What's the Difference between Churches, Chapels, and Cathedrals?

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For every world religion, there is a place to worship. For Christianity, there are a confusing variety of names for these places, which are frequently—but incorrectly—used interchangeably. Church, chapel, and cathedral are the trio of terms most commonly used to denote a religious space, but how are they different? As with most questions on the nature of language, it depends not whom you ask, but when you ask.

Chronologically speaking, the words “church” and “chapel” emerged into widespread use at about the same time, dating back to approximately the thirteenth century. Church evolved from a motley collection of sources: the Old English cirice, West Germanic kirika, Middle Dutch kerke, and from the Greek kyriake. Chapel has a more straightforward derivation, from the Old French chapele, which in turn had roots in the Medieval Latin cappella, literally meaning “little cape,” honoring the story of St. Martin of Tours’ holy garment. Of the two, “church” is the broader term, referring both to the worship space in an architectural sense as well as the congregation as a collective group of people meeting within the church building. Though the word’s original connotations were of a building designated for holy worship, church services now often take place in secular locations, and former church buildings are frequently converted into private homes, bookstores, and bars.

Chapels are commonly smaller spaces, usually a room within the church or a larger, non-faith-based institution like an airport, hospital, or university, and they are not necessarily consecrated ground. Even chapels of considerable size or with their own freestanding grounds differ from the traditional Christian church in welcoming nondenominational or interfaith worship. Perhaps the loosest definition of “chapel” refers to those peculiar Las Vegas wedding locations for hasty, and occasionally poorly thought out, marriages—a far cry from most established religion.

Unlike both churches and chapels, which originated in the general Christian tradition but are not specific to any particular incarnation of it, cathedrals fulfill a specific role within the Catholic faith. Named for the bishop’s throne, the cathedra—and despite its implications of stained glass and grandeur—a “cathedral” is simply the designated principal church within a diocese. Naturally, where the bishop goes, lofty arches and flying buttresses often follow, but those are just a side effect. If the bishop’s seat moves elsewhere, so too does the designation of “cathedral.” Such was the case with Crotia’s Church of the Holy Cross, once billed as “the smallest cathedral in the world”—in the absence of a bishop, the Croatian Tourist Board is pushing the definition just a bit.