Dear St. Paul’s family,
Happy Cathedral Day! Every year we celebrate Cathedral Day and our patronal festival on the Sunday nearest to January 25, the Conversion of St. Paul. Someone recently asked me, what does it mean to be a cathedral? A cathedral is a church where the bishop of the diocese has his or her cathedra, a Greek word meaning seat. Even though our bishop spends most Sundays visiting different congregations, the Cathedral is somewhere she can come home to. As Dean I merely keep the place running on her behalf.
Beyond that formal definition, there is a whole lot of latitude regarding the function and character of a cathedral. A cathedral isn’t necessarily a large building: one of my favorite cathedrals is the Cathedral of the Isles on the Isle of Cumbrae in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. It’s about the size of our chapel.
A cathedral may also be a parish church, as St. Paul’s is, but not necessarily: until about 15 years ago the Washington National Cathedral didn’t keep a register of members and had no formal congregation.
The primary purpose of a cathedral is to serve as the center of the diocese, to provide a venue for major diocesan events such as ordinations and confirmations. But when we look back at the history of cathedrals in Europe, we see that cathedrals have enjoyed a very wide variety of uses. As the largest and most defensible building in a city, a cathedral was often the place where citizens took refuge during an attack. It was used as a civic resource, providing space for a farmers’ market or for a place where, when the local aristocrat or monarch came into town, they could address the whole community. It provided refuge from extreme weather. When disaster struck, people came together in the cathedral to pray and mourn. On happier occasions a cathedral might be the site of a coronation.
In this country we have tended to think of cathedrals as purely sacred spaces, not to be stained by secular use. We can do this because American cathedrals generally haven’t been built as community centers. But there’s no reason why we shouldn’t take a leaf out of our European cousins’ book. While the installation of a fairground ride or a mini-golf course, as was done last summer in two English cathedrals, might seem like a step too far towards secular entertainment, there is nothing wrong with expanding our vision of how to make the best use of our beautiful building. Our Gala 150 was appropriately celebrated in our community space, making it an unforgettable event, and as a dinner event, it had a sacramental aspect. Our openness to such community events may provide us with opportunities to influence the wider community, hopefully in a positive direction.
Living in divisive times as we do, I believe we have a calling to develop whatever influence we can to encourage strong community: I am grateful that we are the Cathedral for the City and I hope we will find new ways to live into that identity.
Your sister in Christ,