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The National Cathedral has mostly been known for hosting funerals, such as former President Gerald Ford. (photo: Daniel R. DeCook, Wikimedia Commons)

The National Cathedral has mostly been known for hosting funerals, such as former President Gerald Ford. (photo: Daniel R. DeCook, Wikimedia Commons)

The Dean of the Washington National Cathedral has announced that the Episcopal Church’s flagship congregation will begin solemnizing same-sex marriages immediately.

The move by Cathedral Dean Gary Hall will come as a surprise to few. The Episcopal Diocese of Washington was one of the first in the church to offer blessing of same-sex unions, beginning the practice long before the denomination formally authorized a “provisional” rite at July’s triennial Episcopal General Convention. Additionally, the diocese allowed its Washington, D.C. churches to conduct same-sex marriages when the District of Columbia began granting marriage licenses for same-sex couples in March of 2010. Several suburban Maryland counties are also in the diocese, that state began allowing same-sex marriage this month.

The Cathedral will use a version of the recently approved “provisional” rite for the blessing of same-sex unions, modified into a marriage rite. The “provisional” rite is itself a light modification of the church’s marriage service, found in the Book of Common Prayer.

Like other Episcopal dioceses and congregations that have moved to authorize same-sex blessings or marriages, the cathedral has listed a series of guidelines. These rules are supposed to alleviate concerns that the Episcopal Church is not serious about marriage, even as it unilaterally redefines it contrary to almost all of Christendom:

“At least one person in the couple, therefore, must have been baptized. Only couples directly affiliated with the life of the Cathedral—as active, contributing members of the congregation; as alumni or alumnae of the Cathedral schools; as individuals who have made significant volunteer or donor contributions over a period of time; or those judged to have played an exceptional role in the life of the nation—are eligible to be married at the Cathedral.”

So rest easy, those of you who fret about the National Cathedral becoming the gay marriage equivalent of a Las Vegas wedding chapel: couples seeking marriage must actually be involved in the Cathedral – unless they are “significant” donors. Such integrity!

The Cathedral’s embrace of same-sex marriage follows Hall’s commitment last month to place the congregation at the center of the nation’s debate on firearms restrictions.

In an October interview with the Detroit Free Press (Hall was formerly Rector of Christ Church in Cranbrook, MI) Hall tellingly revealed “I’m not about trying to convert someone to Christianity. I don’t feel I’m supposed to convert Jews or Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists or Native Americans to Christianity so that they can be saved. That’s not an issue for me.”

Hall was also direct in his common cause with those who did not profess a faith in Jesus Christ.

“I have much more in common with progressive Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists than I do with certain people in my own tradition, with fundamentalist Christians. The part of Christianity I stand with is the part in which we can live with ambiguity and with pluralism.”

Hall has frequently spoken of the church’s role as being “at the center” of American public life. While no one contests that the Cathedral’s grand setting atop the highest point in Washington, D.C. has hosted important prayer services and funerals, I’m betting that most of the 311 million Americans would not name the Episcopal Cathedral as the center of the nation’s public life. Indeed, its membership is far, far less than any number of other D.C.-area mega churches, some of which draw seven to eight times the Cathedral’s attendance on a typical Sunday.

On the surface, the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, as the church is officially known, looks healthy: an attendance of just over 1,600 (massive by Episcopal standards) that has only gradually edged down since 2007. Deeper digging reveals numbers that don’t add up, however. Other Episcopal congregations with similar attendance receive far larger plate-and-pledge income than the Cathedral’s relatively meager $2 million a year. The large (now Anglican) parish of the Falls Church in nearby suburban Virginia has a plate-and-pledge of nearly $5 million, while the similarly-sized St. Martin’s in Houston, Texas has plate-and-pledge income of over $9 million. In short, a church claiming attendance equal to the National Cathedral should have plate-and-pledge income several multiples higher than what the Cathedral reports. Either the Cathedral is counting camera-wielding tourists and other visitors in its self-reported statistics, or the Cathedral’s own churchgoers are surprisingly tight-fisted in their tithes.

Approximately half of the churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington are in a state of decline, according to Bishop Maryann Budde.

Follow Jeff Walton on Twitter @JeffreyHWalton