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Church vs Chapel vs Cathedral: What’s the Difference?

What is in common between churches, chapels, and cathedrals? That is an easy answer – they are places of worship. But we are here to answer a harder question – what sets them apart, and what defines each of them. Stay with us, and learn some fascinating facts about these religious objects.

These three terms must sound somewhat similar, but what sets them apart?

A church is a place of worship, and it is run by a priest or a pastor, and it requires a permanent congregation. When you say church you can refer to a building with its architectural elements and space inside or a congregation. On the other hand, a chapel doesn’t require a priest and a congregation.

A chapel is only a physical space, often smaller than a church. Sometimes a chapel is a size of a room inside a hospital, airport, or some other building.

A cathedral is a church that represents the seat of church authority in that particular diocese. It is run by a bishop that is the head of a diocese.

You may think that a cathedral needs to be large in proportions, and with rich decorations, but the only requirement is the bishop. What can also be interesting is that a church and chapel.

A lot about these places and their differences can be learned from the origins of their names. The chapel is derived from the French word cappela, which means little cape.

Cathedral is named by a bishop’s throne, named cathedra. On the other hand, the term church already existed in most of the European languages, as Old English cirice, or Old Greek kyriake.

Church Chapel Cathedral
Run by Priest or pastor None Bishop
Place of worship Yes Yes Yes
Permanent congregation Yes No Yes

If you are interested in religious topics, you are already excited, but we are just getting started. Even if you aren`t interested in faith you will find a lot of educational material in this article.

You will learn the purposes of these similar but at the same time different buildings and spaces, and other interesting facts that will broaden your sight toward religion.

What is the difference between a church and a chapel?

If we are comparing them as places of worship, the church needs to have a pastor or a priest to be functional. Mass or liturgy and other church services are held in churches that require a priest or a pastor. Chapels are used for individual prayers, and they don`t require a priest.

In most cases, churches are larger in proportions when compared to a chapel, but there are exceptions to this rule. There are examples of very large chapels when they are compared to some churches, but usually it depends on the location and purpose of those holy buildings.

Church: A Brief History

Religious affiliation wasn`t always free like now, and people were persecuted because of their religious beliefs. Christianity was banned in the Roman Empire, so there was no place for believers to gather. In the beginning, they used their homes as places for praying and worship.

Constantine the Great legalized Christianity which allowed it to spread across the empire. Individual homes weren`t enough for all the believers to gather, pray and discuss theology.

That led to building churches that allowed people to gather and practice their religion in peace and harmony.

With the spread of Christianity, there weren`t enough churches and clergy to accommodate the increasing number of believers all over the empire. The solution was in building chapels that would allow for people to gather, pray, and connect with God.

Cathedrals are a result of the growth of the Church as an institution. Larger numbers of believers required a larger Church administration. Cathedrals are created as places of centralization for Church authority.

Multiple churches from the same geographic region fell into Cathedrals administration. Cathedral is also a seat for a bishop, who is responsible for his diocese and all its clergy.

One of the functions of cathedrals is to show the power of the Church. That is one of the reasons why they are mostly bigger than churches with rich decoration. Only the best materials and construction workers were equipped for building Cathedrals.

Defining A Chapel

There are three ways to define a chapel:

  • A smaller place in the church, with its altar, is called a chapel.
  • A chapel is a place of worship in a building that has some other function. Chapels are often seen in hospitals, schools, colleges, funeral homes, barracks, prisons. Its function is to offer a place for pray when there is no church in the vicinity.
  • Chapels can be a smaller place of worship, built-in remote or hard to get areas, for local residents who can`t go regularly to the nearest church.

Various history sources cite chapels as the first places of worship. They didn`t have a separate building for this purpose, but rather a room or a chamber of a building. In orthodox Christian tradition, chapels were often built beneath the church, or the city gates and everybody could visit it.

There is no clergy assigned to a chapel, so there is no service held in it. The chapel is built with a purpose for individuals in search of some peace and place for prayer.


What is the difference between a church and a cathedral?

They are both places of worship, but a Cathedral is an administrative center of a diocese with a bishop as a leader. Churches and their clergy falls under the jurisdiction of a Cathedral and its bishop.

What is the difference between church and basilica?

In Roman Empire, the basilica was a public building usually built alongside the forum, and it was commonly used as a court. Churches in late antiquity were built from the architectural plans used for the basilicas.

The well-known shape of the church that includes the nave, which is the central part of the church, and two aisles with lower roofs, is taken from the shape of the basilica.

The altar replaced the throne that was in the original basilica. The basic plan of a basilica remained during the Romanesque style and it was used for building churches along with Europe.

What denomination is the Church of England?

Church of England is a part of the Anglican Communion, as a part of a worldwide family of Anglican churches in more than 160 countries around the world. Anglican Communion is the largest Christian denomination in England, with over 26 million members.

What is the main function of a church and a chapel?

Church and chapels are places of worship. At first, worshipers gathered in their homes because they were prosecuted by people of different religions.

When Christianity was accepted by the government believers started building places of worship called churches. They are holy places that are regarded as homes of God.

In churches, worshipers can gather to share their thoughts on God and religion, and can always talk with their priest about some open question that they can`t resolve on their own.

Sometimes it can be just a holy and quiet place where a person can gather their thoughts and share his prayer with God.

Chapels are holy places built for individual prayers, and no service is held in chapels. People usually go to chapels to find peace with themselves and God, away from everybody.


We wanted to bring closer this topic to the wider auditorium of readers. It requires a lot of knowledge about the history of religion and architecture, but we tried to explain everything in simple words so even someone who is learning about religion can find useful information about differences in places of worship.

We hope you enjoyed this trip into the past, and if you are interested in these topics, stay with us!

James Smith

James is a passionate explorer and the creative mind behind, a platform dedicated to unraveling captivating distinctions. With an insatiable curiosity, he uncovers hidden nuances in various aspects of life, from cultural traditions to scientific phenomena. James believes that appreciating differences fosters personal growth and societal empathy.