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A church which contains the throne or cathedra (Gr. = “chair”) of the bishop of the diocese. In the early Christian basilicas the cathedra was placed at the center of the back of the apse behind the altar. From there the bishop presided at the celebration of the Eucharist and preached the sermon. The place where the bishop had his teaching chair assumed a special dignity in the eyes of his people, and gradually the “cathedral church” became the mother-church of the diocese.

At first the cathedral was always in the immediate vicinity of the bishop's residence, and its services were maintained by the bishop and his household of chaplains. But as the bishop came to be responsible for a greater area and his pastoral and administrative duties became more exacting, the care of the cathedral and its services were delegated to a separate body of clergy which developed into an ecclesiastical corporation or “chapter” with its own privileges and rights. Notably the chapter came to have the right of electing a new bishop when the see fell vacant. The bishop's relationship with “his” cathedral tended to become formal and distant, and he visited it only on special occasions.

A cathedral is not necessarily the largest or even the finest church in a diocese, but the term has come to connote a building of outstanding size, grandeur, or beauty. This is largely due to the immense amount of cathedral building undertaken in the Middle Ages, described by Jean Gimpel as “the cathedral crusade.” Cathedrals were usually situated in towns, and during the Middle Ages such a town gradually increased in prosperity, size, and independence. It was natural that this should be reflected in the enlargement and enrichment, or rebuilding on a grander scale, of the principal church within its walls. In addition to the bishop's throne and the clergy's choir, the cathedral included a nave for the people. Guild business and even buying and selling took place there. At Chartres the transepts of the cathedral served as a kind of labor exchange, and the crypt was always open for the shelter of pilgrims and the sick. The cathedral of Amiens with an area of over 84,000 square feet could accommodate the town's entire population of over 10,000. The legacy of this era is a large number of buildings of great size and grace, and also a feeling that Gothic is the “natural” style of architecture for churches in general and especially for cathedrals. In the USA, recent cathedrals such as St. John the Divine, New York, are built in this style. In England, the new Roman Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool is an attempt to break free from both the style and the arrangement of the Gothic cathedral.

Cathedral worship is often characterized by the beauty and elaborateness of the music. Many cathedrals maintain schools where choirboys are trained in music besides receiving a general education.

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