The Episcopal Church’s Washington National Cathedral proclaims itself as “A House of Prayer for All People” but the extent of that declaration may have found its limit. Earlier today the cathedral announced a ticketing system of paid $7 passes for several church services across the Advent season, including Christmas Eve.
Online denunciation was swift, with some Anglican twitterati leveling accusations of simony (the buying or selling of ecclesiastical privileges) while others offered cheeky comments (“Will there be popcorn at the Offertory?” UK cleric Calvin Robinson quipped).
Humor aside, paid admission to a service of Holy Eucharist, rather than a performance, raises questions about the suitability of effectively charging to access the body and blood of Jesus Christ. As a graduate of a Free Methodist university, I also find myself reminded of the legacy of pew selling, the now-abolished practice in which powerful families purchased box pews regarding them as personal property. That practice largely concluded in Anglican churches by the 1870s.
Attendance at these worship services has customarily been exempt from fees, but the sixth-largest cathedral in the world has – for several years – charged tourists an admission of $15 per adult or $10 per child. These fees offset operating costs for the landmark facility that is still repairing $38 million in damages incurred in a 2011 earthquake. Cathedral performances including Handel’s Messiah are also ticketed, but without controversy.
Built in the shape of a cross, the gothic cathedral has room to seat about 4,000 worshippers, or about 57 percent of the average Sunday attendance for the entire Episcopal Diocese of Washington. The cathedral itself reported an average attendance of 423 persons in 2022, the most recent reporting year.
Attendance on major holidays, including Christmas Eve, is substantially higher than typical Sunday services and the cathedral website states that the reserved passes are due to capacity concerns. Christmas Day services remain free.
I’m still trying to figure out if this is intended to be real, or is a ‘New Coke‘ head-fake to increase attendance when the National Cathedral inevitably relents and makes Christmas Eve attendance free-of-charge. A tweet announcing the availability of reserved passes is less than 10 hours old, but has already stirred up substantial online roasting.
The Cathedral communications team has proven skilled at securing earned media attention, placing the church near the center of national conversations on race, same-sex weddings, and former President Donald Trump. I would assume, at a minimum, we’ll see some local news segments on this paid admission scheme and Washington Post or Religion News Service pieces.
Perhaps I’m overly cynical, but the Episcopal Diocese of Washington has lost nearly half of its attendance in the past decade (from 13,813 in 2013 to 6,963 in 2022), so it’s not as though there is a sudden surge in demand for space at these services. A lone main Sunday morning service is offered at 11:15 a.m. at the cathedral (there’s also an early 8 a.m. service in one of the side chapels). Average attendance at the cathedral calamitously dropped from 1,646 in 2011 to 423 (74 percent) in a decade. COVID-19 response at least partly contributed to that collapse in 2021, but the apparent failure to rebound in 2022 indicates attendance hasn’t returned quickly post-pandemic.
Regardless of what develops in regards to National Cathedral worship service passes, we can expect a large number of Christian churches – Anglican included – to remind us that their services are freely open to all. Let’s pray that people avail themselves of that opportunity and hear the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ faithfully preached this season.