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Augustine's chair

church architecture 6

Augustine's chairTHE PRESIDER’S CHAIR and THE CATHEDRA present particular problems for contemporary liturgy and liturgical layout. The cathedra is the bishop’s chair.

We don’t want to place the presider’s chair to give the impression of a throne, or the presider as judge.

Presider’s chair, lectern, and altar form three foci for the Eucharist (the font is a fourth focus in the worship environment).

If some (most/all) of the seating follows the monastic model of facing each other, the presider’s chair could be in the place where the abbot/abbess would traditionally sit (these are the only examples I could easily find: here and here; maybe some of you can give a better example).

A cathedral is a building which stops the cathedra from getting wet. The cathedra should have a significant place in the cathedral. In the Christchurch cathedral (NZ), before the quakes, there were three or four different cathedras. The previous bishop was happy to use any or none of these cathedra. The current bishop chose one of the cathedras and had it moved to a position of focus for the particular service.

Many (Anglican) churches have a “bishop’s chair” which is used by the bishop when present.

A significant question is: when the bishop is not present, does the presider sit on the bishop’s chair, on the cathedra? In a contemporary cathedral would we have a presider’s chair separate from the cathedra – or would we have the cathedra for the bishop equal the  presider’s chair in the cathedral [so that the dean, or whoever is presiding in the bishop’s absence, sits on the cathedra when leading a service]?

If you are a bishop reading this, I would particularly value your preference in comments: would you reserve the cathedra for the bishop alone, or, in your absence, would you have a priest represent you by using the cathedra; and why? [Non-bishops, comment away as well, of course!]

Fascinatingly, there is no mention of the presider’s chair nor of the cathedra in the Architectural Design Guidelines (PDF link)

Lists of bishops traditionally (some will be surprised) list (unlike episcopi vagantes who tend to make lists of who consecrated whom) who succeeded whom as bishop of the place. Apostolic succession is less about hands on heads than bums on seats.

The question is not unrelated to debate about what a bishop is.

Some would argue there are only two orders – oversight and service (and that πρεσβύτερος, presbuteros presbyter/priest and ἐπίσκοπος, epískopos, overseer/bishop are indistinguishable at least in the New Testament period). This perspective sees priests as having the authority to ordain (for example) but delegating this authority to the senior presbyter (called the “bishop”) who ordains on behalf of the presbyters.

The alternative approach sees the bishop as the primary ordained minister. Priests, in this approach, preside in the bishop’s stead in the bishop’s absence. From this perspective when the bishop is present as part of leading the service, the bishop would take all the parts normally appropriate for the presider. Many will have experienced a service where the bishop is present, but the first time the bishop does anything is suddenly taking over from whoever is leading, to absolve (this is translated in many services with a lay person leading a service and a priest suddenly appearing to absolve!)

This post is, hopefully, useful for a number of contexts. It is particularly offered as one in a series for reflection as we begin planning the building of a number of church buildings after the closing of dozens of church buildings because of the Canterbury earthquakes. Today, of course, is two years since the 7.1 quake that started this tragic sequence of quakes – we continue to hold in our prayers all those who are affected, and wisdom, patience, and courage as we move into the future.

Previous posts:

This post, and the previous related ones, with your comments, are forwarded to those planning the Canterbury churches. Can you add some ideas, responses, even further questions to help people’s reflections…

image: Augustine’s chair (source)

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34 thoughts on “church architecture 6”

  1. [We don’t want to place the presider’s chair to give the impression of a throne, or the presider as judge.]

    I agree with this; would more presiders thought so. I used to know one bishop who would routinely refer to it as his “throne,” which disgusted me. (“Who left a candle on my throne”? after one poor acolyte had set down a torch on one of the cathedra’s arms.)

  2. My TEC parish has one “Bishop’s Chair” that is reserved for bishops when any of them are presiding and preaching. They’re tucked off into side chapels when they’re not in use. Our altar is flanked by two presider’s chairs, which are just as venerable Victorian as the Bishop’s chair, but not as ornate.

