Why are cathedrals shaped as they are?

Canon Rod Anderson

My name is Canon Rod Anderson. In retirement I am one of the chaplains of Bradford Cathedral. I was also a curate here in the early 1970s, so perhaps I’m the appropriate age to talk about history.

You can also listen to this blog post by heading over to our Soundcloud page.

The Church – the Ecclesia – IS the people.  But the building can help.  And the shape of this building today reflects the shape of other buildings before it.

The first Christians in Rome met where they could.  If it was the top floor of an Insulae or tower block, they crammed into the biggest room. If a congregation member was rich enough to have their own house, that would be the meeting place. The middle of a well-off Roman house had a central courtyard, in which a congregation could easily gather. A niche on one side had originally held the household gods, now it was a handy shelf for the things of Christian worship.  In the courtyard they could celebrate communion, they could sing hymns as the disciples and Jesus had done at the Last Supper, they could worship together.

As the number of Christians increased, they built churches or adapted existing buildings.  The Roman Basilica for large gatherings and city functions fitted perfectly. It held lots of people, and at one end had the perfect Stone Age public address system. A semicircular recess is technically called an Apse, in acoustics it is a Sound Shell which focuses and reflects out anything spoken within it. In that space was the Magistrate, sitting in his Cathedra. Does the word sound familiar?

In front of him was a table at which scribes sat and made notes of what he and others said. On either side of the table were lecterns from which things could be read out.

Which then becomes a Christian Basilica with Cathedra for the Bishop

This fitted perfectly for Christian use. The bishop sat in the Cathedra, the table was used for Communion, the lecterns for lessons and leading the service. So that’s the Basilica, or Cathedral.

The same general shape could be used for Parish Churches

The same shape could be used for local churches.  If they were smaller the semicircular apse wasn’t needed since everyone could hear without the sound shell.

But over the centuries theology changed, and the shape of churches changed in response. Celebration of communion became a more holy and separated act and moved further away from the people. The Apse was enlarged and became a Chancel, from the Latin Cancellus for a barrier or screen. The people remained in the Nave.  This naming may be from the Latin Navis, a ship. 

Look at our roof, imagine it upside down, and think of the Mary Rose.  Or the name may be from the Greek Naos, temple.  Whichever, the Mass was celebrated on an altar in the Chancel, the people were in the Nave, and between them was the barrier, called the Rood Screen.  Think York Minster, and that enormous wall of sculptures between the nave and the Choir.  Here it was a smaller affair, and no-one knows what it looked like.  But we do know there was a place on top of it from which the priest could read the gospel to the people on Easter Day.  All that’s left is part of the stairway up. The top is a hole onto thin air, the bottom is used for flower arrangements.  But it is part of history!

Picture from By Unknown author – Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25927104

The parish system in England was set up properly by a Turkish monk called Theodore of Tarsus, who must have been a cross between and OAP and a bulldog. From 668-690 as Archbishop of Canterbury he travelled the country encouraging people to build churches and bullying Lords of the Manor to give land for priests to farm and sustain themselves. He is buried at Canterbury. But thinking of the system which he set up, you could stand in any Parish Church in England and echo the epitaph of Christopher Wren in St Pauls, “If you seek his monument, look around you.”

In the parishes of England the church was the only building where people could meet. And since they only had opportunity to meet in the services, there may not have been much attention paid to the service, which was mostly hidden away anyway. The building was what the local people and gentry could afford, often enlarged with side aisles supported by columns.  The tower was usually paid for by the local gentry, as here by the Tempest family.  And people of means often paid for a private side chapel in which they could pray away from the gossip.  These were often called Lady Chapels because of their Dedication to the Virgin Mary.

The gentry also wanted Masses to be said for them after death, and special Chantry Chapels were The gentry also wanted Masses to be said for them after death, and special Chantry Chapels were used for this. The Chapel for the Bolling family as in Bolling Hall was on the south side, the Leaventhorpe family Chapel was on the north side. The old model of the Parish church shows the outside wall of the Leaventhorpe chapel, which is now the inside wall of the Sacristy and part of the ambulatory beside the pulpit. 

An Ambulatory, as the name suggests, is for ambling around in processions and for access.

Less than ten years after the tower was built there began a Theological Earthquake called the Reformation. The first phase in England changed the services but not the furniture.  Henry VIII ordered Bible readings in English and parts of the service in English.  But the service was still the Mass celebrated on the Altar in the Chancel. After Henry died and was succeeded by Edward VI, Archbishop Cranmer introduced new services in English.  Rood Screens were irrelevant, because he brought back the original idea and placing of a table in the Nave.  He called it “The Lord’s Board.”

Unfortunately his enthusiasm was greater that that of the people.  His intention was a morning taken up with Mattins, Litany, and Communion, all in one big dose. The result was that most people turned up for Mattins and then left, misunderstanding what Jesus called “the thirst after righteousness”. This is probably why Mattins was the main C of E service for 300 years and communion not celebrated much. When there was communion, it was usually in the chancel with the celebrant on the north side of the table facing south to make best use of the daylight through the windows.

Back to Westward position by Laud

The Chantry Chapels lost the Chantry use, but were still used as chapels for private prayers and small services.

The “Lord’s Board” position didn’t last long. Bloody Mary got rid of it and brought Catholic altars back, Elizabeth presumably reversed Mary. Then in 1633 one William Laud (spelt L A U D) was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and he promptly put all the altars back in the East End position. No Cranmer’s Board for Laud who found it hard to compromise with anybody. He also tried to stop the Puritan-type services being held in Bradford by John Okell, who became vicar in 1615.  Laud was eventually beheaded for unreasonable behaviour, or perhaps being unable to read the signs of the times. But his position for the altars firmly against the east wall remained until the 1960s (spoiler alert)..

