In accordance with canon law, a cathedral chapter is a college of clerics (chapter) formed to advise a bishop and, in the case of a vacancy of the episcopal see in some countries, to govern the diocese in his stead. In the Church of England the Chapter now includes a number of lay appointees. These councils are made up of canons and dignitaries; in the Roman Catholic church their creation is the purview of the pope. They can be "numbered", in which case they are provided with a fixed prebend, or "unnumbered", in which case the bishop indicates the number of canons according to the rents. In some Church of England cathedrals there are two such bodies, the Lesser and Greater Chapters, which have different functions. The smaller body usually consists of the residentiary members and is included in the larger one.
Originally, it referred to a section of a monastic rule that was read out daily during the assembly of a group of canons or other clergy attached to a cathedral or collegiate church. Later it came to be applied to the group of clergy itself.
Roles within the Cathedral
Typical roles within England's cathedrals have included:
Relationship of chapter and bishop
Historically, there was no distinction between the monastic cathedral chapters and those of the secular canons, in their relation to the bishop or diocese. In both cases the chapter was the bishop's consilium which he was bound to consult on all important matters and without doing so he could not act. Thus, a judicial decision of a bishop needed the confirmation of the chapter before it could be enforced. He could not change the service books, or "use" of the church or diocese, without capitular consent, and there are episcopal acts, such as the appointment of a diocesan chancellor, or vicar general, which still need confirmation by the chapter.
In its corporate capacity the chapter takes charge sede vacante of a diocese. In England, however (except as regards Salisbury and Durham), this custom has never obtained, the two archbishops having, from time immemorial, taken charge of the vacant dioceses in their respective provinces. When, however, either of the sees of Canterbury or York is vacant the chapters of those churches take charge, not only of the diocese, but of the province as well, and incidentally, therefore, of any of the dioceses of the province which may be vacant at the same time.
The Secular Chapter
The normal constitution of the chapter of a secular cathedral church comprised four dignitaries (there might be more), in addition to the canons. These are the Dean, the Precentor, the Chancellor and the Treasurer. These four dignitaries, occupying the four corner stalls in the choir, are called in many of the statutes the quatuor majores personae of the church.
The dean (decanus) seems to have derived his or her designation from the Benedictine "dean" who had ten monks under his or her charge. The dean came into existence to supply the place of the provost in the internal management of the church and chapter. In England every secular cathedral church was headed by a dean who was originally elected by the chapter and confirmed in office by the bishop. The dean is president of the chapter, and within the cathedral has charge of the performance of the services, taking specified portions of them by statute on the principal festivals. He or she sits in the chief stall in the choir, which is usually the first on the right hand on entering the choir at the west.
Next to the dean (as a rule) is the precentor (primicerius, cantor, etc.), whose special duty is that of regulating the musical portion of the services. He or she presides in the dean's absence, and occupies the corresponding stall on the left side, although there are exceptions to this rule, where, as at St Paul's, the archdeacon of the cathedral city ranks second and occupies what is usually the precentor's stall.
The third dignitary is the chancellor (scholasticus, écoldtre, capiscol, magistral, etc.), who must not be confused with the chancellor of the diocese. The chancellor of the cathedral church is charged with the oversight of its schools, ought to read divinity lectures, and superintend the lections in the choir and correct slovenly readers. He or she is often the secretary and librarian of the chapter. In the absence of the dean and precentor he or she is president of the chapter. The easternmost stall, on the dean's side of the choir, is usually assigned to him or her.
The fourth dignitary is the treasurer (custos, sacrisla, cheficier). He or she is guardian of the fabric, and of all the furniture and ornaments of the church, and his or her duty was to provide bread and wine for the Eucharist, and candles and incense, and he or she regulated such matters as the ringing of the bells. The treasurer's stall is opposite to that of the chancellor.
In many cathedral churches are additional dignitaries, as the praelector, subdean, vice-chancellor, succentor-canonicorum, and others, whose roles came into existence to supply the places of the other absent dignitaries, for non-residence was the fatal blot of the secular churches, and in this they contrasted very badly with the monastic churches, where all the members were in continuous residence. Besides the dignitaries there were the ordinary canons, each of whom, as a rule, held a separate prebend or endowment, besides receiving his or her share of the common funds of the church.
For the most part the canons also speedily became non-resident, and this led to the distinction of residentiary and non-residentiary canons, till in most churches the number of resident canons became definitely limited in number, and the non-residentiary canons, who no longer shared in the common funds, became generally known as prebendaries only, although by their non-residence they did not forfeit their position as canons, and retained their votes in chapter like the others.
This system of non-residence led also to the institution of vicars choral, each canon having his or her own vicar, who sat in his or her stall in his or her absence, and when the canon was present, in the stall immediately below, on the second form. The vicars had no place or vote in chapter, and, though irremovable except for offences, were the servants of their absent canons whose stalls they occupied, and whose duties they performed. Outside Britain they were often called demi-prebendaries, and they formed the bachcrur of the French churches. As time went on the vicars were themselves often incorporated as a kind of lesser chapter, or college, under the supervision of the dean and chapter.
In contemporary cathedral chapters, the most common roles besides dean include precentor, pastor, sub-dean/vice-dean, chancellor, archdeacon, treasurer and missioner, although there is also a wide variety of roles which each occur only once or twice.
- Cross, F. L. (ed.) (1957) The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. London: Oxford University Press; p. 264
- Coredon Dictionary of Medieval Terms p. 68
- Coredon, Christopher (2007). A Dictionary of Medieval Terms & Phrases (Reprint ed.). Woodbridge: D. S. Brewer. ISBN 978-1-84384-138-8.
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