A Cathedral refers to a Christian church containing the seat of a bishop. It serves as the central church of the entire diocese, episcopate or conference. Although "cathedral" as a word is often loosely applied, those churches that have the roles of a "cathedral" that occur specifically. It is only in the denominations that have an episcopal hierarchy such as the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Orthodox as well as some Methodists and Lutheran churches that have cathedrals (Thomas, 2).
Some people argue that cathedrals were designed to intentionally intimidate people, especially during the middle ages. I agree with this idea. Traditionally, cathedrals were meant to serve God in the whole community. The traditional functions of a bishop in the cathedrals were majorly religious functions. In addition to these religious functions, some bishops engaged in other civil and community functions aimed at promoting the life and welfare of the community and the region that the cathedral rests. Cathedrals were as well meant to be worship centers used by the dioceses that the cathedral serves. This means that in cathedrals, one is expected to find all the worship services that one can experience across the whole diocese. Important ordinations such as the ordination of priests, bishops and deacons are held in cathedrals (Thomas, 5).
In the past, however, cathedrals were designed to intentionally intimidate people. The idea of building cathedrals as the most imposing building in cities or states that they were located is a complete sign of trying to show supremacy and instill fear in people. Why would such cathedrals be such imposing figures like palaces for kings and queens? If they were indeed meant to be the centers of worship, they would be at least modest to show humility before God instead of being materialistic and trying to show how powerful the building and the bishop were. Humility before God is key in Christianity. If it were for religious reasons, such cathedrals would have been built in a manner that shown such humility associated with Christianity. They needed not to be the tallest and most imposing structures in the cities and states they were located. This was a sign of intimidation.
Most of the cathedrals in the middle ages deviated from the primary objective of acting as centers of worship and instead became seats of regional governments. They became administrative structures, and it is through them that the people were ruled. Formation of partnerships with the civil and military powers in 1075 at London was a clear example of how cathedrals shifted from being religious centers to intimidating structures where people were governed. That Ely, the new diocese was carved out of the vast area under control from Lincoln in 1109 to help in the stabilization of the troublesome fen country is a clear sign that cathedrals were indeed so intimidating and deeply involved in the politics of the day (Stollard, 2).
I believe that places of worship should be accessible to all members of that religious group. In the middle age cathedrals, however, this was not the case. There were places in English cathedrals in which worshipers were never allowed to view the whole complex. There always existed a level of sanctity of reverence. Here, worshipers were never allowed there. On rare occasions, they could be allowed, but only allowed tightly controlled glimpses of the same. This is a clear intimidation by these cathedrals and was meant to make worshipers believe that there were places they could not access because of their closeness to the Supreme Being, God. I believe that we are all children of God, and there are no holier Christians than others. As the Bible says, we are all equal in the eyes of the Lord. To say that other Christians should not access some parts of the cathedral complex was a clear sign of intimidation by these cathedrals.
With an increase in the level of wealth, cathedrals were now built in a flamboyant way. It is due to this that this period is often referred to as the "decorated" age. The Lady Chapel at Ely, for instance, had in it some of the finest decorated carvings and stonework. The building had the finest tracery and the largest stone vault. All these were made to show power and supremacy over the people. As I stated earlier, I believe that places of worship should be as simple as possible and not be too materialistic. The building of cathedrals in a flamboyant manner only further intimidated the people and made them look at such places as places of extreme blessing and Godly (Stollard, 8).
The notion that cathedrals had to reflect the glories of heaven was an intimidation in itself. It is due to this believe that cathedrals were made in a magnificent and grandiose manner to mirror God's power. As we know, God is everywhere. He is great, and His glory and power cannot be shown by how magnificent a cathedral is. Trying to show the power of God by building magnificent and flamboyant cathedrals were only meant, therefore, to intimidate the people. Intimidation occurs when people believe that when they see how the cathedral is magnificent, they see the power of God.
The change in the tradition of celebrating masses in cathedrals was also an act of intimidation. In the eleventh century, it was a norm for priests to celebrate masses while facing the congregation across the altar. This tradition, however, changed. Priests began to recite masses with their backs facing the congregation! It appeared as if the priests were leading the congregation in worship. Fine carvings were then made behind the altar. At this time also, the clergy wore very impressive garments, and they were designed to be fully visible whenever priests lifted their hands. That a priest facing the altar and the congregation facing the back of the priest celebrated the mass was a complete intimidation to the congregation. This is a clear indication that cathedrals at those times were designed in a manner aimed at intimidating the people. The initial roles of a cathedral, acting as a place of worship being the primary role, had been neglected.
Stollard, Paul. "The social history of the english medievel cathedral." History Today 43 (1993): 15.
Thomas, P. "From the past to the future: Archaeology and the conservation of cathedrals." Dreaming spires (2006): 100-114.