A cathedral is a church, and a church a circus.

As edifice, a cathedral colloquially refers to any large and impressive church whether or not it functions specifically as a centre of episcopal hierarchy. Its more exact and classic definition originates in the …

French from the Latin from the Greek, begotten from the root-words kata (down) and hedra (a seat, base, or chair), such that a cathedral strictly is any church which contains the seat of a bishop governing an ecclesiastical region (bishopric) for any Christian denomination with an episcopal hierarchy – i.e. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and some Lutheran and Methodist churches – and thus serve as the central church of a diocese, conference, or episcopate.


There are exceptions:

  • Pre-Reformation churches in Scotland which have retained the term cathedral despite their Presbyterian (i.e. bishop-less) polity
  • Protestant churches in Germany co-operating under umbrella organisations which have retained the term cathedral or use it merely as an honorary title and function, void of any hierarchical supremacy
  • European church-monasteries (e.g. Strasbourg, Essen, Freiburg, Lincoln and Southwell) served by canons living in community or which were (again, prior to the Reformation) once abbeys

The abbey (Latin, from the Aramaic, abba, “father”), is the other kind of great church in Western Europe, historically a Catholic (or more recently Anglican) monastery or convent, under the authority of an Abbot or Abbess, who served as the spiritual head of the community.

In modern English usage, a convent invariably refers to a community of (or building for) sisters or nuns particularly of the Roman Catholic Church and in the Anglican Communion. Priory or friary are used specifically for a male community, although historically the terms have often been used interchangeably, so that:

  • Monastery or Nunnery: a community of religious life usually conducted under a common rule and characterized by celibacy and poverty and obedience; any complex of buildings comprising the domestic quarters and workplace(s) of monastics (secluded and contemplative, strictly disciplined or regimented, self-abnegating and austere individuals), whether monks or nuns, and whether living in communities or alone.
  • Convent or Friary: a community of mendicants – members of any of several orders of friars that originally forbade ownership of property, subsisting mostly on alms.

The terms abbey and priory can be applied to both monasteries and canonries, any of certain religious communities living under a common rule and bound by vows, and distinguish those headed by an Abbot from the lesser dependent houses headed by a Prior.

Church v Ecclesia

The word ‘church‘, meanwhile, is derived from the same root word as the Greek for ‘circus’! The word ecclesia, on the other hand, originally referred to the public legislative assembly of the Athenians.

God is the God of the Living. Churches of episcopal hierarchy—cathedrals—are, physically (as well as spiritually) mostly churches of the dead. Formal church hierarchy is, as a rule, to be frowned upon, just as was done by the church in Ephesus:

But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.


Marx Super Circus - Pt 1
Marx Super Circus Tent [Wikimedia Commons]

Episcopal hierarchy is not of Christ. Rather, “blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.

Featured Image: Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time (Middle Age European Allegory of Jewish and Catholic Faiths)


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