    1. Thanks, Karin. Why are there two “presider’s chairs” (I notice you still use the singular). Do you always have two presiders at each service? How does that work? From your description, clearly they cannot communicate. Do you ever have a deacon? Where does s/he sit? If there is a service with one presider, is the other presider’s chair moved, or does the presider just pick one of the two randomly and leave the other empty? Does a non-bishop ever use the “Bishop’s Chair” (I notice your second sentence refers to it in the plural?)? What happens to the other two presiders’ chairs when the bishop is presiding? Thanks again for this description of a practice and I look forward to any further explanations. Blessings.

  3. Hi Bosco,

    On the basis that a priest functions in a parish with the bishop’s licence in hand as the vicar(ious) representation of the bishop, I have no difficulty in sitting in the ‘bishop’s chair’ in a parish. I also have no problem if in the church designated as a diocese’s cathedral, the ‘cathedra’ is kept empty when the bishop is not present as a means of underlining the symbolism of that chair as the key furniture distinguishing the cathedral from other churches in the diocese.

    (As an aside, occasionally I got to sit in the permanent cathedra of the Nelson Cathedral. A magnificent cathedra with high sides etc, useful for leaning one’s head against during a long sermon!)

    1. Thanks, Peter. As I understand your comment, you would be fine either way – but in building a cathedral a decision needs to be made – will there be a presider’s chair separate to the cathedra or not? If separate: Where to place these in the space? What to do when one is not being used (eg. the bishop is presiding)? (As to your aside: were you presiding from Nelson’s cathedra, or just using it as a spare chair? If the latter, what is happening to the symbolism, especially with such a magnificent high-sides one?) Blessings.

  4. Hmm. I write as an area bishop without a Cathedral. The Cathedra in Oxford Cathedral is reserved for the use of the diocesan bishop on a small number of ceremonial occasions. Most parish churches have a chair which is used by presiding bishops alone and stowed when not in use, often on the North side of the sanctuary. I’m told one of these is the Cathedra that was made for a diocesan bishop of Buckingham in 1911 — the new diocese was stillborn because of the first world war. Another was originally designed as a commode. They usually have to be movable, so as to be useful at confirmations and licensings. I hope this information helps!

    1. Thanks, Bishop Alan, for being the first bishop to add your thoughts and experience. To be clear – you do not use the cathedra in the Oxford Cathedral (and no one but the diocesan bishop does); but when you are in a parish church (in your area, or anywhere?) you would use the “bishop’s chair”? Do you think this is the way to do these things – or would you alter them? The need for the cathedra to be movable is interesting – might there be a configuration that allows the cathedra to remain in a constant position? Thanks again, and blessings.

  5. Proper Cathedra should be reserved for Bishops alone, whether they are Diocesan, Suffragan or Assisting. The Cathedral Dean, any associate Priests and Deacons have separate seats/prayer desks from the Bishop.

    At All Saints’ Cathedral, Edmonton, we have two Cathedra, although the second one isn’t officially one. The main Cathedra is in the Chancel. A secondary one is in the Sanctuary itself. The Dean has a seat in the Sanctuary opposite of the Altar for this secondary Cathedra. If the Dean is not celebrating then the Celebrant Priest can “get away with” sitting there.


    1. Thanks, “Maple Anglican” for your contribution. Please can you use your ordinary name – that is the normal practice on this site (unless there is a particular reason for pseudonymity – and there appears no need for this in your comment above). What is interesting is that the practice in your comment is quite different to that made, above, by Bishop Alan. Either we work through to an agreed position appropriate currently, or we agree that there is (can be) no agreement. This is, of course, awkward in planning a new cathedral. Whilst you describe what happens, you do not give a reason. Having two cathedras in one cathedral appears, to me, to be particularly difficult to reason to – particularly in designing a new cathedral. Blessings.

  6. The cathedra is only in the cathedral. That chair may be in byzantine placement–behind the altar or on the liturgical north side of the church.

    At the parish level, there is no cathedra [as in a permanent] place] because the cathedra is in the cathedral. At the parochial level you have a chair–the presidential or presider’s chair. There is only one presider’s chair.

    When the bishop is the presider at the parish,he sits in the presidential or presider’s chair if he is in fact the presider.

    Having seen and on occasion sat on the so-called “bishop’s chair” in parochial settings, I would be offended, if I were the Bishop, because generally they are the most uncomfortable chairs made in Christendom.

