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National Cathedral Drops Christmas Fee After Complaints

By Kirk Petersen

After a firestorm of social media protest, the Washington National Cathedral on November 28 abruptly eliminated a mandatory fee for some Christmas services that had been announced just the previous day.

“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 cathedral said in a statement on its website.

The controversy is new, but the charge itself is not. “Since 2009, we have used advance passes, and charged a small processing fee, for reserved seating at our most popular services. The processing fees helped to defray the cost of managing ticketing for thousands of seats,” the statement said.

Regarding the controversy, “why this year and not last year? I really can’t say, I honestly don’t know,” said Kevin Eckstrom, chief communications officer for the cathedral. “I’d love to know that answer myself.” He explained that the same $7 fee was charged last year.

Advance passes are still required for five services from December 22 to 24, but the fee is now optional. Prospective worshipers who register online for the services are now given a choice between a $7 pass and a $0 pass. The cathedral will refund fees already paid on request.

The cathedral website uses the term “in-person passes” for the Christmas services, to differentiate from the “tickets” the same website sells for daily sightseeing tours and events such as concerts. Nothing in the prior messaging described the cost as a processing fee, leading one social media poster to accuse the cathedral of “reinventing” the reason for the fee.

But third-party ticket companies charge processing fees that sometimes can be considerably more than $7 per ticket. At FedEx Field, across the border in Maryland, an $80 nosebleed ticket to the Washington Commanders versus the Miami Dolphins on December 3 will incur additional service and processing fees of $21.35.

“We don’t use a third party, it’s all internal. But over the course of about five days or so, we will have 25,000 people or more come through the cathedral for various concerts and services at Christmastime, and so that’s 25,000 passes that need to be printed, sometimes mailed or distributed, we have to hire extra staff to do that,” Eckstrom said.

“Before we started doing this, we would have people start lining up outside the cathedral the day before, in December, and it was cold,” Eckstrom said. “So you’d have people waiting outside for 24 hours to get in with no guarantee that they could. And it just wasn’t a great experience for them.”

The availability of the passes for certain Christmas services was posted on Facebook at 10 a.m. Monday, November 27, and people started posting complaining comments within minutes. But the early comments were all about the website being overloaded. The first complaint about the cost was at 12:23: “This is a sad example of mixing religion and money.”

But that opened the floodgates. More than 400 comments were posted within 24 hours, many of them including words like “shameful,” “a disgrace,” and “evil.” One of the more temperate early comments read: “Charging for concerts or even tours of the space is quite alright. Charging for liturgies of the Church is absolutely not.”

Biblical references abounded. “I remember reading about Jesus having a pretty strong reaction to a religious worship center charging for services,” one said. Another suggested charging 30 pieces of silver next year.

The controversy highlights the perpetual dilemma churches face in balancing the imperatives of modeling Christian charity while generating revenue to pay the bills.

A church — as opposed to “the Church” — is among other things a business. It’s generally a nonprofit and exempt from many taxes, but it’s a corporate entity with financial obligations. If a church fails to pay its electric bill for a long enough time, the lights will go out.

Washington National Cathedral is a huge business. It’s located on 59 acres of prime real estate in the nation’s capital, three miles northwest of the White House. The cathedral is a major tourist attraction, with more than 400,000 visitors each year. It has a seating capacity of about 3,200. State funerals are held there, including for presidents, but despite the word “National” in the name, it is owned by the Diocese of Washington, not by the government.

The cathedral has 85 full-time employees, so its payroll alone is measured in millions of dollars. For years it has charged admission for sightseeing, currently $18 for adults, and routinely sells tickets for concerts and cultural events.

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