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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