In church architecture, the chancel is the space around the altar,
including the choir and the sanctuary (sometimes called the
presbytery), at the liturgical east end of a traditional Christian
church building. It may terminate in an apse. It is generally the
area used by the clergy and choir during worship, while the
congregation is in the nave. Direct access may be provided by a
priest's door, usually on the south side of the church. This is one
definition, sometimes called the "strict" one; in practice in churches
where the eastern end contains other elements such as an ambulatory
and side chapels, these are also often counted as part of the chancel,
especially when discussing architecture. In smaller churches, where
the altar is backed by the outside east wall and there is no distinct
choir, the chancel and sanctuary may be the same area. In churches
with a retroquire area behind the altar, this may only be included in
the broader definition of chancel.
In a cathedral or other large church there may be a distinct choir
area at the start of the chancel (looking from the nave), before
reaching the sanctuary, and an ambulatory may run beside and behind
it. All these may be included in the chancel, at least in
architectural terms (see above). In many churches, the altar has now
been moved to the front of the chancel, in what was built as the choir
area, or to the centre of the transept, somewhat confusing the
distinction between chancel, choir and sanctuary. In churches with
less traditional plans the term may not be useful in either
architectural or ecclesiastical terms. The chancel may be a step or
two higher than the level of the nave, and the sanctuary is often
raised still further. The chancel is very often separated from the
nave by altar rails, or a rood screen, a sanctuary bar, or an open
space, and its width and roof height is often different from that of
the nave; usually the chancel will be narrower and lower.
In churches with a traditional
Latin cross plan, and a transept and
central crossing, the chancel usually begins at the eastern side of
the central crossing, often under an extra-large chancel arch
supporting the crossing and the roof. This is an arch which separates
the chancel from the nave and transept of a church. If the chancel,
strictly defined as choir and sanctuary, does not fill the full width
of a medieval church, there will usually be some form of low wall or
screen at its sides, demarcating it from the ambulatory or parallel
As well as the altar, the sanctuary may house a credence table and
seats for officiating and assisting ministers. In some churches, the
congregation may gather on three sides or in a semicircle around the
chancel. In some churches, the pulpit and lectern may be in the
chancel, but in others these, especially the pulpit, are in the nave.
The word "chancel" derives from the French usage of chancel from the
Late Latin word cancellus ("lattice"). This refers to the
typical form of rood screens. The chancel was formerly known as the
presbytery, because it was reserved for the clergy.
Early Christian architecture
Early Christian architecture the templon was a barrier dividing off
the sanctuary from the rest of the church; in Eastern Christianity
this developed into different arrangements from those of the Western
church, with the sanctuary often not visible by the congregation. In
the West the ciborium, an open-walled but usually roofed structure
sheltering the altar, became common, and was originally fitted with
curtains that were drawn and pulled back at different points in the
Mass, in a way that some Oriental Orthodox churches still practice
A large (or "deep") chancel made most sense in monasteries and
cathedrals where there was a large number of singing clergy and boys
from a choir school to occupy the choir. In many orders "choir monk"
was a term used to distinguish the educated monks who had taken full
vows, or were training to do so, from another class, called "lay
brothers" or other terms, who had taken lesser vows and mostly did
manual tasks, including farming the monastery's land. These usually
sat in the nave, with any lay congregation.
Following the exposition of the doctrine of transubstantiation at the
Lateran Council of 1215, clergy were required to ensure that
the blessed sacrament was to be kept protected from irreverent access
or abuse; and accordingly the area of the church used by the lay
congregation was to be screened off from that used by the clergy. This
distinction was enforced by the development of canon law, by which the
construction and upkeep of the chancel was the responsibility of the
rector, whereas the construction and upkeep of the nave was the
responsibility of the parish. Barriers demarcating the chancel became
increasing elaborate, but were largely swept away after both the
Protestant Reformation and then the
the congregation having a good view of what was happening in the
chancel. Now the low communion rail is generally the only barrier;
despite being essentially a
Counter-Reformation invention, this has
proved useful and accepted in the Protestant churches that dispense
communion. However the screen enjoyed a small revival in the 19th
century, after the passionate urgings of Augustus Pugin, who wrote A
Chancel Screens and Rood Lofts, and others.
After the Reformation Protestant churches generally moved the altar
(now often called the communion table) forward, typically to the front
of the chancel, and often used lay choirs who were placed in a gallery
at the west end. The rear of deep chancels became little used in
churches surviving from the Middle Ages, and new churches very often
omitted one. With the emphasis on sermons, and their audibility, some
churches simply converted their chancels to seat part of the
congregation. In 19th-century England one of the battles of the
Cambridge Camden Society, the architectural wing of the
Anglo-Catholics in the Church of England, was to restore the chancel
as a necessary part of a church. By pushing the altar back to its
medieval position and having the choir used by a lay choir, they were
largely successful in this, although the harder end of the High Church
objected to allowing a large group of laity into the chancel.
Different approaches to worship in the 20th century again tended to
push altars in larger churches forward, to be closer to the
congregation, and the chancel again risks being a less used area of
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^ a b Curl, James Stevens (2006). A Dictionary of Architecture and
Landscape Architecture. Oxford University Press. p. 166.
^ "priest's door", A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape
Architecture, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000 .
^ Fleming, "Chancel"; Pevsner, p. 349
^ Harris, Cyril M. (1977). Illustrated Dictionary of Historic
Architecture. Courier Dover Publications. p. 105.
^ Harper, Douglas (2001). "Chancel". Online Etymology Dictionary.
^ Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Presbytery". Catholic
Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
^ Online text
^ White, 93-97
Fleming, John; Honour, Hugh; Pevsner, Nikolaus (1986), Dictionary of
Architecture, 1980 (3 ed.), Penguin Books Ltd.
Pevsner, Nikolaus; Priscilla Metcalf, The Cathedrals of England;
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White, James F., The Cambridge Movement: The Ecclesiologists and the
Gothic Revival, 1962 (2004 reprint), Wipf and Stock Publishers,
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"Chancel". Encyclopædia Britannica. 5 (11th ed.). 1911.