Pay to pray? Admission charges and church buildings

admit one ticketEvery church building should be open day and night for prayer and refuge. That’s the ideal. When churches are locked, and when they’re not free to enter, we’ve fallen short of the ideal. Let’s agree on that.

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?

Before we get too outraged at churches that charge money, let’s think about several things:

  • Very few church buildings are open for free, public access. Mostly, they’re locked during the week. Sure, there are exceptions, but I’ll stand by my claim. (When I was a rector, the church I served was locked during the week; guilty!) No one who serves in a leadership capacity in a church that’s routinely locked should howl too much about other churches charging admission.
  • Most of the places which charge admission will grant free access for prayer and worship, though times may be restricted. As I recall, St. Paul’s has a chapel that’s always open for prayer for free. The daily offices and masses are celebrated without admission charge. Westminster Abbey offers free daily worship. So it’s not quite correct to see this as “pay to pray” in many cases. Washington National Cathedral says Sundays will be free, and likely other times as well.
  • Many of the people who visit these major tourist sites are not particularly interested in prayer. Like me visiting a Hindu temple, they are tourists not pilgrims. Sure, I may well encounter holiness in another tradition’s site, but my role is tourist. For that reason, it seems fair to charge for entry, just as many other tourist sites charge entry fees. I suspect that many of the busloads who stop by Washington National Cathedral are there as tourists moreso than pilgrims.
  • The places who deal with lots of visitors are also likely to have enormous capital needs with their historic buildings. Certainly that’s true at Washington National Cathedral, where they have the additional burden of earthquake damage repairs. Expecting a worshiping community to fund these structures on their own would require a level of giving that is beyond imagination. In this country, religious buildings are unlikely to receive government grants, and even foundation grants are difficult. Admission charges are likely to be necessary for survival.

No church decides to charge admission easily. I’m sure every one of them would fund their operations differently if they could find a way. Frankly, it’s not great press for the church to do this, which WNC acknowledged in their letter about the new policies. But capital expenses have to be paid. If the choice is cease operations, lock the doors, or charge admission, I’ll take door number three.

It is not abandoning the Gospel to try to figure out how to keep these sites open, especially when entry for corporate worship is free of charge. If we Christians have abandoned the Gospel at all, it’s in our reliance on church buildings, period. I’ve written about that elsewhere, but here we are talking about landmark buildings whose very presence is a witness to the world. It’s vital that most of them stay open for ministry, worship, and even tourism.

On a related note, I hope all Christian houses of worship that are open to the public, for any reason, will find ways to share the Good News with those who enter. Many cathedrals I’ve visited don’t have a single bit of info about Christianity, or at least none that’s visible. The best witness to tourists I’ve seen so far was in some mosques I visited in Istanbul. “If you would like to learn more about Islam, there is a person who can answer your questions at ____.” Near that sign were brochures in a number o languages. We Christians should do no less!

I don’t think it does much good to tell churches they shouldn’t charge admission. They didn’t do it for fun, and they’d love an alternative. So if you don’t want a church to charge admission, make a concrete suggestion and perhaps send them a generous financial gift.

As I said at the outset, no one thinks it’s ideal to charge for entry to a house of prayer. But if that entry fee is required to keep the house of prayer in operation, I think we should all concede its necessity.

By the way, I just made a gift to Washington National Cathedral. If you value their ministry in Washington, in our nation, and in our world, I hope you’ll do the same. If enough of us did that, they could cancel that plan to charge admission. And, while we’re at it, let’s work on getting more of our own churches open for public prayer throughout the week.

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10 Responses

  1. Chrisc says:

    Just a short note. I agree with your logic regarding WNC. It is too bad our other churches are unable to be open more. Are we too worried about our treasures?

  2. Andy Bittner says:

    Thank you. As a front-line WNC employee, whose life may be about to become much more difficult, I cannot thank you enough, because I couldn’t have said it better myself. Comprehensively thoughtful and accurate. Thank you.

  3. Rachel says:

    Really well put sir. Certainly a tough spot to be in.
    Chrisc if by treasures you mean people then I would answer yes. The last church I worked at we made a decision while I was there to lock our doors. It was a painful process, but ultimately the safety of the staff won the day. I don’t recall worrying about stuff being stolen, only people being threatened, not knowing how to handle with dignity to all involved.

