Who uses a cathedral as their parish church and why?
January 3, 2012 9:09 AM   Subscribe

Why would a Catholic or Anglican choose to use a cathedral as their regular church over more geographically convenient parish churches? How would their religious and social experiences differ as a result?
posted by grouse to Religion & Philosophy (34 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I think a cathedral would probably come with a greater sense of awe or spirituality or such, but lacking the word I'm trying to find, I'll give a secondary answer. One reason would be that they preferred the priest or service at the larger church. Another reason would be that the mass was at a convenient time that their local parish did not offer.
posted by maryr at 9:13 AM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Possibility 1 - Grandeur. The Mass itself may be no different, but when you're sitting idly back after Communion and waiting for everyone else to take their turn, and you're idly letting your eyes wander about you, a cathedral can give you a lot more to look at.

Possibility 2 - Formality of place. The grandeur (see above) can also inspire more of a formal reverent tone for some.

Possibility 3 - Artistic appreciation. The cathedrals also tend to have bigger bucks to spend on the music.

Possibility 4 - A more customized mass. The Cathedral may be the only place near you where you can even find a mass spoken in Latin. They may also be the only place near you that does Matins or Vespers or any of those other masses at weird times that practically no one except the hardcore do any more.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:16 AM on January 3, 2012

Best answer: Or, if you're my mother:

Possibility 5 - The parish church only has mass once a day and you couldn't get the kids moving in time to make it to that one, so you have to hustle to the cathedral because it's got two more masses later that day which should give you a chance to get your kids to stop throwing Apple Jacks at each other long enough to get their butts into the car.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:18 AM on January 3, 2012 [8 favorites]

My friend moved from a big liberal city on the east coast to a small town in a very conservative state in the west. The Episcopal cathedral in the capital was the only place where he could find intellectual and political stimulation that was to his liking.
posted by Melismata at 9:19 AM on January 3, 2012

Best answer: Some Catholics I know are friends with the Cathedral priests in residence and the bishop, and/or are well connected with Catholic institutions in the diocese. I think that affects their decision. Also, the Cathedral here is more conservative than many of the parish churches.
posted by dismas at 9:23 AM on January 3, 2012

Best answer: I'm Episcopal and attend the cathedral downtown rather than a small neighborhood church. The chief reason is that attendance at the small neighborhood churches around me is very low, and I prefer to attend with a larger congregation.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:28 AM on January 3, 2012

Growing up we would go to the cathedral rather than a more geographically convenient church because it offered a more convenient time to go. Now, we avoid the big cathedral and go to a less geographically convenient location because we love the priest there.
posted by synecdoche at 9:31 AM on January 3, 2012

Best answer: More musical performance opportunities, better services, beautiful building, and "they don't get on my nerves there" are the reasons given to me by Catholics I know. And some people deliberately attend church downtown for the ability to be involved with the poor and/or homeless - in the case of the Catholics, at least, that means the cathedral.
posted by SMPA at 9:33 AM on January 3, 2012

I go to church once a year, so I want to go to the most interesting church I can, giving me lots of stuff to look at while my mom prays. Good music helps, too. I could see a regular church-goer making a similar decision.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:34 AM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I drive past many parish churches to attend the Catholic cathedral in my diocese (Before I moved, I was driving about 40 mi to do so.)

My reasons are generally EmpressCallipygos' Possibilities 1-3. In other words, the Masses there are more conservative and traditional. There's no campfire-style guitar or choir dressed in jeans and polo shirts, like the parish that is nearest me.

Also because it's downtown and not in a neighborhood, there are fewer people in the ministries. This is both good and bad. It works for me because I have a problem getting involved in activities if I'm feel like I'm going to encounter a large crowd. The Sunday Masses are usually packed and I'm okay there, but the weeknight activities and organizations are a more manageable size for me. (The bad is that it's the same few people doing all the work and it's easier to burn out.)
posted by erloteiel at 9:37 AM on January 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

You might go to the Catholic cathedral because that's where you're most likely to hear the bishop or archbishop saying Mass. I don't know how much Latin you're likely to hear, but the cathedral in Atlanta is the only place I've heard the Gospel readings chanted.
posted by jquinby at 9:44 AM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

