The official name of Washington National Cathedral is the Cathedral Church of St Peter and St Paul.
But that name itself begs the question: What’s the difference between and church and cathedral?
Many folks think that a cathedral is just a really big church. Not true. When it comes to cathedrals, size doesn’t matter. But what does make a church a cathedral is a piece of furniture: a chair called a cathedra.
A cathedra is the chair of a bishop. It’s a symbol of his or her authority in a diocese, which is a geographic area under a bishop’s care. Here at Washington National Cathedral the Glastonbury cathedra, made from stone from the ruins of Glastonbury Abby in England, is the seat of the bishop of Washington. Since 2011 that bishop is Maryann Edgar Budde, the nineth bishop of Washington and the first woman to hold the office.
So where does this idea for a special bishop’s chair originate? Well, there are several possible explanations. In early times furniture was not mass produced, so anyone owning a chair was powerful. Teachers often would teach from chairs while their pupils stood and listened. In the Roman Empire there was something called a curule chair in which magistrates and other officials would sit. Since the Roman Catholic church developed within the Roman Empire, some of their traditions carried over from the empire. In addition, before the reformation bishops often sat on thrones because they held political power well as spiritual authority. In fact, today when a new bishop is installed in a diocese the service is often called an enthronement.
Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican, in the US Anglicans are called Episcopalians, are the only denominations with cathedrals. Although you will find a few Lutheran cathedrals in Europe.
I imagine being a bishop is a tough job. And having what looks like such an uncomfortable seat doesn’t make it any easier.