Of late my travels have taken me to an unusually high proportion of Anglican cathedrals:
This has got me thinking… What is a cathedral? Why is a cathedral a cathedral? Why is it not a church? What is so important about cathedrals? And do these questions have different answers when tackled from religious or cultural perspectives?
Officially, a ‘cathedral’ is the principal church of a diocese (or region), with which the Bishop (diocese leader) is officially associated, i.e. cathedrals have a specific liturgical role within particular Christian denominations, both Anglican and Catholic.
When considered from the official position of the Church, cathedrals are important administrative centres. Theologically, cathedrals are very different from temples, which gain their importance through being the sole residential location of a god – because within Christian belief, God does not reside in one location, but is omnipresent. Therefore, cathedrals are not symbolic locations of God’s power, but rather the power, influence and authority of the Church and its organisational system. They embody the Church’s teaching and ideal prescriptions – which are intended to reflect God’s will – and are physical symbols of their importance.
However, cathedrals have also gained alternative cultural meanings. The selection of photographs accompanying this text clearly illustrates the physical majesty of cathedral buildings.
They are made of heavy and expensive stone.
They overshadow the other buildings that surround them with high spires, towers and domes.
Inside their ceilings rise incomprehensively high and are ornamented with fantastical stone mouldings.
Full of light, their bejewelled stained glass windows create a very specific atmospheric context.
They are full of ornamental details: tiles, statues, graves.
Therefore, the term ‘cathedral’ has become synonymous with impressive architectural form – ‘cathedral’ has thus begun to be applied to many buildings that are unrelated to Christian (or Catholic and Anglican) practice.
Nevertheless, they have retained much of the original liturgical concepts of cathedrals; i.e. their central role within, and their position as physical symbols of, the Christian Church. ‘Cathedral’ has begun to be applied to alternative buildings that play a central role within other religious denominations or completely secular institutions and concepts. These ‘cathedrals’ are buildings that physically embody the qualities and ideas of these groups, making a statement about their importance and significance.
Just a few examples:
Within the Methodist Church there are no bishops – technically, there can therefore be no cathedrals. However, Wesley’s Chapel on Old Street, London, is commonly referred to as ‘the Cathedral of Methodism’. Built by Wesley in the eighteenth century, this building has become the symbolic centre of the Methodist denomination, commonly visited on Methodist ‘pilgrimages’.
The British Library, St Pancras, London: a cathedral to postmodern architecture, but also a cathedral to learning. Its tall red brick turret mimics the turrets of its neighbour, the St Pancras Hotel, but also pays homage to cathedral spires.
Paddington Station, London: a cathedral of engineering and transport. Its iron and glass arches fill the station with spectacular light. The constant arrival and departure of trains and passengers leaves little space for quiet contemplation, but creates an atmosphere more representative of the ideas and concepts it symbolically embodies.
Preston Bus Station: a cathedral to Brutalism.
These are all cathedrals: impressive pieces of architecture that have become symbolic of an institution or idea. Through combining physical form with conceptual position, they have come to embrace aspects of both the cultural and religiously specific definition of cathedrals.