The local parishes are more likely to have an older congregation and families who live in the immediate area (or who are commuting in from distant suburbs because that was their "home" congregation when they originally lived in the neighborhood). If you're a young professional, the Cathedral will have a much more diverse congregation, including more young single people.
posted by deanc at 9:50 AM on January 3, 2012

Okay, let's clear one thing up for the record: "cathedral," in churches with an episcopal form of government such as the Anglican and Catholic churches, is a term of art. It doesn't mean "an architecturally distinct church building." It means "the seat of a bishop," i.e. the administrative and operational center of a diocese.

A good example of how these two aren't necessarily the same thing is right here in the Diocese of Fort Wayne. The cathedral is here in town, and the building is okay as far as it goes. Nothing to write home about, but it gets the job done for a church of its size. But the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, one of the most historic and beautiful churches in the country, and where a nationally-televised service occurs regularly, is in South Bend, about two hours away. Now there may well be some people in more rural parishes that go to one larger church or the other for social/cultural/aesthetic reasons rather than their local parish, but I don't think anyone in Fort Wayne goes to South Bend or vice versa on a regular basis.

As far as whether it makes a difference going to church with the bishop? Not as such, though as others have observed, the cathedral is the most likely place to put on the most traditional/high church liturgy. There are plenty of smaller churches out there that do this, but they may or may not be located near you, so you may as well go to the cathedral, you know? Or maybe you happen to like the bishop more/less than your local parish priest and make an attendance decision on that basis, but that has less to do with the offices involved as it does the same kinds of choices one makes about attending a church, like the type of service one prefers.
posted by valkyryn at 9:53 AM on January 3, 2012

Adding to my earlier answer: When I say "conservative" I mean in both the liturgical sense identified by erloteil and in the political sense; in the three (arch)diocese I'm most familiar with (KC-St. Joseph, St. Louis, and Kansas), the bishop tends to be more vocal about social issues on the pulpit (abortion for example) and more back-to-the-old-ways than the parish priests I know. (This may not be true in other places, and has not always been true here). There is a market for that (so to speak) in the Catholic community here. To the extent that picking between the cathedral and a parish (or multiple parishes) is easy to do (it is for me because I live in an urban area with a lot of churches), the result is that you can shop around a bit for a community/liturgy that suits your preferences (and find some like-minded people).

When I attend mass (mostly C&E these days), I drive twenty minutes instead of walking to the Cathedral because I am more theologically liberal than the Cathedral crowd.

I should note that attending mass at a Catholic cathedral doesn't necessarily mean that the bishop will be performing the liturgy. However, the bishop usually does pick priests to be at the cathedral personally (to my understanding) so their views are likely to be along similar lines.

Point being, at least among Catholics, this is probably idiosyncratic to the diocese and depends on things like geography, the density of the churchgoing population, politics, etc.
posted by dismas at 9:59 AM on January 3, 2012

Best answer: Not liking having a rock band playing the hymns (seriously) - would rather have the traditional service with the organ and choir.
posted by Addlepated at 10:05 AM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

A good example of how these two aren't necessarily the same thing is right here in the Diocese of Fort Wayne. The cathedral is here in town, and the building is okay as far as it goes. Nothing to write home about, but it gets the job done for a church of its size. But the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, one of the most historic and beautiful churches in the country, and where a nationally-televised service occurs regularly, is in South Bend, about two hours away.

And in that case, there actually is a cathedral in South Bend as well, of a special kind called a "co-cathedral," which happens when there are two "sees" in one dioceses.

In the year I was in South Bend, I only ever went to the co-cathedral once, I don't remember why.

Here in New York, I go to the Cathedral most often because I want to go to their early afternoon confession times, a time most other parishes don't have confessions.

