The Word ‘canon’ has Latin and Greek roots meaning ‘relating to a rule.’ In its ecclesiastical context, the word ‘canon’ originally referred to a member of a chapter or body of clerics living according to a rule and presided over by one of their numbers. In the English tradition, the first cathedrals were not on a grand scale but modest affairs located wherever a bishop chose to establish the base for his missionary work. The name cathedral indicates the place that houses a bishop’s cathedra (chair), this being the symbol of his teaching authority. As bishops were driven from place to place by either external hostility or strategic need, so the location of their cathedrals changed.
Around the bishop was a small residential community of priests who constituted his familia. They worshipped with him, served as his counselors, and shared in his missionary work. Sometimes these communities consisted of monks, but often they were secular priests bound together by a simple rule and therefore known as canons.
As time passed a Canon was a cleric living with others in a clergy house within the precincts or close of a cathedral and ordering his life according to the orders or rules of the church. There is documentary evidence of this as early as the 8th century. In the 11th century some churches required clergy living together in this way to adopt the rule first proposed by St. Augustine that they renounce private wealth.
Those who embraced this change were known as Augustinians or Canons Regular, whilst those who did not were known as Secular Canons.
The title of Canon was later applied to clergy belonging to a cathedral or collegiate church. They had a share in the revenues of the Church and were bound to a common life there. In the well-established cathedrals, Residentiary Canons form the permanent salaried staff of a cathedral and are responsible for the maintenance of its services, fabric, etc.
The title of Canon is given in many dioceses, as in this one, to senior clergy as a largely honorary title. It is usually awarded in recognition of long and dedicated service to the diocese. Some Canons may also be appointed for particular ministries. They are entitled to call themselves Canon and have a role in the administration of the cathedral. The usual dress of a Canon is a purple or purple-trimmed cassock.
In our diocese Canons are often invited to preside at services and to deliver sermons on occasions at the cathedral.