Exploring churches and cathedrals

Stepping into a cathedral or old church can feel like entering another world: people often experience a sense of ‘otherness’; of escape from the busyness of modern life. They can be an oasis, offering a place of refuge and calm and even somewhere to begin exploring your own spirituality and to discover God for yourself.

Many churches and cathedrals are treasure houses of art and architecture dating back centuries. The oldest churches in the UK still in regular use were built about a thousand years ago so they feel timeless and connect us to past generations. Many church buildings, including those used by Roman Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, the Church of England and other denominations are of great architectural and historical importance. In fact, of the more than 16,000 Church of England churches, more than 75% are listed for their historical significance.

‘The sense of beauty and being inside history always affects me very deeply’  
Visitor to Canterbury Cathedral

Sheringham church, Norfolk.
Sheringham church, Norfolk.

But churches and cathedrals are not museums – they are full of life. They are places where Christians gather to pray to God, to worship him through hymns and songs, and to meet each other. They are also deeply rooted in their communities as places of celebration, remembrance, and mourning. Over the centuries, they have also been places of refuge for people fleeing persecution.

A congregation at a church service.
A congregation at a church service.

In the New Testament part of the Bible, there are many references to the Church but here the meaning is different. When Jesus Christ and his followers talked about ‘the Church’, they were referring to the people who had become Christians, not any building in which they met. And although churches might have a special feeling about them, the Bible teaches that God does not only live in church. He can be found anywhere.

Cathedrals, churches, chapels – and cinemas

Various denominations among Christians meet in different types of buildings. They also organise themselves in different ways, locally, regionally and nationally, even internationally.

For instance, the Church of England is divided into 43 areas called dioceses. Each is led by a bishop and has a cathedral as its main church. Each diocese is made up of parishes.

Church buildings vary and can be known by different names. Methodists often describe their main buildings as chapels, while Quakers have Friends’ Meeting Houses. Churches also use other buildings such as community centres, schools, warehouses and cinemas.

A military chapel at Beverley Minster, East Yorkshire.
A military chapel at Beverley Minster, East Yorkshire.

Many churches and cathedrals have smaller areas called chapels within them. These might be dedicated to a saint or be a place of remembrance for those killed in war.

Church layout

Many churches and cathedrals are cross-shaped with the longer axis running east-west and the most sacred areas towards the east end. Terms you may encounter include:

  • Nave – the main public area where people sit or stand
  • Chancel – the area towards the east end where the altar is placed. The choir might sit here
  • Altar – the place where Holy Communion is celebrated
  • Transept – the two shorter ‘arms’ of the building on the north-south axis

‘Lighting a candle always seems appropriate in a cathedral... I think it feels like your prayer is connecting not only with God but with praise and holiness that has been offered in the place over hundreds of years.’ 
Cathedral visitor

‘We feel drawn to the chapels where people are invited to pray quietly. We find that very comforting in a world which is busy and noisy most of the time.’ 
Cathedral visitors