Church, Cathedral, and Basilica | What’s the Difference?

What Is the Difference Between a Church, Cathedral, and Basilica?
Thanks to the rise of the internet and an ever increasing dependency on technology, we, the citizens of the modern world, have become reliant on websites and apps to answer our questions, fix our problems, or sometimes, simply do the work for us. But, just because it’s on the internet it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.

For example, let’s say you’re working on a book about Henry VIII and the English Reformation. After a while, you notice that you’re saying “church” in what seems like every few sentences. It’s getting redundant, so you hop on Google and search for “synonyms for church.” Boom! Seconds later, and you’re already back in your Word document changing every other “church” to “cathedral” and every third “church” to “basilica.”

Come editing time, though, there will be problems. For, despite what the internet might say, the names of these houses of worship do have meaning, and are not interchangeable. So, what is the difference between a church, cathedral, and basilica?

What Is the Difference Between a Church, Cathedral, and Basilica?

What Is a Church?

The dictionary defines church as “a building for public and especially Christian worship.” For many though, a church is simply a gathering place for like-minded religious people.

Churches don’t need to be anything special or fancy, so long as they provide a place where people can gather to practice their religion. In fact, some would argue that a church doesn’t even need to be a physical building.

Churches, as in physical church buildings, are a primarily Western concept. Remember that in the days of Jesus, early Christians did not have literal houses of worship in which they could use. The tradition of congregating outside, or in the home of a pastor, continues to this day, especially in many developing countries that might lack resources to build an actual church building.

For many, a “house of worship” can be whatever you make of it.

What Is a Cathedral?

Politics start coming into play when talking about cathedrals. Yeah, yeah, we know about the whole separation of church and state thing, but that’s not what we mean. We’re actually talking about religious politics.

A cathedral is a Christian church that contains the seat of a bishop. (And in this sense, we mean “church” as in an actual building.)

Typically, each denomination has only one cathedral per city or “district”, as one bishop oversees an entire area (or, in Catholicism, diocese). Cathedrals are usually beautiful and grand, as they are a meant to be a physical representation of what that denomination has to offer (Like we said, politics…). However, there is no rule that a cathedral must be large and ornate.

It’s also worth pointing out that “cathedral” is often used colloquially to describe any large and impressive church, regardless of whether it functions as a cathedral or not. This usage, is of course, not correct.

What Is a Basilica?

The word “basilica” is Latin, and has three distinct meanings.

In the times of Ancient Rome, a basilica was essentially a city hall. They were large structures that held courts and various other government functions, and were typically centrally located within each Roman city. Basilicas were often oblong buildings that ended in a semicircular apse.

When the Roman Empire adopted Christianity, it became common for major church buildings to be constructed with the same architectural plan as the basilicas of the past. Today, “basilica” is still used in an architectural sense to describe rectangular buildings with a central nave and aisles, typically with a high transept from which an apse projects.

Lastly, “basilica” is also used as an honorary title that is bestowed upon a Roman Catholic church (typically a cathedral). Basically, a basilica in this sense of the word is a big, important Catholic church that has been given special ceremonial rights by the Pope. The architectural plan of the church does not matter in this case. Once the title is bestowed upon a basilica, it may never be taken away.

So there you have it. Now you know the difference between churches, cathedrals, and basilicas. While the three terms often get (incorrectly) used interchangeably, at least now you know the difference and can impress your friends with this newfound knowledge.

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