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The Washington National Cathedral Debacle

Covenant Roundtable

Washington National Cathedral recently gained some unpleasant attention when it came to light that there was an admission fee associated with its Christmas Eve liturgy. Online chatter included accusations of simony. The Covenant authors’ group had a lively discussion about this, and I’ve gathered a few particularly salient contributions to that discussion for the benefit of a wider audience.

Mark Michael

I thought that Kirk Petersen’s article gave some helpful perspective. The short of it is that they have been issuing tickets and charging processing fees for 14 years, and didn’t receive complaints (at least not of this magnitude) before. In the five days leading up to Christmas, 25,000 people will come to the cathedral, and issuing the tickets is important for crowd control. They had people waiting for hours outside in the cold before, which isn’t hospitable either. They do all the processing of registrations internally, and sometimes need to bring on extra staff to get the work done, and the processing fee helps them to break even on the extra staff costs. This just doesn’t sound outrageous to me. I’m grateful that 25,000 people will come to the cathedral in five days, and I think some system to enable that people have a safe experience is important, and I totally understand that it would cost money.

I think it’s also worth remembering that in ages gone by, when churches were actually full in major cities at major festivals, churches issued tickets. I don’t know if they charged for them or not, but they would have incurred the same kind of hassle and cost to make it happen. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in New York at Easter in 1930, and he waited too long and couldn’t get a ticket for any of the services at the big churches, and ended up going to a synagogue instead. Synagogues often ticket for High Holy Day services for the same reasons.

Simony is a serious sin, but I think it’s a stretch to call this simony. It’s hard for me not to think that some of the backlash might not be sour grapes at the cathedral’s success, which is clearly built on its big profile during the pandemic.

My defensiveness may come partly from the fact that I like the dean, and it’s been frustrating for me to see him pilloried every year or so for some “crisis” that he didn’t really control. He’s a credally orthodox and theologically moderate leader, good at pastoral care and administration. I’m glad to see the cathedral flourishing under his leadership, and I wish we had more leaders like him in our big churches.

Richard Mammana Jr.

As I said somewhere else: cathedrals will cathedral, and we would not have Trollope if they were normal places.

The historical angle is not much caught in this moment, but we had pew rents until the very moment that women were allowed to be seated in conventions: St. Thomas Fifth Avenue until 1972, St. Clement’s, Philadelphia, until 1949, Grace Broadway until the 1960s. The all-voluntary model of church funding is newer than 70 percent of baptized Episcopalians, whose median age is 69. If they were born in the early 1950s and before, pew rents and leases were just a thing: very common in wills, divorces, and even in sheriff’s sales through the middle of the 20th century.

There are a lot of moving pieces in the Episcopal Church’s dance with Caesaropapism in the National Cathedral, but I am just not sure that one can unlink the powers of this world (sarx/flesh, Caesar, coin, flag) from the crib in that space very easily, if at all. At best they can be brought there, offered there, surrendered there, and somehow transfigured, but we think a folly if we imagine that the churchly minds managing crowd flow have yielded hearts to that sort of thing.

Another angle, though, is that no Episcopalian imagines himself a pauper except when the collection plate arrives or the pledge card comes in the mail. Many of the folks who balk at the $7 transaction fee will have spent $200 and more for the Christmas Eve dinner, with another $50 for parking and tolls. I have nothing at all to say in defense of the National Cathedral’s decision to set itself up for this, but the Outrage Machine for many of the voices raised in this episode might be better turned back on its own self-distraction in monthly fees for Netflix, iTunes, and Starbucks expenditures that far outpace what people are giving to support their congregational life. We accept transaction fees everywhere, not even noticing them, and Quirinius was, after all, taking a census.

Neil Dhingra

Two brief thoughts about the Washington National Cathedral controversy:

  1. When the Washington National Cathedral first started charging entry fees in 2014, with no charge for liturgy, spiritual visits, and Sundays, it still became the first cathedral in the United States to do so. (The entry fee attracted the attention of The New Yorker, which noted, “charging admission for a space with such deep political and spiritual significance offended many.”) This suggests that many of us may be happily unaware of earlier, ongoing, and sometimes difficult European discussions about charging for cathedral visits and events. When the Financial Times reported on Ely Cathedral’s becoming the first English cathedral to charge for entry in 1986, it quoted the vice-dean and treasurer on the “hardest decision we have ever had to face,” and clarified this was not about “covetous clerics or artful archbishops,” and involved neither turnstiles nor credit cards (more of a rarity back then).

Thus, it may have been too easy to see the Washington National Cathedral too unsympathetically, imagining its practices and the pressures on it as unprecedented.

  1. More seriously, the controversy also seems to reflect a concern that the Washington National Cathedral — and perhaps the Episcopal Church or even all of us — cannot discern the difference between worship and a concert. The Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Anglican Director’s tweet claims, “These aren’t artistic performances, but rather services of Holy Eucharist.” A sample letter of protest (see here) says that liturgical services should be “firmly distinguished” from non-liturgical events.

Ben Crosby’s in-depth Substack worries that we have lost the sense that worship is “not the sort of thing that should be for sale” because it is worship of God, “the wholly Other who graciously revealed himself to us,” not merely the “projection of our own hopes or desires” that might be bought and sold like other valued possessions and experiences for the right reason (like accessibility).  (Crosby also usefully argues that these processing charges are quite different from historical [if still objectionable] pew rents.)

This anxiety may not be misplaced. As the philosopher Matthew Wennemann has recently pointed out, liturgy can be experienced merely aesthetically despite the best intentions and expectations of the liturgist. This need not be oppositional; it may be concealed, and perhaps even from ourselves. The awe and sense of smallness in liturgy can be an “exalted form of humanism, celebrating the dignity of the human person; a celebration of love or kinship between all humanity; some form of civic religion; or maybe even a form of nature worship.”

This is not only true about liturgy. After all, The Washington Post’s 2014 article about the National Cathedral’s entry fees and attempts to innovate ends like this:

“To me, a class is church,” said Conal O’Keefe, 35, an educator who was part of Monday night’s tai chi class. “A religious space is one that’s inviting and asks for quiet. And this is that.”

What does this mean? The nettlesome possibility that we might find ourselves charging for them reminds us that, in themselves, liturgical sublimity and quiet remain insufficient.


  1. I have been coming to the National Cathedral since it was only an Apse, and they were preparing to start the Gloria Tower in earnest. Often, I would come by alone and enter the Cathedral, which, even unfinished, was a place I felt closer to God. I remember the push to build the final Cathedral plan before the master stone masons died out. I came in and still roamed the finished Cathedral regularly.

    I remember when they put the first charge on. I paid, but not being allowed to wonder on my own saddened me. I understand why the charges are necessary; I’ve paid charges at many Cathedrals in the United Kingdom (including Ely). But somehow, it is not the same and I go no longer to a place I loved.

    I could say the same about the US Capitol, and our times.

    • Thanks so much for your very moving comment. I think that we’ll have to think more about how, as you write, “it is not the same…”


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