The Washington National Cathedral, the nation's traditional host of prayer services for presidents and memorial services for national tragedies, announced on Wednesday that it would now also hold weddings for same-sex couples.
The cathedral, a neo-Gothic landmark in northwest Washington, is the seat of the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and the Washington Diocese. Episcopalians voted at their convention last summer to authorize an official liturgy for blessing same-sex unions, bringing the church in line with other liberal Christian and Jewish denominations that sanction gay marriage.
The cathedral's decision is not surprising for a denomination that has paid a price for its stance. The Episcopal Church shed members and set off an uproar in the international Anglican Communion to which it belongs by consecrating its first openly gay bishop in 2003.
But the cathedral's step carries weight because of its historic role as the nation's unofficial capitol of worship, where Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan were eulogized, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his last Sunday sermon and where the nation mourned the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Later this month, the cathedral will host the second inaugural prayer service for President Obama.
The cathedral's dean, the Very Rev. Gary Hall, said: "We have a lot of gay and lesbian Christians. What the National Cathedral is saying by doing this is we want to give faithful lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender people the same tools for living their lives faithfully that straight people have always had, and marriage is one of those tools. This comes out of even more of a theological understanding, for me, than it does out of a political agenda."
Nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized marriage for gay couples. Not all Episcopal bishops have allowed priests to bless same-sex unions, but the bishop of Washington, Mariann Edgar Budde, who oversees parishes in the district and parts of Maryland, recently allowed such unions after Maryland's voters approved gay marriage in November.
Bishops in five dioceses and priests in at least 100 parishes have broken from the Episcopal Church since it consecrated its first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson, in New Hampshire. Bishop Robinson recently retired. According to the church's headquarters in New York, membership has held steady at 2.2 million, though others say membership has declined.
The Washington National Cathedral has about one thousand regular congregants and many more visitors who attend Sunday services. Dean Hall said that the cathedral marries only couples who are congregants, volunteers, donors or graduates of the cathedral's schools, but that there are no gay couples yet "in the pipeline."
Three years ago, before there was an officially sanctioned rite, the cathedral held a private wedding ceremony for a gay couple on its staff that was presided over by John Chane, the previous Bishop of Washington, a cathedral spokesman said. Dean Hall said members of the selection committee that interviewed him last year made it clear that they wanted the cathedral to bless same-sex marriages.nation
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.