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What is a Cathedral?


In this brief video, I try and present the essence of a cathedral.

This video of me is one of seven expert video presentations for the Christchurch diocesan synod as it considers what to do about the earthquake-damaged cathedral at the heart of Christchurch. The Bishop and Church Property Trustees have now entrusted this decision to the synod meeting in September.

Some of the material in the other videos is now outdated. The offer from the Government ($25 million) and from the Council ($10 million) affect the financial considerations of the videos.

The Christchurch Anglican Cathedral is a very controversial topic.

Please restrict your comments on this site to the liturgical and theological content of my video. I will not allow comments advocating for or against certain actions (past, present, future), what should have happened in the Square, or what you think needs to be done now. If your comment stays with the generic idea of a cathedral, rather than the specifics of the one in the Square, that will be fine.

The rest of the videos are found here (click this link).

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4 thoughts on “What is a Cathedral?”

  1. One element of “what is a cathedral” is its height, the “heavenward direction” of the spire and (relating to your mention of numinous) the feeling of awe and grandness inside the nave. I cannot think of a cathedral that doesn’t have height as a feature (even if its height is now dwarfed by big new buildings around it). Two points from that:

    1. I wonder if a more valuable physical characteristic today might be quietness? That is in short supply where high buildings, the environment of most cathedrals, are plentiful.

    2. (More importantly, I think), the traditional goal of achieving height carries the risk of “showing off” people’s wealth and abilities. It brings to mind parallels with the discussion “of ceremonies, why some should be abolished and some retained” in the BCP, and the question of whether this or that tradition of man “pertains to edification” or not. So I think soaring, impressive height is an element of cathedrals that needs care in its application, (and some good discussion) especially in relation to the response of Jesus to his disciples’ awe at seeing the magnificent temple building.

    1. I really like this thinking, Mark. I am reminded of the church at Taizé – it is certainly not a building with “height”, but it has a strong tradition of silence. It also gives atmosphere by paying attention to lighting – the light is directed downwards, so that looking horizontally there is little sense of brightness, yet, in each place, it is light enough. Blessings.

  2. Most interesting, Bosco! I liked the way you talked about the essential “foci” of a cathedral. Form following function. But I also appreciated your nod to the simple fact that the “heritage” of a building is itself part of our spirituality. It was a mistake of the middle of the twentieth century to imagine that we could, or ought to, forge ahead with a new spirituality by cutting away the constraints of a (supposedly) erring history.

    One activity you didn’t have time to dwell on was the daily Office, which is a very important “cathedral activity” in our tradition. What would you see as the architecturally significant “focus” for the daily Office in a cathedral? And what would be the ensuing ideal arrangement of the assembly and its ministers?

    I’ve often wondered what would be an ideal solution if one had the chance to “start from scratch”. For Anglicans, perhaps somewhat unusually in the wider tradition, the Lectern is an important focus in the daily Office. With that in mind, I often find myself coming to the conclusion that a traditional “collegiate” or “monastic” style of seating, with the assembly divided into two facing “choirs”, is optimal for Daily Prayer, preserving a “communal” ethos without “closing in the community on itself”. (It’s also very helpful for antiphonal recitation and singing, which in my experience so enhances the spirituality of the Office.)

    Having the Lectern and the Altar (and indeed the Font and the Chair) on an axis running between the “choirs” would allow for the greatest flexibility for conceptual movement between Office and Sacrament. I learned to chant the Office alongside a monastic community that sat in two choirs on either side of a central altar. I found that arrangement very conducive to community and to prayer.

    I haven’t been able to find a good picture of this concept online. The one at the following link looks close if you imagine how it would continue outside the frame of the photo, with a lectern just out of view in the central foreground, and the font somewhere behind the viewer:


    1. Thanks, Jesse,

      You are right, there were time constraints – each of us was asked to speak for about three minutes. I managed to keep my contribution under 4.

      You will know my own advocation of the Daily Office (I write this comment having just prayed Lauds) – it is (sadly) a slight stretch (IMO) to say that the Daily Office is a very important cathedral activity in our tradition. Certainly, Evensong has a significant place in Anglican cathedrals (but even there, it wouldn’t always fulfil Benedict’s Rule, Chapter 43, that nothing is put before the Daily Office).

      The renewal of the Daily Office, and that expressed architecturally, could be a fine vocation for cathedrals. That could involve a genuine exploration of the “cathedral office” tradition (the popular, people’s office).

      I am an Associate of a Cistercian monastery which has its altar between the facing choir stalls. I am also fascinated by Carthusians – they have the altar and lectern on the axis you suggest. In both cases, the community’s leader has the chair with the choir stalls. There has been some good discussion about the chair on the corresponding facebook post. In your “from scratch” imaginings, hence, the chair(s) could be with the congregational seating.


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