The Outline of an English Parish Church
Let’s talk about the structure of churches and develop a vocabulary of terms. You will find that there is a huge range of terminology in church architecture, much of it very abstruse, some of it rather pretentious and quite a lot of it pretty unnecessary. You will enjoy expanding your own architectural vocabulary but don’t get hung up about it.
The “classic” plan of a church is the so called “cruciform” model. If you were to see one from the sky it would have the rough shape of a crucifix. The top of the cross is the chancel. This is the place where you find the altar and usually the choir stalls. It is the “holiest” part of the church. The chancel always faces east. The reason for this is that this is the direction of Jerusalem from whence Christ will return. It follows then that the longest part of the cross - the nave - is at the west end of the church. The nave is where the congregation sits - or in mediaeval England where it stood. By the way, the plan of cruciform churches was not to emulate Christ’s own cross: it is merely coincidence, surprising as that may seem!
The nave may well be quite “fat” compared with the chancel. This will probably be because it has one or two aisles. The aisles are adjacent to the nave and separated from it by an arcade of arches. Aisles were built to expand the capacity of a church for a bigger congregation because, of course, our population has grown greatly over the centuries. Aisles also gave scope for more elaborate processions around the church.
Above the nave arcades the walls may well be extended upwards, well above the height of the aisles themselves, so that they are higher than any other part of the church except the tower. This upward extension will have a row of windows designed to shed extra light throughout the nave of the church. This upward extension and its windows is known as a “clerestory”.
At the eastern end of an aisle you may well see a “chapel”. At its simplest this might be no more than another altar. At its most sophisticated it might be a completely separate space separated from the rest of the aisle, perhaps, by an arch.
The two arms of the cross are the transepts. By definition, the one on the left is the north transept and the right hand one is the south. In these transepts there will also very often be chapels. The place where the four elements - transepts, nave and chancel - meet is known as the “crossing”. A crossing might, therefore, have as many as four arches. Almost all churches - even is they are not cruciform - will have one of these: the chancel arch that separates nave and chancel.
Most churches have a tower at the west end. Not all have towers. Those that don’t often have “bell cotes” which are simple open stone cradles for one or two bells. Some, of course, also have a spire. A few churches have central towers (which, incidentally, is the strict definition of a cruciform church) and one or two even have them separated from the church altogether.
Most churches, but by no means all, have their main entrance towards the south west of the church. Many churches have west doors in their towers as well, but these are generally disused: the ground floors of towers have a tendency to be a mixture of vestry and junk room in many churches. North doors are common too, but these tend to be not just disused but blocked up altogether. The north side in early mediaeval times was regarded as the “Devil’s Side” and no decent person was buried there. By definition it was the coldest side of the church. The notion of the “devil’s side” has long since been abandoned but the north side is still often rather unloved: here you will find the often appalling vestry annexes, boiler houses, unkempt churchyards and crumbling masonry. With entrances mainly on the south side this is not, perhaps, surprising.
The south door will more often than not have a porch. These were far more important in mediaeval times than they are now. Much church business, including weddings, would have been carried out here. Some even have a room above called a “parvise”. Often they are now disused and often they have been used in the past as schoolrooms.