The Chapter of Westminster Cathedral

The High Altar of Westminster Cathedral, showing the Canons' stalls
Photo: Marcin Mazur


One of the great pleasures of living in London is close contact with the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Most Precious Blood, Westminster: colloquially known as Westminster Cathedral. Since 1903 it has striven to offer worship to the highest possible standards; this tradition of fine and solemn ceremonial continues down to the present day, due in no small part, to the Master of Ceremonies to Westminster Cathedral & His Eminence the Cardinal, Mr. Paul Moynihan, KSG. 


Paul Moynihan (right)
Photo: Marcin Mazur
I have the honour of being a Master of Ceremonies to the Cathedral, both for the daily Solemn Masses and for great ceremonies, such as ordinations, the Chrism Mass and large scale public events, such as the funeral of the late Cormac, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor which took place last year. 

Provost Brockie laying the symbols of office on Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor's coffin
Photo: Marcin Mazur
At the heart of all of this activity, although they are not resident, are the chapter of canons. A guidebook of the cathedral from the 1940s explains the situation very well: 

“The officiating clergy of a cathedral are normally the canons of chapter, associated with the Bishop. The paucity of clergy, however, and it must be added, lack of benefices, will not allow of these distinguished members of the diocese, at present, confining their work within the walls of the Cathedral; they occupy positions of responsibility as rectors of important missions in the diocese, and are able to foregather at the Cathedral only once a month in order to thus preserve the bare form of a Cathedral Chapter; two, however, of their body of eighteen reside at the Cathedral, and in the meantime their places in the stalls are filled by a body of eighteen priests called Cathedral chaplains. This small attendance of canons it must be understood is abnormal and merely provisional; we are permitted to hope for a time when the chapter of canons will occupy the position assigned them by ecclesiastical law”

The only part of this situation that has seriously changed is that there is now one Canon (the Cathedral Administrator) and there are now between 6-10 chaplains at any one time. He is next in seniority after the Provost, who heads the chapter, and on certain occasions, speaks on behalf of the clergy of the diocese. 

The modern day Cappa Parva
Photo: Marcin Mazur
As the chapter of the “Mother church” of the country, the canons of Westminster have much that distinguishes them from other chapters. Visibly speaking, it is their choir dress (and therefore that of the chaplains and the cathedral choir) that sets them apart from other chapters. 

The canons have the privilege Lateran choir dress, consisting of the purple choir cassock, and the Cappa Parva; a garment which passes over the head, and does up at the back of the neck. Like a cappa magna, it has a full hood, which is kept looped up, only let down when it is placed over the coffin of the deceased cleric (in some parts of the world in penitential processions, but this was never the practice in Westminster). In fact, it is, in effect, the cappa magna without the train. 

Chaplains present cappa
Photo: Marcin Mazur

In former times, the cappa was of white fur in winter and crimson silk in summer, however, when these fell apart, earlier this century, they were replaced with only silk cappas, in a simplified form (presumably in view of the greater provision for heating in the cathedral). The college of chaplains also wear cappas but in grey, lined in purple, these were formerly of squirrel fur for winter. 

Chaplains in winter cappas

The train of the cappa was formerly kept rolled up and fastened in place by loops and tapes: only the most highly trained sacristan could put it all back together if it came undone. 

A winter Cappa, by Passini
The choir cassocks of the chapter have a knock on effect to the dress of the choir. It is a well established custom (recorded in such places and Nainfa) that those attached to the episcopal household should be arrayed in purple, with cuffs, buttons and piping of the colour of their rank (normatively black, or plain purple). However the custom of this Cathedral has been to array the choir in cassocks with red buttons and facings (in wool rather than silk), as an homage to their work substituting for the canons in singing the office and the Mass. 

Westminster Cathedral Choir. 
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