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Cathedral Time

Cathedral (or Christ Church) Time is traditionally five minutes behind Greenwich Mean Time. This tradition dates back to the days before the railways when each region of the country kept to its own local time. Hence what we now call Cathedral Time is actually a survival of old Oxford Time.

With the coming of the railways, distant parts of the country which had once been isolated from one another were now linked, and it was necessary for railway stations to keep to the same time. The difference in the time kept by different stations (usually calculated by the sun),could be as much as twenty minutes on railways running east-west. causing chaos with the time-tables. The problem stems from the fact that the earth spins on its axis once every 24 hours. Because it spins, different parts of the earths surfaces face the sun at different times and even the difference of a few degrees in longitude can affect the calculation of time in two relatively close places.

Oxford 5 minutes west of Greenwich In 1852 the Greenwich Meridian was chosen as the standard by which British time was to be calculated, and a Master Clock was built there from which all railway station clocks were to be synchronised. From then on Greenwich Mean Time (or "Railway Time") became generally accepted throughout Britain.

Christ Church, however, has continued to keep to the old Oxford Time, which had been calculated by Oxford's own Observatory, now part of Green College. As Oxford lies 1 ¼ degrees to the west of Greenwich, and as one minute is lost each ¼ degree west of Greenwich you go, Oxford's own local time is calculated as 5 minutes behind G.M.T.

The Smallest Cathedral?

It is true that at one time Christ Church Oxford would have been the smallest Cathedral in England. This was especially true in the days before Gilbert Scott, when the Nave had only 4 bays. However, with the creation this century of new cathedrals which had previously been parish churches, Christ Church lost its distinction of being the smallest Cathedral in the country.

Cathedrals are notoriously difficult to measure accurately, and the following details are based only on rough calculations. However they should give some idea of how things stand:-

  • 1546 Christ Church Oxford (present size - 16,413 sq ft)
  • 1905 Birmingham Cathedral - 13,720 sq ft
  • 1914 Chelmsford Cathedral - 11,270 sq ft
  • 1927 Derby Cathedral - 10,950 sq ft

(Newport Cathedral. Wales, is smaller still. A Cathedral since 1949, it covers an area of about 7,850 sq ft, and has a total seating capacity of only 600!)

At present Christ Church is probably the fifth smallest English Cathedral after Derby, Chelmsford, Birmingham and Leicester.

The Cathedral Arms

The Cathedral Arms The earliest known record of the Cathedral Coat of Arms was made by Richard Lee, Portcullis Pursuivant, who came across them during a Visitation of Oxfordshire in 1574.

The Arms are made up of a combination of the Royal Standard (as it looked in the days of Henry VIII, who of course was responsible for the re-founding of Christ Church in 1546) and the open Bible of the the old University Arms. The inscription on the Bible is taken from the opening of St John's Gospel; "In the beginning was the Word. and the Word was with God", which has since been replaced by the rather less wordy; "Dominus illuminatio mea" ("God is my illumination").

It seems that these Cathedral Arms were quite quickly abandoned, owing to the practice that most Deans and Bishops adopted of quartering, their own family arms with those of the College (for Deans), or the Diocese (for Bishops). A fascinating example of this can be seen in the Ante-Chapel. The memorial there to John Fell (who during the second half of the seventeenth was both Dean and Bishop) shows his family arms quartered with the Arms of both the College and Diocese. The Cathedral Arms are, however, nowhere to be seen! It was not until the mid-1980s that the Cathedral arms were "re-discovered" by Mr Michael Maclagan, Richmond Herald and a member of the House.

Published by Justin Lewis-Anthony for the Dean and Canons of Christ Church (© 2000)

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Last updated 12-Jul-00