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John Hall, Dean Of Westminster Abbey And Officiant At Royal Wedding, Visits United States

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Queen Elizabeth II is greeted by the the Rev. John Hall as she arrives at Westminster Abbey to attend the annual Commonwealth Day Observance Service on March 12, 2012.
Queen Elizabeth II is greeted by the the Rev. John Hall as she arrives at Westminster Abbey to attend the annual Commonwealth Day Observance Service on March 12, 2012.

In his 36 years as a priest in the Church of England, the Rev. John Hall never thought he would become best-known for being part of a wedding.

But since officiating the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton two years ago, an event watched by hundreds of millions of people worldwide, the dean of London's Westminster Abbey has used his newfound exposure to his advantage.

In the United States for a three-city tour over the past week to fundraise for the abbey, and promote the famed London tourist attraction and its unique relationship to the royal family, Hall visited The Huffington Post's New York office to discuss the popular royal couple, his relationship to the monarchy, and his views on the Anglican church on both sides of the Atlantic.

"There's certainly something about the couple strikes a chord and attracts people. You could say it's the height of celebrity culture, but I think there's something deeper," said Hall, who became dean in 2006 after serving as chief education officer of the Church of England and, prior to that, working in various positions promoting Anglican educational services and in church assignments in London and North West England.

john hall royal wedding

"There's a certain mystique of the monarchy, and of course, a religious underlying and significance to it. But the renewal of it with a new generation of people has really put a new spotlight on it. We symbolize the closeness -- in the English sense understanding -- of church and state."

The church gets millions of visitors every year who come to see its historic Gothic architecture and learn about its role in British history. Dozens of kings and queens have been crowned in the abbey, which also has hosted 16 royal weddings and is the burial site for several monarchs and famed citizens. The abbey, which is part of the Church of England but operates separately for the most part, has a $15 million yearly budget and is financed almost entirely by admission costs and fundraising by groups such as the New York-based American Fund for Westminster Abbey. Hall visited there this week, in addition to Chicago, and will head to Washington next.

The church staff reports to the monarchy, instead of the local bishop like other London churches, and in addition to at least four daily worship services, Westminster regularly hosts events for the royals. On June 4, Hall will host Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke of Edinburgh and royal family members for a service to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the queen's coronation. The unique relationship to the royal family also means Hall for the most part has stayed clear of church controversies such as infighting over the ordination of women bishops.

This is your third visit to the U.S. to promote the church. What brings you back?

I came here in 2011 and again in 2012. It seems to me that fundraising isn't the main thing, to me it's more "friend-raising." The abbey has a huge number of American visitors, which is wonderful, and I think it's important to reach out reciprocally. It began in 2010, when St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue invited me to come give the prizes at their commencement at the end of the year, but I couldn't come that year. So I came back in 2011, and made some time for a small vacation and we realized that there is this growing interest in America in the abbey because of the wedding.

In the U.S., we don't have a state church, or a church such as Westminster Abbey that has the role of serving the monarchy. How do you balance running a church while being available to the queen and welcoming millions of tourists?

Because the abbey is such a visited place, we have a real opportunity there to ensure they are understanding the religious character of the building they are visiting so they are not just visiting an attraction. We have a fundamental question: How do we balance our life as a religious community between our purpose of worshipping the almighty God and, on the other hand, welcoming visitors and trying to make them pilgrims to a degree as much as we can?

The connection with the monarchy has gone back to the beginning. Westminster Palace, next to the abbey, was originally where Edward the Confessor lived in the 11th century. Westminster became the center of rule in the Kingdom from that time on. William the Conqueror was crowned in Westminster Abbey in 1066 and every monarch who has been crowned has had the coronation ceremony since then there.

Is there a regular congregation?

We see between 200 and 1,200 regular worshippers each day, but our focus is not on building a congregation in the traditional sense.

You have been dean for seven years and a priest for many more, but interest in your work has peaked since the royal wedding. Does that bother you?

No. It goes deeper than celebrity, I think. Of course, there is at the heart of the monarchy the monarch herself, who is one of the best-known figures in the world and one of the longest serving, so many people know of the queen. But this new generation is fascinating to people. The story of Catherine Middleton getting to know Prince William and them coming into each others' life is itself majestic and legendary. But for me it was wonderful that at the heart of the wedding was not just celebrity or splendor but a deep, central core of a couple coming together in the presence of God, and asking for God's gift of love and commitment throughout their lives.

There's also a baby on the way for the couple. Will you a play a role when he or she is born?

There is no expectation that I will be involved in the baptism. I imagine the Archbishop of Canterbury will be the one to pour the water and pray for the child's baptism, but where that will happen I don't know yet. All we are doing for the moment is praying for the pregnancy and birth to go well, and that the child is born safe and well. And when he or she is born, we will ring a full peal of the church bells, which lasts more than three hours.

The Episcopal church here is part of the Anglican communion, as is the Church of England, but the church here is also different. It has ordained gay bishops, blesses same-sex unions and has approved ordaining transgender priests. The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church is a woman. Meanwhile, the Church of England recently voted against allowing women bishops. What's your impression of Episcopalians?

What is predominant in my mind is the similarities we have in the communion around the world. There are clear similarities and also different issues people are engaged with. We have clear traditions of worship and the focus on hymns and prayer, and you feel that wherever you go.

For me, the experience of preaching on a couple of occasions at St. Thomas in New York and St. James in Chicago this week showed me a tradition of worship with which I am extremely familiar. You simply feel that we are one.

We live in a complex and difficult world and we engage with the world as we see and we want to share the gospel with the world in which we are. That may lead us to take different views about some marginal issues from Anglicans in other parts of the world. But on the core issues of belief in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and God's revelation of himself in Jesus Christ, we are the same.

I am glad that we wrestle publicly with issues, and I'm glad that with that we have this community that keeps us together. I long for the unity and reconciliation of all Christians so we can give a more powerful, united message to the world of God's love in Christ. I certainly don't want to see the Anglican Communion broken up. Nobody does.

What was your reaction to the votes against women bishops in the Church of England?

The ordination of women to the episcopacy is something the great majority of people in the Church of England want. It completes a process, which seems to have been right, to include women in the leadership. We have very much to be thankful for from women deacons and priests, and there will be women bishops. My guess is that there were as many people surprised as I was by the outcome of the vote. It was a very small number of people in the House of Laity who voted against it. This issue will be re-addressed and there has been a speedy process of getting people together to find ways through this dilemma. Exactly how this will work, I don't know, and I have not been involved personally. I hope it can be resolved quickly.

There's also a relatively new archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. What's your relationship to him and his predecessor, Archbishop Rowan Williams?

Rowan Williams was one of the finest archbishops one can imagine. His deep spiritual life, his absolute devotion to God, his extraordinary learning and breadth of knowledge, and his power of interpretation, there are things we have benefited enormously from at Westminster Abbey. Justin Welby brings a new perspective and new experience to the extraordinary task of being the archbishop of Canterbury. I didn't know Justin Welby very well, and I have met him now a few times. He is an extraordinarily gifted communicator, he has a very strong faith and a very hopeful outlook. His experience in finance and the oil industry is probably also a great blessing to us in the church. We shall look forward to seeing how he brings to bear those many gifts on the future of the church.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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