Recently St. Paul’s People’s Warden, Carol Walsh, gave a report on the work of our Chapter, the governing body of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Ever wondered why our Cathedral board of directors is called a “Chapter” and not a “Vestry”, which is the name given such groups in most Episcopal parishes? In medieval Europe and England in particular, nearly all cathedrals were abbey churches or monastic foundations. The most well known and visited is Westminster Abbey. Another familiar place in England is Glastonbury Abbey, now a ruin. In every abbey and religious house there was a daily meeting of the monks presided over by the Abbot or Prior in which the brothers discussed their needs of the day. It always began with prayer and a reading of a chapter from the monastery Rule of Life, usually the one written by St. Benedict.
Because of the reading from the rule, the daily event came to be known as the Chapter Meeting and the group who met the Chapter of the monastery or abbey. In large Abbeys a room was set aside for the gathering and designated as the Chapter Room. In some abbeys a special room was built attached to the rest of the cathedral building and in others it was a space designated within, usually near the chapel or refectory (dining area.)
In addition to the daily meeting, there were special chapter meetings scheduled throughout the year. The Abbot could always call a chapter meeting in case of an emergency. Only monks with voting rights, usually life professed members, could attend and have a seat in the chapter room.
After the Great Reformation in England, in the Anglican Cathedrals the Abbot or Prior, often became the Dean, choral groups or Canons of the Cathedral filled the choir stalls once occupied by monks but the term Chapter persisted to identify the group elected or appointed to represent the congregation in legal and fiduciary matters and advise the dean or Bishop in the same way the monks of old advised the Abbot in the Chapters of the Abbey Cathedrals.
Most Religious Orders today who live in monastic settings, still have a daily chapter meeting which begins with prayer and a reading from their Rule of Life and a major Annual Chapter meeting at which all the members gather to conduct the business of the order, make major community decisions and elect leadership usually in context of the community’s annual retreat.
The Rev Andrew Rank SSP is a Canon of the Cathedral