Churches, Minsters and Cathedrals

Legal distinctions between the designation of Church of England churches

During his visit to  Hull on 7 November, the Archbishop of York announced that Holy Trinity church would be re-dedicated as a Minster “in recognition of its inspiring regeneration, physically and spiritually”. To many Anglicans as well asst-gregory-minster-img_183092 non-Anglicans, the “Minster” designation is confusing, since it is applied to a range of buildings from some of smallest places of worship, such as St Gregory’s Minster, Kirkdale, N Yorks, (photo inset) to York Minster, the largest gothic cathedral in northern Europe, (photo below). This post sets out to unravel the legal and other distinctions between churches, minsters, and cathedrals, and summarize their respective status within the Church of England.


The terms “Cathedral”, “Minster” and “Church” are used in a number of contexts, but we would not quibble with Dr Sentamu’s statement in relation to present day designation of Minster status by the Church:

“The status of Minster is an honorific title bestowed on major churches of regional significance in the Church of England, to reflect their importance and contribution to the local communities they serve”.

york-minster-img_44614However, the situation is more complex where the “Minster” title results from a former monastic connection. Wikipedia provides a convenient summary of the development of Minsters and suggests a convenient taxonomy of 31 Minsters in England, based upon their origin/history: Cathedrals, which were formerly Minsters; Parish Churches, which were formerly Cathedrals or Collegiate Churches; Parish Churches which have long been known as Minsters; and the 17 Parish Churches in England (excluding Hull) which have recently been elevated to Minster status since 1994.

As the recent Hull Minster example has shown, the status of a church may change, and over the years, there have been several examples which demonstrate the interchangeability of the terms “parish church”, “minster” and “cathedral” in relation to the same building. Today, in addition to parish churches that have been given honorific titles, and to cathedrals that have been created as a result of the sub-division and re-arrangement dioceses, there are many examples where  the building bears a name associated with its monastic past. As well as Minsters, this includes Abbeys and Priories as well as collegiate churches.

The Church of England’s, Cathedrals: An Historical Note “aims to offer a (necessarily highly selective) overview of [the history of cathedrals]”; Wikipedia provides useful overviews and listings of English Abbeys, priories and friaries serving as parish churches and Collegiate churches.

Legal distinctions


Following Acts for the Suppression of Religious Houses, 1535 and 1539, (27 Hen 8 c28 and 31 Hen 8 c13 respectively), around ten percent of former monastic churches or other buildings continued in religious use for parochial worship. There are currently 113 former monastic buildings in England that have continued to function as parish churches or chapels of ease, most of these resulting from the suppression of the monasteries. However, the churches of dissolved friaries were seldom able to continue in parochial use, even though they had commonly served worshipping urban congregations, as the friaries lacked the foundation endowments from which a perpetual curacy might be established.

Whilst the above taxonomy of Minsters is useful for the historian or architect, it is of limited application in ecclesiastical legislation for which governance and regulation are of prime importance. In this respect, church law recognizes only two broad categories of building: parishes and “non-parochial units” –  a term used to describe cathedrals and other bodies which fall outwith the vires of a diocesan bishop, infra. For such bodies, the bishop is not the ordinary and as a consequence, these fall outwith the jurisdictions of the consistory courts and the archdeacons.

Thus, a parish church with the “Minster” designation is considered in law no differently from any other parish church unless it is also a cathedral, such as York Minster or  Southwell Minster; it then falls within the legislative regime relating to cathedrals. The same reasoning applies to the designations Abbey, Priory, Collegiate church and Pro-Cathedral, infra.

Greater Churches and Major Churches

The term “greater church” is sometimes used to describe larger parish churches, and the Greater Churches Network was founded in 1991 as “an informal association of non-cathedral churches which, by virtue of their great age, size, historical, architectural, or ecclesiastical importance, display many of the characteristics of a cathedral”. Its web site noted: “[m]ost churches in the group also fulfil a role which is additional to that of a normal parish church”. However, whilst these buildings may have many features in common with cathedrals in relation of their finance, maintenance &c, the term is “an honorific title” bestowed by the diocese, and these churches fall within the same legislative regime as parish churches.

