The decision by leaders of the Washington National Cathedral to perform same-sex weddings is getting a mixed reception, with supporters calling it consistent with the church's path for more than a decade and critics warning of further division on an issue that has roiled religious denominations across the country.
Officials at the cathedral, the most visible Episcopal church in the U.S., threw the weight of their national status, their century-old church, and thousand-member congregation behind the issue, announcing Wednesday that they would celebrate same-sex weddings effective immediately.
Leaders said the decision stemmed from a desire to move forward the "national conversation"on same-sex marriage after 30 years of study by the church, as well as the decisions of voters in three states, including Maryland, who approved referendums on same-sex marriage in November.
David Bains, a religion professor at Samford University in Alabama who has researched and written extensively about the cathedral, said the church's leaders have worked for years to balance serving their congregation in the nation's capital, where gay marriage has been legal since 2009, and being a beacon for Episcopalians across the country.
He noted that the church in Northwest D.C. — the site of such historic moments as presidential funerals, national celebrations and Martin Luther King Jr.'s last sermon — is no stranger to political activism.
Mr. Bains called it "a church and a ministry which would proclaim the truth of the Christian Gospel even when it challenged large parts of American culture."
In almost three decades as dean of the cathedral, he said, the Rev. Francis B. Sayre Jr. sermonized until his retirement in 1978 on subjects such as racial injustice and the Vietnam War. More recently, the Rev. Gary Hall, current dean of the cathedral, declared that "enough is enough" after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in December, and said it was time for the church to take up the issue of gun control.
"This current action, however, is probably the most potentially divisive act the cathedral's leadership has taken in its history," Mr. Bains said.
In July, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church approved blessings for same-sex marriages. While not mandatory, each Episcopal bishop is given the opportunity to decide whether or not his diocese will permit the ceremonies. Even if a diocese allows the blessings of same-sex relationships, no priest can be forced to perform the ceremony.
Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, which includes 89 congregations in the District and parts of Maryland, approved the marriage blessing in December.
A spokeswoman for the 2 million-member Episcopal Church's headquarters in New York said the office does not keep numbers on how many of its 110 dioceses or its churches perform same-sex marriages.
The cathedral made the move to celebrate same-sex weddings a decade after the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire in 2003 elected the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson. The ordination created deep rifts, causing a number of U.S. churches to break away from the Episcopal Church and for a number of more conservative national churches in the Anglican Communion to break ties with the U.S. denomination.
Suzanne Gill, a spokeswoman for the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, said she didn't see the decision to permit same-sex marriages at the National Cathedral as a catalyst for another wave of secessions, but that the announcement will have a symbolic effect to church members.
"It is a nationally known church, so anyone who might have missed noticing before now, it will certainly be brought to their attention at this point," said Ms. Gill, whose diocese broke away from the Episcopal Church and joined the Anglican Church in North America.
Dawne Moon, an assistant professor of sociology at Marquette University, said the National Cathedral's announcement "might be the straw that breaks the camel's back for a few conservative members who have been holding on."
"But I think people have probably figured out what side of the debate they're on by now and have either left the church or found a way to live within it," she said.
What the polls say
A poll conducted in November by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that 48 percent of Americans backed same-sex marriages, compared with 35 percent in 2001.
Another poll taken in 2011 among Protestants, Catholics and people who are religiously unaffiliated, showed that in 2011, 46 percent of surveyed people said they were in favor of same-sex marriage.
While 72 percent of people who identified themselves as unaffiliated with any religious denomination said they were in favor of same-sex marriage, 52 percent of Catholics expressed support and 34 percent of Protestants did.
"While the [Episcopal] leaders here in D.C. made the decision early, in order to allow this go forward, it's not necessarily reflective of the diocese, even in the United States, much less globally," Pew research associate Besheer Mohamed said.
Struggles of other churches
Other denominations also are struggling to maintain unity when it comes to homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) restated its stance that marriage was a union between a man and a woman, but the church's highest judicial body allowed ministers to oversee same-sex unions as long as the ceremonies were not considered marriages.
In May, the 57-church Presbytery of Tropical Florida lost nine churches and roughly 30 percent of its membership after it began allowing non-celibate homosexual men and women to be priests or deacons.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in July that more than 180 congregations had left the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) since 2007 for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. A survey by Presbyterian Outlook magazine showed that an additional 800 churches across the country were considering leaving the denomination if it permitted same-sex marriage.
Richard Weinberg, a spokesman for the National Cathedral, said that in terms of the cathedral's own congregation, the decision would be "welcome and celebrated news. But we recognize there will be people who disagree with us."
For the Charleston-based Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, the denomination's policy change on same-sex marriage last summer was the tipping point, prompting the 70-church diocese to leave in November.
The amendment boils down to "permission to ignore the rules," said Kendall Harmon, canon theologian for the diocese. "That's not something that should be celebrated."
Contrary to what National Cathedral leaders say about their congregation's acceptance and encouragement of same-sex weddings, Mr. Harmon said, across the country the Episcopal Church has "leadership that's gone on an aggressive campaign using intimidation, money and lawsuits to silence anyone" who disagrees.
"It's governance by the arbitrary. There's no meaningful theology underneath it," he said. "All it does is reinforce why we need to leave, and that's very sad."
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