Supporters of gay marriage are exultant that the Washington National Cathedral has announced that it will perform same-sex weddings. It’s not really a surprise. The Episcopal Church to which the cathedral belongs approved a rite for same-sex blessings in 2012 and same-sex marriage is legal in the District of Columbia.
So why all the breathless coverage of the announcement? It has to do with the “national” in the popular name of the church (which is officially called the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul) and its status as a quasi-public institution.
The Associated Press report about the announcement began this way: “The Washington National Cathedral, where the nation gathers to mourn tragedies and celebrate new presidents, will soon begin hosting same-sex marriages.” This is only slightly less grandiose than the description of the cathedral on its website: “The cathedral is a spiritual resource for our nation: a great and beautiful edifice in the city of Washington, an indispensable ministry for people of all faiths and perspectives, and a sacred place for our country in times of celebration, crisis, and sorrow.”
This description is controversial with at least two groups. One consists of non-Episcopalians who consider it presumptuous that a church of a particular denomination — and one long associated with moneyed elites — should portray itself as representing the entire nation. (Roman Catholics would point out that John F. Kennedy’s funeral was held at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, as was the memorial service for Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, a Lutheran.)