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chapters and chapter houses

chapters and chapter houses. The chapter house of a monastery, cathedral, or collegiate foundation was second only to the church in importance, and was usually built in close proximity to it. Here the community assembled daily in pre-Reformation times for prayer, for the reading of a chapter in the rule (hence the name), and for the transaction of business. The importance of the chapter house in the life of the community was often reflected in its architectural splendour. Covered with a stone vault, well lit, and entered by an elaborate doorway, there are outstanding examples in England and Wales, including the ruins at Rievaulx in Yorkshire and Margam in Glamorgan. At many cathedrals, too, there are fine chapter houses, notably at Wells (Som.), Southwell minster (Notts.), and Bristol cathedral.

Cathedrals which were not monastic foundations, and collegiate churches, were served by secular clergy, the canons or prebendaries, who constituted the capitular body or chapter. Each member of the chapter had his stall in the choir and seat in the chapter house, and initially each had a predetermined period of residence, when he was expected to assist with the conduct of the church's worship. As time passed these duties became increasingly the responsibility of a smaller group of residentiary canons, usually the precentor (responsible for the music and the ordering of the services), the chancellor (responsible for education), and the treasurer (responsible for the cathedral's fabric, and the vestments and vessels used in worship).

The reforms of the Ecclesiastical Commission in the 19th cent. deprived the prebendaries of their estates, income, and most of their obligations, and, except for the residentiary canons who, with the dean or provost of the cathedral, continue to be responsible for its management and worship, the title of canon or prebendary is now honorary.

Revd Dr John R. Guy

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