By Gary G. Yerkey
The Very Rev. Gary R. Hall, dean of the Washington National Cathedral, vowed Dec. 16 to make the cathedral community the “focal point” of efforts to confront the nation’s powerful gun lobby and enact legislation to take assault weapons off the streets.
Hall said in an unusually emotional sermon at the cathedral that the massacre only 48 hours earlier of 26 people, including 20 children, by a lone gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was, for him, “the last straw.” Police say Adam Lanza killed his own mother before attacking the schoolchildren and finally killing himself.
“Enough is enough,” Dean Hall said. “Today we grieve, but tomorrow we act.”
Speaking on a cloudy Sunday morning in the nation’s capital — in a sermon that was mixed with obvious anger and compassion — Hall said the best way to mourn the loss of life at Sandy Hook was to inspire believers to work for gun control.
His speech was echoed in large part by the Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, Bishop of Washington, who addressed the issue during a service of confirmation at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church.
“I suggest to you that we must resolve, as a nation, not to allow the Newtown children and their teachers to die in vain,” Budde said. “If we only pray and do not ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance’ and do what we know to be right, we dishonor them. If we only pray and do not act, we are complicit in perpetuating the conditions that allow such crimes to occur. It is time, once again, to substitute courage for caution.”
The federal ban on assault weapons, enacted in 1994, expired in 2004.
This is not the first time church leadership has advocated for tougher measures to end gun-related violence in the United States.
The Rt. Rev. John Bryson Chane urged changes to gun laws earlier this year, after shootings in Tucson, Ariz., that left a federal judge, a nine-year-old girl and four others dead, and 13 others wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Bishop Chane wrote in an op-ed piece for The Washington Post that current guns laws in the United States “are not only weak, but vary from state to state, and do little to keep weapons out of the hands of obviously unstable people. … State and Federal firearms laws are so disconnected and inadequate that the Congress must now summon the courage to address amending the Second Amendment to better reflect how that Amendment relates to a society and culture that is quite different from that of 1791 when our nation was still in its infancy. This is politically difficult, but failure to act means more innocents will die in the future due to gun violence.”
Hall’s sermon was also not the first time that the Episcopal Church has weighed in on gun control: it issued its first major statement on the issue, for instance, in 1976 and has consistently supported the work of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. But his sermon was seen by some as perhaps a turning point in rhetoric and possible action by the cathedral community.
Hall, who assumed his post as the 10th dean of the National Cathedral on Oct. 1, told 1,500 worshipers, including U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and his wife, Christie, that “as followers of Jesus, we have a moral obligation to stand for and with the victims of gun violence and to work to end it. … The Christian community — indeed the entire American faith community — can no longer tolerate this persistent and escalating gun violence directed against our people.”
Addressing the congregation in a sermon interrupted once by applause and by a standing ovation at the end, Hall said that “if we are truly America’s ‘National’ Cathedral, as we say we are, then we must be the focal point of faithful advocacy of gun control, calling on our leaders to courageous action and supporting them as they take it. … I pledge my and this community’s help in crafting and taking that action.”
He said that everyone in Washington seems to “live in terror” of the country’s gun lobby. “But I believe the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby,” he said.
In an op-ed article in The Washington Post in early August, after being selected as the new dean, Hall wrote that the cathedral would continue to be the nation’s church and a sacred space “characterized by beautiful music and liturgy and the continued preservation of an architectural gem.”
He also said that, under his leadership, the cathedral would expand its role as a “convener of conversations and developer of projects concerning our national and interfaith life.”