Following a study in 2016 into “Major Parish Churches” under the auspices of the Church Buildings Council, a Cathedrals and Major Churches Officer was appointed within the Church Buildings Council (CBC), and  ~300 churches in England were identified as meeting certain agreed criteria; these define a “Major Parish Church” as having exceptional significance, being physically very large (over 1000m2 footprint), listed as Grade I, II* (or exceptionally II), open to visitors daily, having a role or roles beyond those of a typical parish church, and making a considerable civic, cultural, and economic contribution to their community.

In May 2019, the Greater Churches Network was formally closed, and a new Major Churches Network with a new constitution formed. With Festival Churches, infra, Greater Churches form part of diocesan resources on strategic planning for church buildings on the Church of England web site here.

Festival Churches

In an attempt to keep open those churches threatened with closure, in 2016 the Church of England adopted the concept of designating some as “Festival Churches”. This was reviewed in guest posts herehere, and here, and further information is available on the Church of England web site here. As with “Major Church”, the designation “Festival Church” is a “term of art” rather than a legal definition, although the modus operandi of Festival Churches is subject to a number of ecclesiastical and secular legal provisions, and necessitated a change in Canon B14.


As a group, Cathedrals comprise the most significant example of a “non-parochial unit” and, in common with these other bodies outwith the parish church tranche of legislation, their functioning is governed by separate provisions, their constitution and statutes. The Cathedrals Measures of 1931, 1933 and 1969 provided a significant degree of rationalization; however, in the context of their various designations – Cathedrals, Minsters, &c – it is instructive to summarize the historical background.

The development of cathedrals in England is generally considered in terns of three broad periods: pre-Reformation during which there were nine cathedrals were staffed by ‘secular’ clergy (i.e. clergy who were not members of religious orders); these survived the Reformation intact and came to be known as “Cathedrals of the Old Foundation”. In addition, there were ten cathedrals which were monastic foundations – cathedral priories – nine of which were Benedictine plus one Augustinian. During the Reformation, thirteen cathedrals were founded or re-founded by Henry VIII, and these are known as ‘Cathedrals of the New Foundation”. There were few further developments until the mid 1800s and formation of the ‘Cathedrals of the Modern Foundation” which included a number of “Parish Church Cathedrals” based upon former parish churches, to meet the needs of new dioceses.

This resulted in two forms of cathedral governance: those based upon “dean and chapter” and on “parish church” models. The Cathedrals Measure 1931 provided for the establishment of constitutions and statutes for all cathedrals (except Christ Church, Oxford); the Cathedrals Measure 1963 continued this distinction, which was finally ended by the Cathedrals Measure 1969 when a common framework for the governance of all cathedrals was established. Within that framework, however, there remains scope for a significant degree of diversity which makes it possible for many of the historic differences between the different types of cathedral to continue to exist.

As noted above, the bishop is not the ordinary of the cathedral, which subject to its constitution and statutes, is governed by the dean and chapter. As a consequence, it falls outwith the jurisdictions of the consistory courts and the archdeacons. Nevertheless, it is subject to the Care of Cathedrals Measure 2011 administered through the Fabric Advisory Committee (FAC) Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England (CFCE), to which only the Chapter may apply for a faculty. The bishop’s rights to preach in the cathedral and to claim the assistance of its staff are set out in the statutes. However, he has significant powers as Visitor, such as discussed recently in the case of Chichester Cathedral, and Peterborough and Exeter.

Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford

Whilst other cathedrals have canonries tied to university positions – Ely, Durham and others – the dual status of Oxford Cathedral is unique in being both a  cathedral and a college chapel with the Dean as head of both; it therefore remains outside the above framework common to other cathedrals. Four of its six canons are professors and its constitution is peculiar to itself. Professor Henry Mayr-Harting, a Roman Catholic layman, was Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History in the University and a Canon of Christ Church from 1997 until 2003 and took his turn with the others officiating at choir offices as canon-in-residence. The current holder of the Regius chair, Canon Sarah Foot, is a lay Anglican.

Merged dioceses and the bishop’s cathedra

The 1999 Cathedrals Measure provides that “…the cathedral is the seat of the bishop and a centre of worship and mission”, (S1) and “The bishop shall have the principal seat and dignity in the cathedral”, (S6(1). The “classical” situation, and certainly that within the Roman Catholic Church, it that a cathedral contains the bishop’s cathedra signifying the supremacy of his position in the diocese; the cathedra is generally located in the quire where the emphasis is on teaching, rather than the chapter house with its links to his judgment function. However, this becomes problematic where as a consequence of reorganization,  a diocese finds itself with more than one cathedral, or no cathedral in the place from which it takes its name.