Other reasons include, special services (ordinations, young adult Masses), concerts, or just a visit.
posted by Jahaza at 10:12 AM on January 3, 2012

I used to attend the National Cathedral, when it was not especially convenient for me. My reasons where basically some variations of what EmpressCallipygos said, plus the fact that as a huge church with a lot of visitors, it was easier for me to blend in and not have to deal with the potlucks, socializing, and chatter that dominate a lot of churches. For example, if I was too hungover to make it to church, no one noticed or cared.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:14 AM on January 3, 2012

Also - the cathedral is where you're also most likely to find Perpetual Adoration, usually in a small chapel where the Host is exposed around the clock. Some of the parish churches do this, but many do not have enough people to sit around the clock, 7 days a week. If you want to pray before the Blessed Sacrament at 4 in the morning, the cathedral may be your only option. Likewise for some of the other things mentioned above - praying of the Diving Office (Matins, Lauds, Vespers), important annual events like the Chrism Mass (where the oils used during the Easter liturgies is blessed), ordination ceremonies, and so on.
posted by jquinby at 10:16 AM on January 3, 2012

in the three (arch)diocese I'm most familiar with (KC-St. Joseph, St. Louis, and Kansas), the bishop tends to be more vocal about social issues on the pulpit (abortion for example) and more back-to-the-old-ways than the parish priests I know.

It's worth pointing out that this can actually be entirely reversed, particularly in the Episcopal church. Much of the Episcopal hierarchy is quite liberal, both politically and theologically, but a lot of individual priests aren't. I attended a conservative parish in Manhattan when I lived there but would never attended the Cathedral of St. John just up the street, and the church I attended had had a rather strained relationship with their bishop for several years before I showed up.

But generally speaking, it's true that the bishop can be somewhat out of touch with the rest of the clergy in his parish, which might encourage parishioners to choose one location over another. I can't say how common this is, or whether it tends one direction or the other, but I'd call it a fairly well recognized phenomenon.
posted by valkyryn at 10:21 AM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great answers. AskMe is really shining here on a question that I found hard to answer through Google searches.

that as a huge church with a lot of visitors, it was easier for me to blend in and not have to deal with the potlucks, socializing, and chatter that dominate a lot of churches.

Does this mean that this aspect is significantly diminished at most cathedral churches? Do cathedral churches have things like potlucks? In the cathedrals I've visited, I haven't noticed things like social halls, but perhaps they hide them away from tourists.

How do the ways attendees of cathedral churches socialize with each other differ from parish churches?
posted by grouse at 10:32 AM on January 3, 2012

Best answer: I'm Anglican, aesthetically (Methodist theologically, but aesthetics triumph over theology for me in terms of church preference), and when I lived in Boston, my church preference was for Church of the Advent, if that means anything. It's not quite a cathedral, but my observations may still be helpful. To give you a sense of where I'm coming from, Advent is a large, (affluent, although that's beside the point), Anglo-Catholic, liturgically very traditional but theologically middle-of-the-road church, with excellent music. I'd say that paradoxically, larger churches can either have more community, or less, depending on how you swing it. There is often more *going on* - i.e. they have enough people to support a regular group for 20s and 30s at the pub, groups for young families, women's groups, men's breakfasts, etc. In other words, should you wish, you can meet a much more specific socializing need than at a smaller church. However you can also be anonymous, since it's a larger congregation - you can go to the service and leave afterwards, without being recognized and/or hassled by church ladies and friendly congregation members hoping to sign you up for potlucks etc. So in terms of the question in the updated question you posted, I'd say that cathedral churches tend to be more formal and have better music, which is why many people attend, but you also have more control over the type and quantity of socializing you do with fellow worshippers.
posted by UniversityNomad at 10:49 AM on January 3, 2012

First, a cathedral church is also typically a parish church, and if you live in a regentrifying downtown, it may BE your most convenient parish church.

"Does this mean that this aspect is significantly diminished at most cathedral churches? Do cathedral churches have things like potlucks?"

It totally depends on the church. When I lived in Raleigh-Durham, the (Catholic) cathedral sat 300 (and boy would those 300 have to be BFFs), and my parish church sat about 1500 and had 8 overflowing Masses per Sunday (3 in Spanish). (They have since renovated and expanded my old parish church, I think it seats around 2000 now; they have fewer Sunday Masses now and none of them are stuck in the gymnasium.) The cathedral currently has 5 (one in Spanish). The smaller congregation at the cathedral knew each other better and had more vibrant fellowship as a result. The huge congregation at my parish had a harder time getting cohesive groups going (outside of the parish school) because it was so big.

