Cathedral Governance: A Constitutional Monstrosity

by Philip Jones

Kathleen Edwards, The English Secular Cathedrals in the Middle Ages (Manchester University Press, 2nd edition 1967)

This is a most helpful commentary on the confused subject of cathedral governance.  It explains the cause of the confusion, and also demonstrates how little the subject has changed since the middle ages.

The constitution of a cathedral church ought to be a simple thing.  Everyone knows that a cathedral is so called because it contains the cathedra, the official seat of the bishop.  The bishop’s relationship to the cathedral is analogous to that of an incumbent to a parish church.  The bishop is the incumbent of the diocese.  The cathedral is the bishop’s church, the church from which he officiates as bishop.  It is therefore the parish church, or ‘mother church’, of the whole diocese.  The proper function of any other cathedral clergy is to assist the bishop with his official duties, just as the curate assists the vicar.

But of course the constitution of an English cathedral is not nearly so simple.  Edwards relates that ‘the [mediaeval] bishop was more and more drawn away from his cathedral city, both on affairs of state and through … looking after a large diocese.  During his long absences there began to develop some sort of home government among the cathedral clergy’ (p.98).

Thus the cathedral chapter obtained a degree of autonomy from the bishop.  The absent bishop’s place at the head of the chapter was taken by the dean (cf.p.137).

Edwards quotes a graphic and prescient early warning against this separation of bishop and chapter, dating from 1313: ‘the bishop and the chapter … make one body, of which body the bishop is the head and the chapter are the members.  Therefore to argue that the dean is another head is to argue two heads in one body, which is like a monster, and prejudicial to the bishop’ (quoted, p.97).  Needless to say, this powerful argument was not accepted at the time, or subsequently.

However, the mediaeval separation of bishop and chapter makes the point that the bishop’s position is not precisely analogous to that of a parochial incumbent.  The bishop has a power of governance which incumbents do not share.  He is the principal ordinary of the diocese, and also has some responsibility for secular governance, through membership of the House of Lords (canon C18(2) and (8)).

In the old days, such responsibilities necessitated lengthy absences from the cathedral, but the cathedral still had to function without the bishop.  So perhaps the chapter had to have some autonomy then.  Of course, modern transport and communications should make it possible for the bishop to govern both the diocese and the secular state without prolonged absence from the cathedral.  (And bishops usually live right next door to their cathedrals.)  However, these improvements have not, as yet, led to the constitutional reunion of bishop and chapter.

The cathedra is always situated in the choir area of the cathedral.  It is generally an ornate and imposing structure, as befits the ‘principal seat and dignity in the cathedral’ (Cathedrals Measure 1999, s.6(1)).  It is often regally described as the bishop’s throne, an allusion to the power of governance.  However, Edwards points out that cathedra also means a professorial teaching chair (p.177).  Thus the cathedra symbolises not only the bishop’s governance, but also his pastoral function of teaching and guiding.

Moreover, the bishop did not exercise the power of governance in the choir.  The choir was a place of worship, where the Divine office was celebrated.  Governance was done in the chapter house.  (The consistory court would meet in the chapter house.)

The separation of bishop and chapter did not affect the bishop’s liturgical position in the choir.  The bishop continued to enjoy an undisputed precedence at all services at which he was present, and to exercise his pastoral ministry of preaching, ordaining and confirming.

However, the chapter house, as the seat of governance, became the subject of competing claims by the bishop and the chapter.  These claims were settled by the constitution of the particular cathedral.

In the middle ages, the chapter had two functions:

(1) governing body of the cathedral (as it still is) and

(2) bishop’s council, which he consulted about the governance of the diocese.

In other words, the original function of the chapter was to assist the bishop’s governance of both the cathedral and the diocese.

Cathedral constitutions could vary widely.  At Chartres Cathedral, apparently, ‘the bishop was not allowed to enter the chapter house on any pretext’ (p.106).  York Minster ‘denied to its bishop all statutory right to sit in chapter’.  However, most cathedral constitutions gave their bishop some say in the governance of his cathedral.

The competing claims of bishop and chapter were generally resolved as follows:

(1) the bishop had no right to attend ordinary meetings of the chapter, because he was not a member of the chapter

(2) however, the bishop could attend chapter meetings on a visitation, i.e an inquiry into the governance of the cathedral, if he had a constitutional right of visitation in the first place.  Bishops generally did have the right to inquire into the governance of their cathedrals, but the right might be limited in various ways, e.g to particular times or occasions.

(3) the bishop could also convene and preside over the chapter qua bishop’s council, in order to consult it about the governance of the diocese, rather than the cathedral.

Today, of course, the cathedral chapter has no responsibility for the governance of the diocese.  The bishop’s council is now a committee of the diocesan synod, which is completely different from the chapter (Synodical Government Measure 1969, schedule 3.28).

Thus the constitutional separation of bishop and chapter eventually resulted in the constitutional separation of the cathedral from the rest of the diocese.  Yet this separation is hardly consistent with the cathedral’s role as the ‘mother church’ of the diocese.

Nothing illustrates the confused state of cathedral governance so starkly as the position of archdeacons therein.  The function of archdeacons is to assist the bishop’s governance of the diocese within their respective archdeaconries (canon C22(2) and (4)).  But archdeacons, qua archdeacons, have no responsibility for the cathedral.

Edwards notes that ‘The place of archdeacons in secular cathedrals in the middle ages was peculiar … their chief work was in their archdeaconries outside the cathedral precincts’ (p.243).  She suggests that ‘in most mediaeval cathedral churches archdeacons had come to be regarded as the bishop’s official guests, to be treated with the honour due to guests’ (p.249).

Yet archdeacons can be ex officio members of the chapter, even though the bishop, whose diocesan governance they assist and whose church the cathedral is, cannot.  The Cathedrals Measure 1999 further provides that archdeacons, and suffragan bishops too, must be ex officio members of the college of canons established by the Measure for every cathedral (s.5(2)).  But the diocesan bishop is still excluded from ex officio membership of the college.  Not monstrous, perhaps, but all rather absurd.

The Cathedrals Measure 1999, and the bishop’s status as visitor of the cathedral, are discussed in separate posts, filed below.

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