This was the dilemma faced during the merging of the Wakefield, Bradford and Ripon and Leeds dioceses into a new Diocese of Leeds for West Yorkshire and The Dales, which was subsequently renamed the Diocese of LeedsIn the note reviewing the options for the new diocese, the Secretary of the Dioceses Commission commented:

“2.1 There is ample precedent in the pre- and post-Reformation history of the Church of England for a diocese to have more than one cathedral…Thus, for there to be more than one cathedral in a diocese is not in itself an ecclesiological development in the Church of England, and the [Dioceses, Pastoral and Mission Measure 2007]…specifically contemplated this possibility.

He outlined the options available as:

  • for all three existing cathedrals to cease to be cathedrals and another church to be the cathedral church or to be the pro-cathedral;
  • for one or two of the three existing cathedrals to be the cathedral(s) of the new
    diocese and the other one or two to cease to be a cathedral;
  • for the three existing cathedrals to be cathedrals of the new diocese;
  • for one, two or three of the three existing cathedrals to be cathedrals and for another church to be a pro-cathedral.

A further  possibility was for the diocesan bishop to designate one or more of the churches of a diocese as a ‘minster’, though “such designation has no legal effect on the status or governance of the church concerned”. It was finally decided to have the “three cathedral plus optional pro-cathedral” configuration.

The Diocese of Leeds states that it is unique in having three cathedrals in one diocese. However, this is not uncommon elsewhere in the Anglican Communion: the Diocese of Cashel, Ferns and Ossory (the United Dioceses of Cashel, Ferns, Leighlin, Lismore, Ossory & Waterford) has six; and the Diocese of Cork, Cloyne and Ross has three.


A pro-cathedral is a parish church that is currently serving as the cathedral of a diocese, as in the diocese of Europe for which there is the Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity, Gibraltar and the Pro-Cathedral of St Paul, Valletta, Malta and the Pro-Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Brussels. Alternatively, it can provide a temporary expedient: Guildford became a diocese in 1927 and work began nine years later on its cathedral. Holy Trinity Church served as the pro-cathedral and the present cathedral was not consecrated until 1961.

Although the option has not been as yet taken up, the Dioceses of Bradford, Ripon and Leeds and Wakefield Reorganisation Scheme 2013 included a provision for Leeds Minster to be a seat of the bishop of Leeds and be known as the pro-cathedral of the new diocese. The scheme states that in the event, the Minster  would continue to be governed and administered “in the same manner, and be subject to the same provisions as to worship, as any other parish church”. It would also continue to be subject to the jurisdiction of the consistory court.

Non-parochial units

In addition to Cathedrals, other groups of non-parochial units are: Royal Peculiars; Other Peculiars; College Chapels; Chapels of Institutions and the Armed Forces; Guild Churches in the City of London; Private Chapels; and also Mission Initiatives. Details of the legislation associated with these may me found in Moore’s Introduction to English Canon Law, 4th edition, Ed Timothy Briden (2013 Bloomsbury), pp 60-67; and Hill M, Ecclesiastical Law (3rd Edn. OUP, Oxford, 2007), 3.103-3.108].

In What is a peculiar?, Paul Barber observes:

“A peculiar or exempt jurisdiction is, broadly speaking, one which does not fit into the general scheme of jurisdiction within the Church. It is “exempt” from the “normal” structures, its jurisdiction is “peculiar” to itself. It is important at this stage to note that peculiars are jurisdictions, not places, still less buildings. A jurisdiction can be personal, territorial, or a mixture of the two. However, since the reformation, most jurisdictions in the Church of England have been largely territorial, hence the convention of referring to them as places”.

P Barber, EccLJ [1995] 3 (16) 299-312

In the present context, it is pertinent to note that  Westminster Abbey, formerly the Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster, is no longer an abbey; nor is it a cathedral, but a Royal Peculiar, responsible directly to the sovereign.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Churches, Minsters and Cathedrals" in Law & Religion UK, 17 November 2016,

3 thoughts on “Churches, Minsters and Cathedrals

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