Washington National Cathedral, like many houses of worship, is more crowded than usual during the holiday season.

Episcopalians and non-Episcopalians alike flock to the building to see its famous sanctuary decorated for Advent and hear favorite songs. Three of the cathedral’s Christmas concerts appear on The Washington Post’s list of the best holiday events in D.C.

Due to the typical surge in attendance, the cathedral for several years has been requiring people who are planning to attend certain holiday services to register in advance. And this year, the registration process involved a $7 processing fee.

“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,” cathedral leaders said in a Nov. 28 statement.

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Despite the historical precedent for the fee, this year’s $7 one sparked outrage. Within hours of the cathedral posting on Facebook that Christmas service passes were available — but not mentioning the $7 fee — dozens of people had left comments criticizing the cathedral for creating a financial barrier to entry, according to Episcopal News Service.

“A community of faith reducing public worship to just another option of paid Christmas entertainment?” commented one Episcopal priest from Brooklyn, New York. “If a congregation can’t do church without selling tickets, something is wrong.”

Others were more frustrated about the lack of transparency than the fee itself.

“Some suggested they would be open to paying a minimal charge if the cathedral identified a worthy purpose for the fee,” Episcopal News Service reported.

The cathedral responded quickly to the backlash. One day after angry comments started rolling in, church leaders issued their Nov. 28 statement offering more details about the purpose of the fee and saying that paying the fee would no longer be required.

“At the Cathedral, our services are welcoming and available to everyone. 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 statement said.

Advance passes will still control attendance for many holiday events, including the Christmas Eve worship service, but it won’t cost money to reserve one.

“For those who would like to voluntarily help, that option is still available,” the cathedral’s statement said.

Tickets to church services

Washington National Cathedral is far from the only house of worship that has charged fees to reserve seats at worship services, and it’s also far from the only one to face pushback over the practice.

In 2013, then-New York Times Beliefs columnist Mark Oppenheimer wrote about the Jewish community’s ongoing debate over whether synagogues should charge for seats at Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services.

“While nearly all congregations offer discounts or free tickets based on need, the regular ticket price can prompt sticker shock. To take an extreme example, Temple Emanu-El, on East 65th Street in Manhattan, charges $2,970 for the best seats, which includes annual membership,” Oppenheimer wrote.

He noted that the fees were an important fundraising opportunity for synagogues that could not count on steady donations — or steady attendance — throughout the year.

It’s less controversial for houses of worship to sell tickets to secular events that they’re hosting, like orchestra concerts. Washington National Cathedral sells seats to such events and also charges visitors who want to take a tour, according to Episcopal News Service.

“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 article said.

In a statement emailed to Episcopal News Service, the cathedral noted that it only institutes the advance pass system for seven worship services each year while offering around 300 others that are open to spur-of-the-moment, walk-in guests.

Additionally, services, including the most popular holiday ones, can be viewed for free online at cathedral.org.