Where I live now, the bishop has some experience teaching college, so he does a lot of 20-something ministry at the cathedral church and hosts a lot of "theology on tap" stuff (he goes to a bar and drinks beer and hangs out and answers questions). When I was in Raleigh-Durham, the young adult ministries were concentrated near Duke at Immaculate Conception, not at the cathedral. So it really just depends on the specific situation.

Most people who I know who don't attend their "local" either moved and stick with their old local for community reasons, have children at a parish school and go to the associated church, particularly like or dislike a particular priest, particularly like or dislike particular music or Mass styles, attend Mass in a particular language (not necessarily Latin), find a more convenient time elsewhere, or just like variety.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:51 AM on January 3, 2012

> that as a huge church with a lot of visitors, it was easier for me to blend in and not have to deal with the potlucks, socializing, and chatter that dominate a lot of churches.

Does this mean that this aspect is significantly diminished at most cathedral churches? Do cathedral churches have things like potlucks? In the cathedrals I've visited, I haven't noticed things like social halls, but perhaps they hide them away from tourists.

It may be more akin to the difference between a big city and a small town -- I'm sure that cathedrals have a social aspect and outreach, but there are so many people in attendance that it's easy for people to just overlook that, the way that both big cities and small towns have VFW halls but you don't notice them in big cities becuase there's so much else going on that you tune it out.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:53 AM on January 3, 2012

I also wanted to add, upon further reflection, that I think the Catholic and Episcopal/Anglican experience of this may be different. This is partly because the vibe and dynamics of the two denominations tend to vary quite substantially in general, especially socially. This is also partly because as someone upthread pointed out, the Catholic church tends to be officially quite conservative with some parishes deviating from the official line, while Episcopal churches tend to be officially much more liberal, with individual parishes sometimes being more conservative (at least in my experience). This might lead to Catholics choosing cathedral parishes to worship in because they get a more traditional experience, versus Episcopalians choosing large and established parishes to worship in because they tend to be more liberal. Obviously there are a lot of other reasons interplaying with one's church choice, but I think it's worth pointing out that it might not be helpful to conflate Catholic/Episcopal for this question. If you had a specific situation in mind when you were asking, we could possibly give a more specific rationale?
posted by UniversityNomad at 11:00 AM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was raised Episcopalian, and one thing that many people (non-Episcopalians in particular) find surprising about me is how traditional/conservative I am about church services. I am extremely liberal politically (and my Episcopalian mother and grandparents - my grandfather was a priest - are/were liberals as well), I am not religious in the slightest, and I think I present as kind of a hippie in daily life, but when I go to church, I want it to be church. No doofuses in jeans singing dopey made-up songs to guitar accompaniment in ugly buildings, please. I want full vestments, real hymns (anything later than Ralph Vaughan Williams is probably unacceptable), a decent organist and choir, and stained glass. Ideally some chanting and incense - bring on all that high church, smells and bells stuff; I am in. I mean really, isn't this why we have Episcopalianism in the first place? All of the pageantry, none of the guilt. Seriously though, I think for me it's some combination of nostalgia for childhood/snobby Anglophilia/wanting a sense of the divine despite not believing in it.

If I had to pick one thing though, I'd say music. There is nothing worse than being stuck in a church service with crap music.
posted by naoko at 11:25 AM on January 3, 2012 [14 favorites]

When I was a kid, my family went to the neighbourhood Catholic church and my best friend's (who lived around the corner) went to the cathedral. Her take on it was that it was a kind of social climbing.
posted by looli at 11:42 AM on January 3, 2012

Best answer: Long-practicing Catholic here, and I can add personal support to much of what's been said above.

When I was working a summer job, I attended Mass at the downtown cathedral rather than at the most geographically convenient church, because the rock-band and Powerpoint slide-driven homily at the nearby campus church was just too strange for me. (NTTAWWT.)

I know of several large cathedral-type churches in big cities in which the cathedral choir is one of the better musical groups in town. In Columbus, Ohio, there's also a very good brass ensemble. There are many people who just prefer that type of musical setting / experience. Although, I am also aware of some cathedral-type churches that also offer very quick in-and-out Sunday services without the "Schola Cantorum" or whatnot.

