Christopher McElroy

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The architecture of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral: PART 4

This fourth blog posting on the architecture of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral focuses on the cathedra – the bishop’s chair.

One of the principal functions of a cathedral is to house the cathedra from which the bishop may exercise his liturgical presidency and teaching authority.  The cathedra may only be occupied by the bishop in his own cathedral church: parish churches have a presidential chair that is occupied by priests who preside over celebrations. A lack of clarity over the placement of the cathedra in the early 1960’s led Gibberd to design a moveable structure that could be placed in several different places in the cathedral.  (see for example in the picture below of the Cathedral in 1967 at its dedication where the Cathedra is placed some distance from the Sanctuary in one of the side aisles.)

dedication sanctuary

Throughout history, the theology and thus the placement of the cathedra have evolved. After the edict of Milan in 313, bishops took on an increasingly juridical role, leading the design of the chair to become rather elaborate: the cathedra becoming the principal symbol of the bishop’s authority. In the West, the cathedra was normally situated directly behind the altar, surrounded by space for priest and deacons. However, in the East the cathedra was often placed in the chancel, in the middle of the nave, meaning that the bishop faced towards the altar with his people.  Today, the cathedra is seen less as a judicial and monarchical throne, rather as a chair of a teacher, much as a university professor today is still said to ‘hold the chair’ of his or her discipline. A belief that is summed up in Lumen Gentium # 22, which teaches that ‘bishops by divine institution have succeeded to the place of the apostles, as shepherds of the Church, and he who hears them, hears Christ, and he who rejects them, rejects Christ and Him who sent Christ.’

It must be remembered that the documents of Vatican II which have subsequently guided the placement and role of the bishop’s chair were not available to Gibberd or the cathedral committee at the time of building. At the committee’s request, the cathedra was designed to be portable so that through experimentation, the best place for it might be found over time.  Following the Eastern tradition described above, the cathedra was placed in the nave at the Mass of consecration: however this was not found to be a permanent solution, in part I would suggest, because of the realities of concelebration and the fact that in a circular building, it would be difficult to hear speech coming from within one of the aisles, as well as the fact that part of the congregation had their backs to the Archbishop! The cathedra as it was originally designed by R.D. Russell is a wooden structure, elevated on 3-step dais and covered by a canopy.

cathedra 1967

in the 1980’s the canopy was removed, and the cathedra placed in a raised position behind the altar towards the back of the sanctuary area from where the Archbishop presides over the liturgical assembly of the faithful illustrating in a circular space the words of Sacrosanctum Concilium # 41 that ‘The bishop is to be looked on as the high priest of his flock, the faithful’s life in Christ in some way deriving from and depending on him. Therefore all should hold in great esteem the liturgical life of the diocese centered around the bishop, especially in his cathedral church.’

At the installation of Archbishop McMahon OP as the ninth Archbishop and Metropolitan, the Cathedra used by previous Archbishops was replaced by a new cathedra bearing the Archbishop McMahon’s coat of arms.

McMahon cathedra

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