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Rev. Winnie Varghese

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Washington National Cathedral Charges Admission

Posted: 11/26/2013 2:58 pm

This time of year I walk around humming something like this and now often with this disturbing visual of Stephen Colbert.

Advent is a season of expectation in the church. Advent is the season before Christmas during which we anticipate the birth of Jesus and the return of the Christ, the restoration of Creation. If you don't like the cultic storytelling around a campfire component of religion, you won't like this stuff, but you could read this if you like it but worry you are insulting your God-given intellect in doing so.

In this season and the upcoming ones, we zoom in on hospitality and open doors. Doors like the ones that were closed to the holy family. Doors of all kinds that keep some out and some in.

The Washington National Cathedral, an Episcopal cathedral in Washington, D.C., is going to start charging $10 to come inside at times that are not for worship. So if you are a visitor, you could still locate the Darth Vader gargoyle gratis, but it would cost you $10 to see the interior of the magnificent space, unless you are there to worship or pray. You can read more about it here.

I am a priest. I know we don't do these kinds of things just to get better bathroom fixtures, except for this guy. We end up charging for admittance or closing the doors because we are tasked not just with making everyone feel welcome, but with the stewardship or care of buildings for the support of mission. Mission means what we believe God is calling us to do through the Gospel for the good of the world.

You might be angry at the idea of a charge to enter a church. You might think that these grand buildings are the problem. I think it is exactly the opposite. Allowing those that visit to contribute to the care of the space is completely appropriate. I think it is too easy to pretend we are doing a good, a ministry, simply by leaving the building open, especially when we are confused as to what the legacy of some of these magnificent buildings could be.

Unlike public parks and libraries we are not staffed by tax dollars. So, when you throw your fro-yo cup and mini pink eating instrument over the fence onto the yards at St. Mark's, Jimmy or I will need to pick that up. When you let your dog use the yard, cut through and drop a cigarette or other thing on the path, I need to insure that someone is paid by the efforts of the congregation to clean up after you.

If our doors were left wide open all day, as we are told by Episcopal gurus on growth that we should do, we would have to find a way to staff the Sanctuary, and keep it clear of other activity. I find it hard to believe that having an outsized personal prayer space or one's picture taken next to the Stuyvesant window in any way serves our community at the scale that we should or builds the community of the church.

Free and open to all -- at all times might sound reasonable and just. Our motto is "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You," but I think that means to church services and ministries, not for tourist pics and littering. For that we can't stop you, but we can let you know there is a cost to us. Do we really believe that letting visitors walk around for free is us doing evangelism?

At a much smaller scale, our church in New York gets a lot of visitors who come to see the gravesite of Peter Stuyvesant. When I happen to encounter some tourists and take the time to walk them around or answer their questions, they often put a $20 in my hand. They are grateful to have seen the site. They are appreciative of my time. They want to participate in supporting it. It is a pittance, and it is appropriate.

For those of you who do not face multimillion-dollar deficits in operating and capital costs, this might be one conversation to sit out. When you feel the smugness creeping up in you, ask it to scoot over and make room for the baby Jesus.

I was told recently by a visiting clergy person that we should open our doors during the week so we could grow. I am often told to do this by Episcopalians from other places. These people don't ask why the doors are closed. That would have been a good question.

We are growing. We are almost ten times the size we were five years ago. Still small numbers, but from 30-40 to closer to 300 overall. Everything about this church is growing, and we are taking on enormous building issues that will make this building accessible and beautiful for generations to come. We have a great public voice. We feed the hungry, and we are growing as a community that is visibly diverse in every way. It's like a church growth dream but with church doors shut tight all week. The doors will be closed during the week most of the time so that the award-winning arts project that rents our space can create a set and rehearse. That income means we can grow a congregation and work for the gospel justice that is the work of the church (also called ministry) on this historic site.

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.

 

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