National Cathedral to charge entry fee

UPDATED with letter from the Cathedral below.

UPDATED: The Rev. Winnie Varghese comments on WNC charging tourists in the Huffington Post:

A true welcome is not simply an open door. It is a prophetic, Gospel message like the one we hear from our National Cathedral on issues of great urgency.

We are called to discern in every generation where the holy One of God appears among us and calls us to act, especially at this time of year. You know the One I mean. The One whose parent could be deported at any time. The One who will be shot at school, at home, in the mall or in a movie theater, because we do not have the courage as a nation to say it might be the tool used to shoot that could be the most effective target of legislation. The One who is making peace with hunger because some Christian legislators apparently have Bibles that say let the hungry be hungrier. The One whose access to a lifetime of healthcare is a pawn in the hands of so called Christians. The One who appears on the margins, vulnerable to the whims of the powerful. If you open that door, you will be asked for a lot more than $10. A Blessed Advent to you.

The Washington (DC) National Cathedral will be charging tourists a fee to tour the building after January 1. Worship services and opportunities to pray remain free. The Washington Post reports:

Struggling to cover its costs, Washington National Cathedral has decided to begin charging an admission fee for tourists who visit the church beginning in 2014.

Cathedral officials said Monday that they will begin charging a $10 fee for adults and $6 for children, seniors and military members in January. Admission will be free on Sundays, as well as on weekdays for those who visit to worship or pray.

The Rev. Gary Hall, the Episcopal cathedral’s dean, said the decision to charge a fee was made reluctantly. But he noted that the cathedrals of Europe charge fees to help fund their upkeep. “All we are charging for is tourism essentially,” Hall said. “We’re not charging for the essential services of the cathedral.”

The Rev. Scott Gunn, Executive Director of Forward Movement, writes in his blog:

It’s no surprise that some media jumped all over recent news that Washington National Cathedral will soon begin charging $10 for admission (reduced for children, yada, yada). Check out samples here and here. The Washington Times used the sensational, but slightly misleading, headline, “Pay to pray.” ABC did better, saying that the cathedral would “Charge Fee to Tourists.” The right-wing church blogs love this story too, because it fits their narrative. I’ve already seen some loud wailing on social media from several quarters. But let’s look at the whole story.

I’ve traveled around the world a fair amount, and it’s pretty common to pay entry fees for religious sites. I’ve paid to visit Hindu temples in India and Shinto shrines in Japan. I’ve also paid to be a tourist at Christian sites in several countries. Anglicans will probably already know that you have to pay for tourist access to Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. I believe it’s also the case that in every single one of the examples I cited, access for prayer is free and open.

Not too long ago, Trinity Church, Copley Square in Boston started charging admission for tourists. Worship services are free, but if you want to wander in off the street and admire LaFarge’s decorative work, it’ll set you back a few bucks. Shortly after they started charging, I noted that one of my Facebook friends was howling about having been “denied entry” to the church. “They should be open for everyone, and free!” my friend said. I happen to know this friend serves as clergy in a church which is locked most of the week. Hypocrisy much?

Gunn offers some good points about the needs of churches and funding. Read it all here.

Letter from the Cathedral is below:

Dear Cathedral Friend,

After long and careful study, Washington National Cathedral has decided to charge most sightseeing visitors an entry fee for a six-month trial period beginning in January. Although such fees are nothing new to visitors of other cathedrals and historic churches throughout the world, such as Westminster Abbey in London and St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, they do represent a departure from the Cathedral’s policy, and I want to explain our reasoning to you.

The Cathedral does not receive any direct operating support from the federal government. Nor is it subsidized through the budget of any Christian denomination. While this financial independence increases the Cathedral’s freedom to speak freely in the public square and to convene people of all faiths, it also requires us to seek other means of ensuring our sustainability.

To help supplement our current revenues, beginning in January, adult visitors will be charged $10, while seniors, children, students, veterans, and members of the military will be charged $6.

The Cathedral Chapter (governing board) and leadership are sensitive to the Cathedral’s foremost identity as a house of prayer and as a living faith community in the Episcopal tradition. Despite the wonder of the art and architecture here, the Cathedral is not a museum. The Cathedral will remain open for those visiting for prayer, worship, and pastoral care, and we will also offer free admission on Sundays. Volunteers, members of the Cathedral’s congregation and members of the National Cathedral Association will be admitted without charge. We will be in touch again soon as our policies and procedures for the fixed admission are finalized over the coming months.

We are called to preserve and restore a building that is more than a century old and to offer programs that have a distinctive impact on our city, our nation, and the world. To support that work, we must implement this carefully developed fixed-admission policy, and we believe it can be understood by all who have the Cathedral’s best interests at heart.

