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Parts of a Church

We have been talking about the cleaning of the chancel, but what and where is the chancel?

Stages of Church Development

The chancel is located at the east end of the church where the altar is located. It could be described as the holiest part of the church as it includes the sanctuary space that is separated from the rest of the church by a screen or railings. This area would have been restricted to everyone except the clergy, and they would have had the responsibility of upkeep of the chancel. The maintenance of the nave was the responsibility of the congregation and this is where they would have stood or sat whilst the service was in progress. The nave may be flanked by parallel aisles and in most churches, it ends with an arch separating the lay area from the chancel. At the east end of the nave the lectern and pulpit are usually found, with the font located near the west end.

The image here shows the general stages of church development (from Rice's Church Primer).

Why the orientation to the east? There are a number of explanations including that Christ’s Second Coming would be from the East so the congregation would need to be facing him, that the star symbolising His birth appeared in the East, but also including non-Christian reasons such as facing the rising sun or practicalities of the building location. These are only a couple of examples as there are many different views on this, including whether being east-facing is symbolic or literal.

The vestry is an area that can be used as an office by the clergy, or for changing into ceremonial vestments. The porch protects parishioners from the weather before they enter the church, but the church door area was used to conduct community business in the open, in front of all the parishioners.

The bell tower contains the bells which are rung to signify the time for worshippers to go to church for a communal service, rung on special occasions such as a wedding, or a funeral service or, for some religious traditions, rung within the liturgy of the church service to signify to people that a specific part of the service has been reached.

This is a much-simplified exploration of the parts of a church and doesn't cover all the wondrous aspects of the architecture, so if you want to know more, there are some excellent books out there such as:

  • Rice’s Church Primer, Matthew Rice

  • Pocket Guide to How to Read a Church, Dr. Richard Taylor

  • How To Read A Church: A Guide to Images, Symbols and Meanings in Churches and Cathedrals, Dr Richard Taylor

  • Church Explorer's Handbook, Clive Fewins

St Peter’s is a simple church with a large nave, chancel and bell tower all constructed in the 13th century, along with a modern north porch and south vestry.

Image from the "Parishes: Preston," in A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 7, the Rape of Lewes, ed. L F Salzman (London: Victoria County History, 1940), 268-273. British History Online, accessed November 6, 2017,

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