In another setting, I've attended Mass "downtown", sporadically, because I couldn't make my local church's Sunday morning services, and my local church didn't have a Sunday evening service (which the cathedral downtown offered).

In my experience, there is a "Rector" who, in the cathedral, fills exactly the function of the (local) parish priest. The bishop may certainly say Mass from time to time, but parishioners of the cathedral would generally view the Rector the same way as someone out in the burbs would view the pastor. In the cathedrals I've gone to, I have seen the regular community-type activities (Knights of Columbus, new parishioner registration, sick visitation, etc. etc. etc.) conducted. There's certainly an awareness that some people are traveling from more than 5-10 minutes away, but it wasn't all that much different than what goes on at a "regular" church.

I know of some Catholics who stopped attending their local church and instead became parishioners "downtown" not because of any liturgical preferences, but because of either really negative experiences with local parish staff, or because they were drawn by really positive experiences from a particular cathedral rector. My own guess is that the calculus goes something like this: "There's no way I'm ever going to Mass said by (local) Father Joe, and the next nearest church is an additional 10 minute drive away. Ah, fuggedaboutit, if I'm driving extra what's another 10 more minutes to go to the big fancy service down at the cathedral?"

I'd imagine this varies from diocese to dioceses, but in my experience the preaching at the cathedral is generally a notch or two better, on average, than what I see out in the 'burbs. My sense is that, politically speaking, a stint on the cathedral staff is often part of the career path of up-and-coming priests. For instance, I know of several instances in which people have mentioned "following" a priest when he got moved from the downtown church to becoming the pastor of a (very large) suburban church.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 11:51 AM on January 3, 2012

I'm not Catholic, but while my wife was still practicing and we were living in DC, we'd go to another church across town sometimes. Why? Because I love the Trinitine Mass (it's beautiful) and all of the trappings that go with it. They also had a great choir that would sing Palestrina and other, older styles of music.

Like many other people in this thread, I really dislike the jeans/Kumbayah movement in Catholic masses (which is really the only kind of church service I've ever gone to with any regularity). For me, it's about the pageantry and beauty, and less about the religious aspects (since I'm an atheist).
posted by SNWidget at 12:26 PM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I think it's worth pointing out that it might not be helpful to conflate Catholic/Episcopal for this question. If you had a specific situation in mind when you were asking, we could possibly give a more specific rationale?

I was mainly interested in Catholic practice, but somewhat interested in Anglican as well. I don't mean to suggest that the answers would necessarily be similar for both.

This is mainly something I've been curious about for years, so there's not really a more specific situation to look at. Thanks for the answers!
posted by grouse at 1:07 PM on January 3, 2012

Best answer: In the Church of England, cathedrals are the big exception to the trend of gradually declining church attendance. Between 2000 and 2010, attendance levels at cathedral services rose by 37%, which is a pretty spectacular increase when you consider that within a similar time period (2002-2009), attendance levels at local church services fell by 2%.

Not surprisingly, these figures have prompted a lot of debate about why cathedrals are bucking the trend. (For a variety of different points of view, see these recent discussion threads on two of the most popular Anglican websites, Ship of Fools and Thinking Anglicans.) The most common explanations are as follows:

1. Cathedrals tend to offer higher standards of music, liturgy and preaching. This attracts a certain constituency of churchgoers who like the aesthetic and intellectual appeal of a cathedral service. Fewer parish churches now have the resources to offer a full choral service every Sunday, so cathedrals stand out in a shrinking market.

2. Cathedral services generally include Matins and Evensong from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. This appeals to a small but significant number of middle-aged and elderly churchgoers (the 'Matins brigade') who remember the Prayer Book services from their childhood. Never underestimate the power of tradition in England.

3. Cathedrals have a strong brand identity. If you're a tourist at large in a cathedral city on a Sunday morning, where are you going to go? Naturally, after your full English breakfast (eggs, bacon, sausage and all the trimmings), you'll follow the sound of bells into the city centre and into the cathedral for the full English experience (choral Matins, robed clergy and boy sopranos).

