You may call me “Captain Obvious” when I tell you that the Bishop’s chair (or throne) is the place where the Bishop sits; although it is a little more complicated than that.
As you will know from your own churches, the Bishop’s Chair is typically the most stately or officious of all the church’s furnishings – often towering above other chairs in the sanctuary – and it is usually surmounted by (or embellished with) a mitre – the crowning symbol of the Bishop’s authority. In other words, the Bishop’s throne is typically “the best seat in the house,” so to speak, in both its stature and grandeur. There is a sense in which this is entirely justified, not due to some misplaced notion of the importance of the article itself, but because it is from that seat that the Bishop celebrates sacramental acts, such as confirmation and ordination. Moreover, in the early church it was from the throne that the Bishop not only preached but also declared what was normative for the church’s worship and belief. Thus, in every sense, the Bishop’s throne was the seat of his authority – for only males were bishops in those days.
These days, the Bishop’s chair has become such a ubiquitous fixture of contemporary parishes that it is hardly possible to visit a church that does not have one gracing its chancel or sanctuary. However, this was not always the case. In the early church, there was only one Bishop’s throne – called the cathedra – which was found in the cathedral, the seat of the Bishop’s spiritual (and temporal) authority within a diocese*. However, as the church began to expand, both numerically and geographically, it became difficult for all the faithful to make their pilgrimage to the (often distant) cathedral. To resolve this dilemma, the Bishop brought the cathedra to them. However, since the Bishop’s throne was of sufficient size and opulence to make frequent transport impractical, a portable, folding, chair, called a “faldstool,” was employed. In this way, the Bishop literally toted the seat of his authority with him from parish to parish as he carried out his episcopal ministry.
Consequently, the many Bishop’s Chairs that one finds in most churches are the offspring of the union between cathedra and faldstool. For, rather than moving the throne from place to place, the church developed the practice of having a Bishop’s chair in each parish. It was considered a little less trouble and a little more decorous than toting a faldstool everywhere – as though the Bishop were lugging an episcopal lawn-chair from hither to yon.
Aside from its origins, what is equally interesting about the Bishop’s Chair is who may sit there. Most would agree that, in the cathedral, the Bishop’s Chair is for the Diocesan Bishop alone. As far as the Bishop’s Chairs in parish churches go, some would suggest that they, too, should never be sat in by anyone but the Bishop. For example, in many church’s, well intentioned laity and clergy would never deign to sit in the Bishop’s chair, despite his/her absence, even if it were “the last seat in the house.” However, in other parishes the Bishop’s chair is often used, when no other seat is available.
Since there are no canons or constitutions governing this issue, I leave it to the reader to ponder: is the Bishop’s chair only to be graced by the episcopal bottom, or – in the absence of the Bishop – is the chair, just a chair?
* As an interesting aside, the Bishop’s chair was called the cathedra, deriving from the Latin word for “seat” which is the origin of the terms “cathedral”, mentioned above, and “ex cathedra” – i.e., the phrase used, to this day, to describe those official pronouncements made by the Bishop by the authority vested in his/her status as a successor of the Apostles. As an illustration of the weight carried by such proclamations, in the Roman Catholic Church statements made by the Pope, ex cathedra, i.e., from “the chair of St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles” are considered infallible. Imagine that!