The Chapter Room

By Cathleen Bascom

When you visit Wells Cathedral in England, everyone will tell you, don’t miss the Chapter Room! The Chapter House is an octagonal building on the north side of this beautiful cathedral of blonde stone. It is reached by a long stone staircase, now very worn by centuries of passing feet. When you reach it (a little winded?) the room is stunning. The stained-glass windows are now mainly replaced with clear glass, bathing the room in light.

But the signature feature of the Wells Cathedral Chapter Room is its assembly of 40 chairs formed in a perfect circle. There is no high table. Unlike our recent conventions, no long extended stages or raised podiums. Instead, each member of the chapter had a seat around the edge of the Chapter House, each one the same size and of identical shape. Over each seat is the name of the place where the chapter member came from, making it clear that all chapter members were other numerous people they represented. In Medieval times, chapter members represented little fiefdoms, surely in strife.

What view of humanity, what view of the world, inspires such an architectural expression? First of all, it is a communal view: come together. Moreover, it is the view portrayed in today’s New Testament lessons. It is a view clear about its organizing principle: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” In such a world, power and money take a back seat to love. Obviously, there are leaders in that chapter, yet the seats in the circle are equal, because all have the power to love. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the Law.”

The words from today’s Gospel are weighty. Even in conflict or in times of differing opinion or even sin, it would seem that fleeing into estranged, individual bliss isn’t an option in Jesus’ mind. Come together. “Truly, I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 

Can Jesus mean it? When we gather friends around the table, around the Eucharist, or to discuss the next president. Holy work? Can you see the disciples looking at each other? “What? Us? Why would you put eternal things in our hands? We’ll just mess it up!”

Of course, I left out a crucial fact about the Chapter Room at Wells Cathedral. In the very middle of the circle of stone chairs is a stone pillar carved like a big tree of life, stretching up to heaven. The pillar, which draws together 32 shafts, holds the Chapter House together and forever reminds those present what makes the assembly holy: “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst.”

I the Tree of Life, the source of all. I am present. I am the center. The Tree of Life is our axis. 

I went into the cathedral’s undercroft to gaze on Vicki Ingram’s beautiful landscape paintings now hanging there, and I noticed, with some amazement, our pillars. Trees of Life! I saw them, custom-painted by parishioners as Trees of Life. Whenever we gather there, may they remind us that “Christ is in our midst”!

As our collect says: “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, amen.”

The Rt. Rev. Cathleen Bascom is Bishop of Kansas.


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