    1. Thanks, Fr Ed, for your comments. You make several statements without explanation or reason – it would really help if your points were expanded with some reasoning. For example: why do you place the cathedra on the north? [York Minster immediately springs to mind, where it is on the south]. Blessings.

    1. That looks like after about 5 minutes of sitting in it that it would be very uncomfortable. And nowhere to lean one’s head during a long sermon!

  7. I personally do not like sitting centrally behind the altar when presiding: it feels like the presenter of a game show! I prefer to sit to one side, out of the way. The focus of the Service of the Word should be the Bible, that of the Eucharist, the altar with the president standing in a convenient position. You can preside over the celebration without standing there like a stookie!

    1. Yes, Tony. You provide another image for what I described as being like a judge sitting behind a desk. It is possible to have the presider’s chair behind the altar – if it is some distance away IMO (I really need to draw it, or show photos). To the side is also good. Blessings.

  8. As the cathedral in Paris was a parish church at first, the cathedra was added later and is located to the left of the altar. It is very difficult to lead the liturgy from it. As I understand it, the seat originally was that place where the bishop sat to teach, as well as lead liturgy. Thus it should have a central location.
    That said, I always sat in the bishop’s chair in my three parishes, serving as bishop’s delegate, and I encourage priests to do so. There is symbolic value to the council of presbyters with the bishop, as well as the ‘presence” of the bishop in every parish of the diocese.
    On the other hand, the dean probably ought not to sit in the cathedra when the bishop is absent.
    Thanks, Bosco, for initiating this interesting thread.

  9. At the rate we are going we will have gotten rid of bishops and priests in forty years so the question is mute. Stick the chair on the curb and get on with being a congregational “church.” this whole question is about as depressing as I can handle this morning.

  10. The best cathedra I’ve ever seen is in the Episcopal cathedral in Philadelphia. In renovating the old church, they put in a marble bench all along the wall of the apse for the presbyters (I believe that this is called a presbyterium). In the center of that bench they put in arm rests on either side of that center seat. This is the bishop’s cathedra. The bishop has no seat save for one in the midst of the college of presbyters. When the bishop is absent, that seat remains vacant as a reminder of the bishop’s ministry amidst the presbyters and people. The seat is not gaudy, nor does it speak to the bishop somehow having more dignity than others. It is wonderful.

    You can see a few images of the interior of the Philadelphia Cathedral, including the presbyterium and cathedra, here:

    1. This set-up reminds me of the old pulpit with reader’s desk combo that was common in reformation churches in England.

  11. As I understand it, since time immemorial, the cathedra is for the bishop alone to seat on, and usually only with his express license and permission can another bishop (be it visiting or auxiliary) can use it. The Archbishop of the province, any Cardinal present or the Pope would be ceded this privilege.
    The cathedra would naturally be on the liturgical easternmost wall or apse, behind the altar, since it is after the roman magistrate’s tradition that cathedrals and such things exist in our religion.
    [Once altars began being built against the wall, the cathedras were placed on the gospel side as if ‘in choir’ looking perpendicular to what they originally did, and west of the altar in easternmost part of the area known as the crossing or quire.]
    Other celebrants, would seat on a place called the sedilia, along with his deacon/subdeacon on the epistle side of either the presbytery or the choir/quire. These seats are often either carved unto the wall or built of wood as a three seater bench or some such convention to distinguish it from what a cathedra looks like.
    Only in the case of a celebrating bishop (be it auxiliary or from another diocese, visiting another’s cathedral, and not having licence to celebrate from the cahedra) would seat on a faldistorium (folding stool) either to the side or in the front of the altar.