Sincerely yours,

David J. Kautter

Chair, Cathedral Chapter

Category : The Lead

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7 Comments
  1. “They do it, too,” is no excuse. Wherever a place of worship charges an admission fee, I don’t like it. Lock the doors, if you must, and many churches do, but please, no fee to go in if the doors are open, whether for a service or not. If a destitute person wishes to enter, will the person be turned away because they can’t pay the fee? If they have a widow’s mite, but not the entire fee?

    The most egregiously ugly examples of money-changers in the temple are the tollbooths in York Minster.

    Sorry, locking the doors is not the same as charging an admission fee. What sort of an example of the mission of the Episcopal Church is it for our National Cathedral to charge for entry?

    June Butler

  2. William F. Hammond

    I think attended narrow entrance points with suggested donation signs is better. It’s hard for someone who can afford it to walk past without giving. Check carefully whether entrance fees would be taxable income.

  3. tgflux

    If you enter as a tourist, and are moved to prayer, do you get your money back?

    If I, entering to pray (and, FWIW, am poor), after a final sign o’ the cross, get up off my knees to “poke around a bit”, will a verger be there w/ the cashbox to collect?

    There’s not Homo touristus OR Homo orans, there’s ONLY Homo sapiens. Asking for donations is great, but if you’re charging, you better charge ALL of the people. Otherwise, charge none of them.

    JC Fisher

  4. Elizabeth Kaeton

    I once was rector of a church which had taken a special point of pride in making their parish hall available to the community free of charge. Until the walls needed painting and repair and the floor needed to be resurfaced and the kitchen was in very bad shape. And, we had to pay the sexton overtime to stay for clean up. It was a serious, heated, painful discussion. Many saw it as “outreach”. Others saw it as a vehicle of “evangelism” (see also: “Warm and Welcoming Congregation”). Until we did a cost-benefit analysis. Reality bites.

  5. In many colonial churches, including my own (Old North, Boston) you had to own a pew to worship. “Strangers” could sit with the wardens for a Sunday or two, but were then encouraged to buy a pew, if one was available. Other colonial churches, Trinity, Wall Street, for example, were given glebes, tracts of valuable land, to generate income to support the church.

    Church business models have evolved over the centuries. Charging a small admission fee seems much more civil than the business model outlined in the first few chapters of the Book of Acts. There, all members were expected to sell property and contribute the proceeds to the church. Ananias and Sapphira’s challenge to this form of stewardship cost them their lives.

    Why is it that we expect so many services (churches, public restrooms, roads, etc.) to be free in life? What would happen to civil society if government were run on donations instead of taxes?

    Old North remains free to worshippers and tourists alike, but we struggle to maintain that model. Offering hospitality to 500,000 visitors a year while maintaining a 300 year-old national landmark is expensive. Who knows when we may be forced by economic necessity to charge admission? We wish the best to our friends at the National Cathedral as they experiment with a new business model.

    Steve Ayres, Vicar, Old North Church

  6. tgflux

    What would happen to civil society if government were run on donations instead of taxes?

    Hey, I’m all for taxes—progressive taxes.

    Ergo, if the NatlCath wants to charge progressively, Go For It!

    …however, the government has that whole IRS thing, to keep people honest. It’s hard to see how the church could replicate it. O_o

    JC Fisher

  7. Fmendespinto

    I understand that it’s an accepted practice in Europe, and I understand the need to provide for upkeep, but it seems a problem on a couple of levels.

    First is the question that JC raised of overlapping purposes. What’s the distinction between tourist and worshipper?

    Second, framing it as a tourist attraction is horrible. Yes, tourists come to see it, but it ought not to be treated like a mere monument or museum for fear that that’s all visitors will see it as.

    Third, yeah, they do it in England, where another Anglican Church has suffered great loss of congregants and revenue. Almost nothing of what I’ve heard about the modern CofE’s resource management sounds like something we would want to emulate. Among other things, it’s a sign that the Church has given up on supporting itself and can only make it with subsidies.

    And fourth, if welcoming visitors to admire our buildings isn’t “outreach” or “evangelism” (and what’s the difference?), then what is it? And if it isn’t something that is the Church’s business – you know, like outreach or evangelism, instead of pandering to idle curiosity – then why are we doing it? We make arguments all the time that the expensive overhead involved in liturgy – buildings, vestments, music, vessels, – is worthwhile because it’s used for worship. What does it mean if we just treat it like pretty stuff we have and want to show off?

    Bill Dilworth

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