  4. Erik Schwarz says:

    Lots of reasonable-sounding rationalizations, but then there is that story about Jesus and the money-changers in the temple. Cathedrals and churches charging admission just seems wrong. Maybe if the Washington National Cathedral had cultivated ties to its Diocese there would be more internal sources of support. WNC is not a widely-beloved institution in the DC area and is perceived as arrogant. So maybe soaking visitors is the only option. Oh, and I’m not a member of the “religious right” (whatever that means nowadays) but rather an Episcopalian and a former WNC staff member, long ago in happier days. P.S. I have spent lots of time in many Hindu temples both in India and the West, and I never have been charged admission.

  5. Steve Ayres says:

    Best wishes to WNC. Old North is still free, but challenged by limited resources. It takes a lot of staff, volunteers, and contractors to manage the impact of 500,000 visitors a year on an almost three hundred year old building. Who knows how long we can remain free?

    Ministry with tourists is one of the most profound and rewarding ministries in the church. We touch so many lives that have never darkened the doors of a church, let alone an Episcopal Church. If you live near an “oft visited church” consider volunteering there. You will find the time rewarding.

  6. Fr. N.J.A. Humphrey says:

    My first church, in Baltimore Co., MD was (and I think still is) open 24/7/365. My second church, in DC, is open for services 365 days of the year (366 on Leap Years!) and my current church is open from at least 8 am to 6 pm 365 days a year, with regular services right now on every day except Saturday. Whether one charges admission or not is less important to me than whether it is open and available for prayer or not. Though I never mind it when someone puts a couple of bucks in to keep the heat and lights on…not to mention to maintain the historic fabric of a place soaked in prayer.

  7. Tom Rightmyer says:

    Many churches have a contribution box at the entrance for gifts to help with upkeep, but so long as the state continues not to tax church property we need to keep our churches open to all – and we need to continue to do so regardless of state action. Grace is free – and so should entrance to the church.

  8. Jannine says:

    I just have to wonder, are all of the music and other programs necessary. I wonder if the admission fee would still be necessary if all of the non building related costs were cut?

  9. Barbara says:

    I’ve served two parishes which made the painful decision to lock their doors or change their locks. The first was a village church that had never, ever been locked in 180 years. We did this because of vandalism and the threat of fire, but posted notices that anyone in the office could be contacted to open the church for visitors.

    The second parish had decided, about 8 years ago, to keep their doors locked on weekdays, and gave keys to leaders of 7 non-church groups so they could access the buildings for meetings. Keys were passed about without accountability, by church members and outside groups, despite promises to keep the office informed of keys changing hands.

    We spent months dealing with the issues of an intruder who spent nights in the basement and left beer cans and cigarette butts behind, as well as causing some minor vandalism. We were prepared to help this person find shelter and connect him or her with all potential services, but he/she he eluded us. The police were concerned enough to set up a motion-detecting camera and bring in a K-9 to search the nether regions of the basement which officers could not reach.

    We worried about the potential for fire, danger to our folks, and any injury to our intruder, as well as our liability. At the same time we had problems with an angry former employee who disrupted a worship service and made people from outside groups uncomfortable when there were night meetings. We enlisted the help of all outside group leaders to monitor folks entering and leaving meetings, and they were vigilant because they suspected an individual who attended meetings. They knew the privilege of using our premises was at stake, and, interestingly, brought up that subject before we even raised it.

    After several months of deliberation we decided to replace all existing locks, install some new ones, and use keys that are coded and registered to each holder. They can only be duplicated by the locksmith who made them (it’s a relatively new lock/key system, patented for the next 15 years), with written permission from two authorized people at the church. This enterprise cost almost $4,000.

    What happened to our intruder? With the help of outside groups and their contacts, as well as Social Services and the police, we narrowed it down to a person whose application for public housing in a fully-furnished and equipped apartment had, ironically, been approved, just before she became our intruder. But no one could find her to get her set up because she kept moving around. Her fear kept her away from the very people who wanted to support her, and that is a tragedy played out all too often.

    These parishes had no desire to charge visitors, though they certainly could have used the proceeds toward maintenance of their buildings and grounds. Visitors are always welcome into these churches when someone is available to let them in for private time or tours. While we would prefer to have an open-door policy for those in need, we also have to consider the safety of our staff, so main doors to the offices are locked. The doorbells work!