    Now, in a parish, its priest would preside from the seat on the easternmost wall or apse just like a bishop does in his cathedral. The difference lies in that for a priest usually no more than one or 2 steps would make up the tribune upon which the chair is placed and NO canopy/tester/dais would surmount it, as would be the case for a Bishop in his cathedral, where consequently, 3 steps would be the norm as to the tribune upon which rests his cathedra. In the case of a Bishop, Archbishop, Cardinal or Pope were to visit and/or celebrate in a parish church, they would seat on this said chair AND it would be custommary to raise or hang a canopy of honour over it and hang their coat of arms on the back to denote the change in dignity of the person seated on the chair. All this to be taken down before the parish priest should ever seat back there…
    [The parish churches with altars on the easternmost wall/apse, the priests simply seat on the sedilia on the epistle side as mentioned in the cathedrals, and should a Bishop, Archbishop, Cardinal or Pope visit, a temporary seat is prepared on the opposite side to the sedilia (the gospel side) with a canopy of honour and 3,4,5 or 6 steps depending on the hierarchy of the visiting prelate.
    Hope it helps.

    1. Thanks for your visit and comment “klavecentesca”. Might I first ask you to use your ordinary name on this site. There appears to me no reason for pseudonymity. I wonder if you have reference for all your points – both the history, and also for the reasons. Blessings.

  12. Harry Tothill

    Nice to catch up the other evening!

    I was just having a read of this and something else occurred to me. When I was a chorister at ChristChurch Cathedral we used to refer to the sides of the choir as “Decani” and “Cantoris” – as do many cathedral choirs. Some googling informs me that “Decani” means “of the Dean”, whereas “Cantoris” means “of the Cantor”.

    In most cathedral choirs, Decani sings the higher part and Cantoris the lower (this is apparent from much sheet music which marks the parts as such). What is interesting was that in Christchurch it was always the other way around – Decani would sing the Cantoris (lower) part and Cantoris the Decani part (normally high). I always wondered what the reason was for this.

    It appears that in some cathedrals, the parts are swapped because the Dean/Cantor sits on the other side of the church, due to the position of their chairs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decani). Whether that was the case in ChristChurch cathedral or not, I can’t recall.

    Potentially one of the Directors of Music may have previously served at a Cathedral that operated the reverse naming system and, on moving to ChristChurch, instated the naming system they were used to!

    It might be something they want to consider for the new Cathedral if so – a tie to the old cathedral? It was always a bit quirky! Nonetheless, a little bit of consistency may be helpful, so that everyone is singing off the same songsheet (so to speak).

    Mind you, if no one has even thought where to put the jolly chair then I highly doubt they’ll put thought into what they call the place where they put it, but you never know!

    1. Thanks, Harry. This was something I was trying to get my head around recently; and the connections to the different ways that monasteries organise(d) themselves. Who knows… a future blog post… Easter Season Blessings.

  13. My chapel has three recessed sedilia in the south sanctuary wall, and a bishop’s chair that stands on the north side. It is not possible to preside while sitting recessed in the wall! I still make a point of sitting there between the collect and the gospel at the eucharist. They are traditional stone sedilia with three places for subdeacon, celebrant and deacon — not that I’ve ever had more than two people sat there.

    The bishop’s chair is moved to central position when a bishop presides. Even a movable sedile shouldn’t be central, but to the south of the axis. I don’t call the bishop’s chair cathedra, as it isn’t one. The bishop’s chair is a practical piece of furniture for episcopal ministry, and it’s movable. The cathedra is the symbolic heart of the diocese. Making it movable is a bit like making a font movable: jolly handy, but undermining the symbolism. The origin of cathedra is the teaching chair: sitting is the classical posture for teaching. John Chrysostom stood to preach and started the trend.

    The other model is the synthronon at which the bishop and priests sit together, with the cathedra central, and the priests’ benches radiating either side. This traditional model was a fixture in the apse of some ancient cathedrals. Not really a synthronon, the most impressive cathedra I’ve seen is that of the Bishop of Norwich, which is mounted high up stone steps behind the high altar.

  14. I ended up on this interesting page while trying to understand the liturgical background of the furniture in the Anglican church of St. Iberius in Wexford, Ireland. This church has in its apse that serves as chancel no less than four chairs, one pair in the southern section close to the pulpit and the other pair in the northern section near the prayer desk and lectern. Each of these pairs consist of a comfortable arm chair with elaborate wood carving and smaller chair without armrests. This picture shows the configuration: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wexford_St._Iberius_Church_Apse_II_2012_10_03.jpg

    This church belongs to the diocese of Cashel and Ossory which incorporates six historical dioceses and consequently six cathedrals including six cathedras. St. Iberius in Wexford is, however, none of them.

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