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A church is a building that was constructed to allow people to meet to worship together. These people are usually Christians, or influenced by Christianity. Some other religious groups also call their religious buildings churches.
Depending on the number of people that are in a community, the churches come in different sizes. Small churches are called chapels. The churches in a particular geographical area form a group called the diocese. Each diocese has a cathedral. In most cases, the cathedral is a very big church. Cathedrals are the seat of bishops.
History of church buildings
In the early days of Christianity people had to worship in secret. Christian worship was not allowed in the Roman empire, so Christians had to meet in a secret place. Sometimes they met in people’s houses or barns, sometimes they met underground. The first places that were built for Christian worship were small chapels that were cut into a rock where people could worship without being discovered.
After the death of the Roman emperor Constantine in 337 A.D. Christians were allowed to have buildings to worship in. These first churches were built on a similar plan to Roman basilicas. This plan was later used for the fine Gothic cathedrals and churches that were built at the end of the Middle Ages.
The parts of a church
There are several parts in the architecture of a church. Not all churches will have all these parts:
- The nave is the main part of the church where the congregation (the people who come to worship) sit.
- The aisles (rhymes with “piles”) are the sides of the church which may run along the side of the nave.
- The transept, if there is one, is an area which crosses the nave near the top of the church. This makes the church shaped like a cross, which is a symbol of the belief that Jesus died on the cross.
- The chancel leads up to the altar at the top of the church. The altar is in the sanctuary. The word “sanctuary” means “sacred place”. People were not allowed to be arrested in the sanctuary, so they were safe. The altar is usually at the east end of the church. People in the church sit facing the altar. We say that the church “faces east”.
- Churches will also have a tower or steeple, usually at the west end. If the church has a transept the tower may be above the centre of the transept.
In Roman Catholic churches there is always a stoup (bowl) of holy water near the entrance of the church. This tradition comes from the fact that Roman basilicas had a fountain for washing in front of the entrance. The font is a bowl where people (often babies) are baptized. This is also near the entrance of the church. This is a symbol of the fact that it is welcoming the people into the Christian church.
Traditionally the nave has long benches for the congregation to sit on. These are called pews. Some churches may now have replaced their pews with chairs so that they can be moved about for different occasions. At the front of the nave is the pulpit where the priest preaches (these talks are called “sermons”). There is also a lectern (like a large music stand) from where the lessons (the Bible readings) are read.
If there are aisles along the side of the nave there will be pillars which hold up the roof. In large churches or cathedrals there may be a row of little arches along the top of these pillars. This is called the triforium. Over the triforium is the clerestory which is a row of small windows high up in the church wall.
The chancel is the most holy part of the church, and this is why it is often separated from the nave by a screen which can be made of wood or stone, or occasionally iron. The congregation can see through the screen. On the top of the screen there may be a cross. This is called a rood (pronounce like “rude”) screen. Priests used to climb up a staircase to the top of the rood screen to read the epistle and the gospel. Sometimes people sang from there.
Inside the chancel are the benches where the choir sit. These are called choir stalls. They are on both sides. The two sides of the choir sit facing one another. The choir members who sit on the left (north side) are called “cantoris” (the side where the “cantor” sits) and those on the right (south side) are called “decani” (the side where the deacon sits). In some large churches or cathedrals the seats for the priests tip up. The top of these seats, when they are tipped up, are called misericords (from the Latin word for “mercy”). This is because the priests or monks were able to lean against them when they got tired if they had to stand up for a long time.
Sometimes there are holes in the walls of the screen so that the congregation can see through. These are called squints. If there is a recess in the wall it is called an aumbry. It is a cupboard for communion wine that has been blessed by a priest.
The altar may be right at the east end of the church, but in larger churches or cathedrals it is often much farther forward. In that case the very east end is called an apse. Sometimes it is a separate chapel called the “Lady Chapel”.
Churches through the ages
The design of churches changed a lot during the course of history. Often churches were made bigger. When this happened there may be a mixture of architectural styles. These styles vary a lot in different countries.
In English churches there were several different periods of architecture:
- The Saxon period (700-1050) was a time when churches were very simple. The end of the church (end of the sanctuary) was often rounded. Hardly any are left now because they were mostly made of wood.
- The Norman period (1050-1190) came from the style called Romanesque which was popular in Europe. The arches had ornaments which were called “mouldings”. The tops of the pillars looked like cushions, so they were called “cushion capitals”. The windows were narrow and rounded at the top.
- Early English or Gothic architecture (1190-1280) was not as solid and heavy as Norman architecture. Towers were elegant and tall, like the tower of Salisbury Cathedral.
- The Decorated style of architecture (1280-1360)was popular at a time when the plague (Black Death) was raging and a third of the people in England died. For that reason, not so much building was done then. There were lots of stone carvings were made in churches at that time.
- The Perpendicular style (1360-1540) was very grand. It had lots of straight upward lines and fan vaulting. This can be seen in Westminster Abbey and King's College Chapel, Cambridge. Many churches that can be seen in England were built in this period.
In the 1600s, churches were built in a variety of styles. Often they copied some of the older styles. After the Great Fire of London many new churches were built by the architect Sir Christopher Wren. They were built in the classical style. Churches continued to be built in later centuries like this, but also the Gothic style continued to be used.
Modern churches often do not have the traditional cross-shape. It is difficult for the congregation to see and hear what is happening in the chancel. Modern churches bring the congregation, choir and priests in closer touch. An example is the round design for the Church of Christ the Cornerstone in Milton Keynes. Modern churches are often simpler but with a warmer character than the Gothic churches. Many have beautiful mosaic glass windows. Coventry Cathedral is a famous example of a modern church building.
- Introduction to New and Alternative Religions in America: 2006 - Page 252
- An Introduction to the Unitarian and Universalist Traditions - Page 128, 2011
- Encyclopædia Britannica, 1973 ISBN 0-85229-099-3