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A cathedral is a Christian church that contains the seat of a bishop. In more detailed terms, it is a religious building for worship, specifically of a denomination with an episcopal hierarchy, such as the Roman Catholic, Anglican and some Lutheran churches, which serves as a bishop's seat, and thus as the central church of a diocese.

There are certain deviations on the use of the term "cathedral;" for example, some pre-Reformation cathedrals in Scotland now within the Church of Scotland still retain the term cathedral, despite the Church's Presbyterian polity which does not have bishops. As cathedrals are often particularly impressive edifices, the term is often used incorrectly as a designation for any large important church.


The word cathedral is derived from the Latin noun "cathedra" (seat or chair), and refers to the presence of the bishop's (or archbishop's) chair or throne. In the ancient world, the chair was the symbol of a teacher (and thus of the bishop's role as teacher), and also of an official presiding as a magistrate (and thus of the bishop's role in governing a diocese).

The word cathedral, though now grammatically used as a noun, is originally the adjective in the phrase "cathedral church", from the Latin "ecclesia cathedralis." The seat marks the place set aside in the prominent church of the diocese for the head of that diocese and is therefore a major symbol of authority.

History and organization

In the Canon law of the Catholic Church, the relationship of the bishop to his cathedral is often compared to the relationship of a pastor to the parochial church. Both are pastors over an area (the diocese for the bishop and the parish for the pastor) and both are rectors over a building (the cathedral for the bishop and the parish church for the pastor). In view of this, canon lawyers often extend the metaphor and speak of the cathedral church as the one church of the diocese, and all others are deemed chapels in their relation to it.

Cathedral churches may have different degrees of dignity:

  • A parish church that was formerly a cathedral is known as a proto-cathedral.
  • A parish church that is temporarily serving as the cathedral or co-cathedral of a diocese is known as a pro-cathedral.
  • A church that serves as an additional cathedral of a diocesan bishop is known as a co-cathedral.
  • The church of a diocesan bishop is known as a cathedral.
  • A church to which the other diocesan cathedral churches of a province are suffragan is a metropolitan cathedral.
  • A church under which are ranged metropolitical churches and their provinces is a primatial cathedral.
  • A church to which primatial, metropolitical, and cathedral churches alike owe allegiance is a patriarchal cathedral.

The cathedral and the clergy

Early Middle Ages

The history of the body of clergy attached to the cathedral church is obscure, and in each case local considerations affected its development. However the main features which were more or less common to all.

Originally, the bishop and cathedral clergy formed a kind of religious community, which, while not in the true sense a monastery, was nevertheless often called a monasterium, the word not having the restricted meaning which it afterwards acquired.

Late Middle Ages

During the 10th and 11th centuries, the cathedral clergy became more definitely organized, and were divided into two classes. One was that of a monastic establishment of some recognized order of monks, often the Benedictines; while the other class was that of a college of clergy, bound by no vows except those of their ordination, but governed by a code of statutes or canons. Hence the name of canon. In this way arose the distinction between the monastic and secular cathedral churches.

In the case of monastic cathedral churches, the internal government was that of the religious order to which the chapter belonged, and all the members kept perpetual residence.

The alternative of this was the cathedral ruled by a secular chapter; the dignities of provost, dean, precentor, chancellor, treasurer, etc., came into being for the regulation and good order of the church and its services, while the non-residence of the canons, rather than their perpetual residence, became the rule, and led to their duties being performed by a body of "vicars," who officiated for them at the services of the church.

The secular cathedral chapter

The normal constitution of the chapter of a secular cathedral church comprised four dignitaries (there might be more), in addition to the canons. These are the Dean, the Precentor, the Chancellor and the Treasurer. These four dignitaries, occupying the four corner stalls in the choir, are called in many of the statutes the quatuor majores personae of the church.


The dean (decanus) seems to have derived his designation from the Benedictine "dean" who had ten monks under his charge. The dean came into existence to supply the place of the provost in the internal management of the church and chapter.


Next to the dean (as a rule) is the precentor (primicerius, cantor, etc.), whose special duty is that of regulating the musical portion of the services. He presides in the dean's absence, and occupies the corresponding stall on the left side, although there are exceptions to this rule, where, as at St Paul's, the archdeacon of the cathedral city ranks second and occupies what is usually the precentor's stall.


The third dignitary is the chancellor (scholasticus, écoldtre, capiscol, magistral, etc.), who must not be confounded with the chancellor of the diocese. The chancellor of the cathedral church is charged with the oversight of its schools, ought to read divinity lectures, and superintend the lections in the choir and correct slovenly readers. He is often the secretary and librarian of the chapter. In the absence of the dean and precentor he is president of the chapter. The easternmost stall, on the dean's side of the choir, is usually assigned to him.


The fourth dignitary is the treasurer (custos, sacrisla, cheficier). He is guardian of the fabric, and of all the furniture and ornaments of the church, and his duty was to provide bread and wine for the Eucharist, and candles and incense, and he regulated such matters as the ringing of the bells. The treasurer's stall is opposite to that of the chancellor.

Additional clergy

In many cathedral churches, there are additional dignitaries, such as the praelector, subdean, vice-chancellor, succentor-canonicorum, and others, who came into existence to supply the places of other absent dignitaries, for non-residence was the fatal blot of the secular churches, and in this they contrasted very badly with the monastic churches, where all the members were in continuous residence. Besides the dignitaries there were the ordinary canons, each of whom, as a rule, held a separate prebend or endowment, besides receiving his share of the common funds of the church.

For the most part the canons also speedily became non-resident, and this led to the distinction of residentiary and non-residentiary canons, till in most churches the number of resident canons became definitely limited in number, and the non-residentiary canons, who no longer shared in the common funds, became generally known as prebendaries only, although by their non-residence they did not forfeit their position as canons, and retained their votes in chapter like the others.

This system of non-residence led also to the institution of vicars choral, each canon having his own vicar, who sat in his stall in his absence, and when the canon was present, in the stall immediately below, on the second form. The vicars had no place or vote in chapter, and, though irremovable except for offences, were the servants of their absent canons whose stalls they occupied, and whose duties they performed.

Relationship between the chapter and the bishop

There was no distinction between the monastic cathedral chapters and those of the secular canons, in their relation to the bishop or diocese. In both cases the chapter was the bishop's consilium which he was bound to consult on all important matters and without doing so he could not act. Thus, a judicial decision of a bishop needed the confirmation of the chapter before it could be enforced. He could not change the service books, or "use" of the church or diocese, without capitular consent, and there are many episcopal acts, such as the appointment of a diocesan chancellor, or vicar general, which still need confirmation by the chapter, but the older theory of the chapter as the bishop's council in ruling the diocese has become a thing of the past.

Functions of cathedrals

The role of the cathedral is chiefly to serve God in the community, through its hierarchical and organizational position in the church structure. A cathedral, its bishop and dignitaries have traditional functions which are mostly religious in nature, but may also be closely associated with the civil and communal life of the city and region. The formal cathedral services are linked to the cycle of the year and respond to the seasons of the Northern Hemisphere. The cathedral marks times of national and local civic celebration and sadness with special services. The funerals of those famous within the community are invariably held at cathedrals. Some cathedrals, such as Aachen and Rheims are the traditional coronation places of monarchs. The bells of a cathedral are traditionally used signal the outbreak and the ending of war.