner of the restaurant, now closed, comes over to schmooze. Hall seems totally comfortable, as if hanging out is his favorite sport — as if he could spend until the wee hours at a bar hashing over the meaning of life.
He tells of sitting next to the renowned atheist Richard Dawkins at a dinner and discussing God. Hall told Dawkins, “I don’t believe in the God you don’t believe in either.”
“That kind of atheism, though, is bankrupt. It’s like picking a fight with a cultural image no theologian would buy into. I don’t want to be loosey-goosey about it,” he says, “but I describe myself as a non-theistic Christian.”
And he goes on to expand on the concept.
“Jesus doesn’t use the word God very much,” he says. “He talks about his Father.”
Hall explains: “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.”
At this point, Hall leans back in his chair, a rueful smile on his face.
“This is like therapy,” he says. “I should lie down on the couch.”
Gary Hall has been dean of the National Cathedral for less than a year. He has taken on a huge job: The church is in need of money, and Episcopal congregations across the country are shrinking.
So Jesus "was an extraordinary human being" who was merely, "a son of God" but there's some divine nature "in all human beings"? That sure doesn't sound like orthodox Christianity at all, yet neither Hall nor Quinn make any connections between tat and the fact that the Episcopal Church is "shrinking" and hemorrhaging money in the process. But no matter, Quinn closes the profile with Hall's thoughts on the future of the Episcopal Church which suggest he thinks the way forward is doubling down on cultural and political liberalism and eschewing conservative, orthodox Christianity:
“We’re in a period where people under 50 don’t see the church as a credible place to explore their questions about God.” Instead, they see the church as obsessed with “survival and squabbles.” Interestingly enough, he says that young people these days seem to be drawn to monasteries for spiritual retreats.
More important, Hall says, is the fact that “the culture that built the church is dying” — the upper-class WASPs. And in D.C., he says, “we face the same profile 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 equates the Episcopal Church with a scene in an old Elaine May movie, “A New Leaf” with Walter Matthau, in which the butler says to his master: “I admire you. You’ve managed to keep alive traditions that were dead before you were born.”
The challenge, then, is how to bring people back. He says, “what we don’t do well is folk music and guys in Hawaiian shirts. What we do is we have this transcendental space. The cathedral, in a way, the building, is our biggest problem and our biggest resource.”
He says he sees change ahead. “We’ll have an urban progressive liturgical church and a more suburban conservative church. We’ll cut across denominations.”
Hall believes he has more in common with leaders of reform Judaism, who also focus on things like marriage equality and gun control, than he does with some of the more conservative members of his own tradition. “I can’t see that we’re not going to realign.”
According to Hall, a friend of his says that “when we come together, it will be around spiritual practices.”
And that conversation could happen in a bar.
This is hardly the first time Hall has received positive treatment in the Post. He was previously profiled in January on his crusade for gun control and regarding his support for same-sex marriage. Dean's pro-gun control sermon from December 16 also received glowing coverage from the Post on the following day.
*the online version's headline is different: "For Gary Hall, being dean of the National Cathedral started with comedy"