Washington National Cathedral cancels fees to attend some Christmas services after uproar

By David Paulsen
Posted Nov 28, 2023
Christmas Eve at Washington National Cathedral

The Christmas Eve Holy Eucharist is one of the popular services at Washington National Cathedral that requires advance passes. Photo: Washington National Cathedral

[Episcopal News Service] Washington National Cathedral, after facing a social media uproar this week for requiring a $7 “processing fee” to attend some of its Advent and Christmas services, announced on Nov. 28 that it was ending the practice and would offer reimbursements to those who already paid for advance passes.

“At the cathedral, our services are welcoming and available to everyone,” the cathedral said in a written statement posted to its website. “After hearing concerns from members of the community, we realize that a required processing fee for passes to some holiday services is a barrier to worship. That was never our intent, and we apologize.”

The intense backlash developed rapidly over the prior 24 hours, ignited by the cathedral’s Nov. 27 post to Facebook that promoted “Christmas service passes now available!”

The post made no mention of the $7 cost for some of those passes, but that detail dominated most of the more than 400 comments. The responses were overwhelmingly negative – “Unacceptable!” “Shameful!” “Disgraceful!” – though some suggested they would be open to paying a minimal charge if the cathedral identified a worthy purpose for the fee.

The Rev. Hillary Kimsey, vicar of St. Antony of Egypt Episcopal Church in Silverdale, Washington, said she was “stunned” by Washington National Cathedral’s decision. “I completely understand having people register in order to deal with physical capacity and safety issues, but to charge a fee? Even a $7 one,” Kimsey said in her comment. “I am beyond words.”

Washington National Cathedral’s online schedule for Advent and Christmas lists 14 events in December ranging from Holy Eucharist on Christmas Eve to several choral and orchestra performances of Handel’s “Messiah.” Tickets or advance passes are required for all but four of the events.

There was no charge and no advance pass required to attend Advent lessons and carols on Dec. 3, the Blue Christmas service on Dec. 19, Holy Eucharist on Dec. 25 or an organ recital later Christmas Day.

The advance passes – the ones that previously came with a $7 processing fee – are required for “Gospel Christmas: Joy to the World” on Dec. 22, a family Christmas service on Dec. 23, Christmas lessons and carols on Dec. 23 and 24 and Christmas Eve Holy Eucharist.

“A community of faith reducing public worship to just another option of paid Christmas entertainment?” commented the Rev. Anthony Jones, an assisting priest at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, New York. “If a congregation can’t do church without selling tickets, something is wrong.”

Ann Crane, a commenter from Washington, D.C., defended the cathedral, saying there is an expense to hosting so many people. “Do those of you griping about the handling charges think the cathedral should eat the costs associated with trying to organize the several thousand people who want to attend these popular services?” she asked in the comments.

Others said they agreed with selling ticket to concerts, tours, lectures and similar events at the cathedral, but not for Holy Eucharist and other worship services.

Unlike the worship services requiring advance passes, the cathedral’s ticketed events are priced similarly to a concert, with premium prices for better seats. Tickets for one of the “Messiah” performances, for example, range from $25 to $96.

In the Nov. 28 written update to its policy on reserved passes, the cathedral said it has required reservations, with a small processing fee, since 2009 to attend some of its most popular services of the year, particularly around Easter and Christmas, to defray costs and “help us address strict capacity limits and safety requirements for the large crowds who come to the cathedral each year.”

A spokesman later added in an email to Episcopal News Service that of the more than 300 services a year held at Washington National Cathedral, only seven require advance passes.

National Cathedral also has collected revenue from paid access to its interior at least since 2014, when it began charging tourists and sightseers up to $10 to enter. (It now costs up to $18 per person. That fee is waived for worshippers, and some other exceptions apply.) Similar admission fee policies have been implemented by other landmark Episcopal churches that draw large numbers of tourists, including the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York and Old North Church in Boston, Massachusetts.

National Cathedral annually draws about 275,000 visitors, typically attracted by its historical connection to the nation’s capital, its Gothic architecture and its spiritual significance. The cathedral regularly hosts state funerals of presidents and other dignitaries.

The cathedral also is known as the traditional seat of the presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church, though it functions as a cathedral of the Diocese of Washington.

“We never want finances to be a barrier to worship at the Cathedral, and it is clear that this fee has become a barrier,” the cathedral’s written statement said, adding “the cathedral never charges for worship, and we never want financial concerns to keep anyone from accessing everything the cathedral has to offer.”

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.