4. Cathedrals offer an easy way in for people who are nervous about stepping into an unfamiliar church for the first time. At a cathedral you're likely to find yourself in a congregation of several hundred people; easy to watch unobtrusively and slip away quietly afterwards. In a parish church there's always the risk of finding yourself the only newcomer in a congregation of ten people, and being eagerly pounced on afterwards. ('Is this your first time with us? Oh, do stay for coffee!') Never underestimate the power of social embarrassment in England.

5. Cathedrals still play a significant role in the local community, even (or perhaps even especially) among people who aren't regular churchgoers. This was illustrated very vividly in the recent furore over the Occupy London protest camp at St Paul's, where the decision to close the cathedral to the public caused such an outcry that the Dean was forced to resign. This sense that the cathedral 'belongs' to the whole community, not just to the church, is even stronger in smaller cities like Durham or Bury St Edmunds, where the locals are intensely possessive of their cathedral.

Underlying all these different explanations is one general truth: the social trends driving the overall decline in church attendance are also driving the growth in cathedral attendance. In that sense, cathedrals aren't bucking the trend; they're reflecting the trend. Increasingly, churchgoing in Britain is a pick-and-mix affair, where instead of attending your local church just because it's your local church, you get in the car and drive to the church of your choice. The inevitable outcome (though this will take another twenty or thirty years) will be the closure of many, perhaps most parish churches, and the concentration of religious worship in fewer, bigger buildings. In this new religious landscape, cathedrals will be the dominant features.
posted by verstegan at 1:09 PM on January 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

One way a cathedral is different is that more things happen there. In D.C., at St. Matthew's you have the usual ordinations, the catechumens come every year on the First Sunday of Lent, confirmation, and similar occasions liturgically or culturally specific to the seat of a diocese.

St. Matthew's will also have special memorial services (RFK) or funerals (JFK, Joe McCarthy, various SCOTUS justices), televised services or concerts with attendant equipment and staff, federal protectees attend services, the Pope visits, and so on. It also has the annual Red Mass for those in law-related jobs. It's not only a D.C. practice, but it is one of the bigger Red Masses around the world, a big deal here and is represented by SCOTUS, Congress, et al.

I get the sense that there is a feeling of pride in these additional goings-on, but sometimes you might find yourself thinking "What is it now?"
posted by jgirl at 1:46 PM on January 3, 2012

In Louisville KY, the Cathedral of the Assumption did a lot of outreach to the GBLT community a few pastors ago, and it still has the reputation of being more welcoming, tolerant and inclusive, even though it does not do the same formal outreach it used to do.
posted by Billiken at 1:59 PM on January 3, 2012

Back when I was a regular church goer, I used to go to the cathedral instead of a parish church. That was because my taste ran to the High Anglican end of the spectrum (incense, bells, lots of people in robes, a good choir, sung liturgy) and the cathedral did that better than any of the little churches. In fact, there were only two small church options that had equally high style, and they were further geographically from me than the cathedral was.

Our cathedral did have potlucks and social stuff, and the actual regular congregation was no bigger than that of the larger parish churches, so it wouldn't have been easier to blend in, except that I guess we got more transient visitors than most churches. So a first-time visitor wouldn't be subjected to any embarrassing standing-up-and-greeting-everyone rituals.

Later I went to a cathedral instead of a parish church in a different city because I had started doing English Change Ringing, and that was the only church in town with a bell-tower.
posted by lollusc at 4:58 PM on January 3, 2012

Dittoing what's been said about about Episcopal cathedrals - when I was five, we switched from a local parish back to the cathedral downtown (I think because of parents' personal issues with the priest and/or vestry.) It was politically liberal, higher church than most of the other Episcopal churches in Seattle that were near us, and had a crackerjack choral program that I participated in all the way through high school (the Compline service is broadcasted on the radio every week.) It was comfortable for my family both because of political & theological alignment and because, yeah, if you are not feeling social on that particular week it's much easier to get in and out after the service. There's coffee hour, it's just easier to avoid :)
posted by heyforfour at 5:11 PM on January 3, 2012

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