The Washington National Cathedral, seat of the Episcopal Church and one of the nation's most iconic religious monuments, announced Wednesday that it will begin performing same-sex weddings.
The Episcopal Diocese of Washington decided to begin performing the ceremonies in December, just a month after Maryland joined the District in legalizing same-sex marriage. The diocese includes both jurisdictions.
"In my 35 years of ordained ministry, some of the most personally inspiring work I have witnessed has been among gay and lesbian communities where I have served," Rev. Gary Hall, dean of the cathedral, said in a statement. "I consider it a great honor to lead this Cathedral as it takes another historic step toward greater equality."
The Episcopal Church already allows the blessing of same-sex couples, but its decision to allow wedding services to be performed at the historic cathedral provides a powerful symbol for those pushing to legalize gay marriage nationwide. It could be six months to a year before the first same-sex wedding is performed, because of his busy schedule, officials said.
The Episcopal Church's gradual embrace of gays and lesbians has pushed some of its members to break away in recent years, including several theologically conservative congregations in neighboring Northern Virginia.
The cathedral's announcement reflects shifting opinion in both the Episcopal Church and society at large, said Robert Jones, CEO and founder of the Public Religion Research Institute.
"This past year was remarkable for the sea change that the 2012 election represented, with three states legalizing same-sex marriage and one state defeating a ban on same-sex marriage," Jones said. "I think [the announcement] is one more thing on the national scene that shows the shifting tide on this issue."
Jones said the Episcopal Church's announcement was "no surprise" given that it began ordaining gay clergy in 2009. And a 2008 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found only 13 percent of Episcopalian clergy opposed legal recognition of same-sex couples.
Gay advocacy groups welcomed the news that the iconic church would host weddings.
"Today marks another milestone in the Episcopal Church's embrace of all God's children, including LGBT people," said the Rev. MacArthur Flournoy, deputy director of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy organization. "Today, the Church sent a simple but powerful message to LGBT Episcopalians -- you are loved just the way you are, and for that we embrace you."