What is a Cathedral?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

A cathedral is a church building presided over by a bishop, and therefore the central church building of a diocese, an administrative unit of the larger church. It is found in hierarchical Christian denominations such as the Catholic and Anglican Churches. The building is often, though not always, a large, impressive structure, although not all large, imposing church buildings are actually cathedrals.

Man holding a globe
Man holding a globe

The word is shortened from the term cathedral church, in which it is used as an adjective. It is a church containing the cathedra — Latin for "chair" — of the bishop. In the ancient world, the chair was a symbol of both a teacher and a magistrate, and therefore ideal for representing the power and duties of the bishop.

What makes a building a cathedral is the presence of the bishop, not anything inherent in the structure itself. Therefore, a church building may gain or lose this status. Some were built as cathedrals, but others were not. Church buildings that have lost their status are called proto-cathedrals. In addition, a church building may serve temporarily as a cathedral, in which case it is termed a pro-cathedral.

In the Catholic Church, the cathedral system is more complex than a single church governing each diocese. Some dioceses have co-cathedrals that share authority. In addition to the simple cathedral church, there are those with increasing levels of authority and dignity: the metropolitical church, the primatial church, and the patriarchal church, each of which govern all cathedrals and other churches lower in the hierarchy within their jurisdiction.

Though cathedrals do not have to be elaborate buildings, many are, as they are often built to suggest visually the power and glory of the church. These structures are, therefore, among the largest, most beautiful, and most visited church buildings in the world, and typically a major landmark in the cities they occupy.

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Discussion Comments


Interestingly, there is a bit of dispute over the term "cathedral" due to some Protestant denominations building large churches and calling them cathedrals. A cathedral, as this article points out, is only a cahedral if a bishop is present.

For example, take the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif. It wasn't a cathedral in the proper sense in that there was no bishop -- a position found only in Catholic (Roman or Orthodox), Anglican and some Lutheran and Methodist churches. However, it will be a cathedral in the proper sense when it reopens in 2016 as Christ Cathedral as the ownership of the building has changed hands from a Reformed Church of America facility to the Roman Catholic Church.

In other words, the building may be impressive but no bishop means its not a cathederal.

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