West side (left) | North side (right)

So where does the priest stand to celebrate at the table? It depends what you believe the intention is. Cranmer’s intention was that the priest and the people were around the table, and the priest was conducting the service as one of them from behind the table. Laud seemed to be more of the Catholic view that the priest was representing the people, and standing between them and the altar – note different spellings for the furniture in the different intentions. Clergy who didn’t like this second view had a problem, which they solved by standing and celebrating at the north end of the furniture.  This may have been from a memory of the “northward position” of a century or so before.  But it looked very strange and never seemed to be explained. Wait for the 1960s.

Morning Prayer, empty Chancel

From the time after Henry VIII, the chancel was somewhat empty.  Before the Reformation it was reasonably full of people doing clergy things, but afterwards there was just the communion celebrant for the occasional communion, and a few assistants.  But Yorkshire showed the way in filling the empty space, for all services.

Leeds – In the Chancel, a robed choir!

Walter Hook was Vicar of Leeds Parish Church from 1837 to 1859, and following the example of big cathedrals and Oxbridge chapels he used the chancel for a choir in robes, for Morning and Evening Prayer as well as communion.  The first robed choir sang here in Bradford in 1853, not from the relatively small chancel but from a gallery which was demolished around 1900.

What did the people do during the service? The rich had pews for themselves, often in peculiar places and with all the home comforts sometimes including fireplaces.  But everyone else stood, or moved around to talk to other people. There were a few exceptions. For example, Exeter Cathedral has stone ledges round the side walls where the infirm could sit.  This may be the origin of the old saying, “The weakest go to the wall.”  But in the nineteenth century there was a mass movement called the Evangelical Revival. People flocked into the churches, and pews were put in for them to sit through the services and sermons.  Preachers may or may not have used an hourglass for timing their sermons, hence the need to sit down. The pews here were replaced by chairs within living memory, making the space much more versatile though laborious to reorder. An appeal is under way for chairs which will be lighter and stackable but still comfortable.

Many of the old cathedrals have a plan view that looks like a cross.  The side arms are called transepts. Think York Minster again, where one transept was burned in 1984. The transepts here are not original, they were added in 1896 to make more space. But the altar/table remained at the east end wall until things started to change. This building was a Parish Church until 1919 when it became a cathedral, but the Depression and World War 2 delayed the new extensions at the East End and West End until the 1960s, just in time for massive changes. New services were introduced with a different structure from Cranmer’s efforts of 1549 and 1552 as revised in 1662. And the services and the architecture brought back Cranmer’s togetherness to the Ecclesia, the people of God.

At the extreme East End is the Lady Chapel, following tradition from before the Reformation and using the sound-shell shape of the old Apse.  Here the clergy say Morning and Evening Prayer.  Then an Ambulatory runs right around the main Sanctuary.  The main altar here is not against the wall, but set forward so the communion Celebrant can stand behind it facing the congregation. Some parish churches don’t have much room in the sanctuary, so the priest has to cram in sideways between the altar and the east wall. Our East End is so long that it isn’t quite Cranmer’s “Lord’s Board”, but the intention is the same.   

At some seasons the communion has been celebrated with a table in Cranmer’s position, at the front of the nave. The point is to celebrate the togetherness of communion.

Having got back into the Nave, a brief history of other things.

The Lectern does the job of the reading desk in the Roman Basilica.  In the Middle Ages the lectern was in the Chancel so the people probably didn’t hear the lessons even if they could understand Latin. After the Reformation the Lectern was moved to the Nave so the people could hear the lessons read in English.  The eagle or pelican shape appeared about the same time. As with many things in life, you hear different reasons.  The eagle is allegedly the highest flying of birds, and also the symbol of John’s Gospel. 

The Font is traditionally placed near the door so that babies were baptised on entry to the building. Children could be completely immersed in the water, and in the time of Henry VIII usually were.  Even a century later in the Prayer book of 1662 the instructions to the priest are and I quote, if they (the parents) shall certify him that the Child may well endure it, he shall dip it into the Water discreetly and warily.

The emphasis was on health and safety, the water was changed once a month.

The Pulpit became a standard piece of furniture in 1604 under James I. There was a three-decker pulpit in the centre of this Nave.  John Wesley preached from it in 1788, length unknown. The present placing dates from 1864, with further alterations to the present shape in 1899. once the Transepts were completed and galleries removed.

The Organ has a long history in Christian music. This one has been moved around somewhat and remodelled several times to best perform its task of helping to inspire our worship.  Not everyone likes them – Oliver Cromwell called the organ “a box of whistles” and they are expensive to maintain. But many of us think they are worth it! And we miss it when we can’t hear it.

But many of us think they are worth it! And we miss it when we can’t hear it.

And finally as we are in the Nave,

The crisis. The beginning of 2020 sees the whole world under threat of coronavirus.  We are not able to gather together as a congregation so the space is empty, and we must share our services as best we can in a way that was unimaginable a few years ago.  This could be a good time to think of the symbolism and the history, and perhaps share the feelings of a few Christians sharing communion round a kitchen table on the top floor of a block of Roman flats nearly 2000 years ago.


J.G.Davies (editor), “A New Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship”, Second Edition, 1985.

Both liturgy and worship have changed immensely since then, but on historic items it is a very good source. It is alleged that the main lesson of history is that people do not learn from history, but it is worth trying.  It may help to make sense of the present, and reminds us that we still have much to learn.  Best wishes as you continue.

1 thought on “Why are cathedrals shaped as they are?

  1. Can I just say what a comfort to find someone who really understands what they’re talking about on the internet. You certainly understand how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More and more people must read this and understand this side of your story. I was surprised you are not more popular given that you surely have the gift.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close