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The word church can confuse some readers. It has two different (related) meanings.

  • One is architectural. A church is a public building dedicated to Christian worship - "the house of God", or "the Lord's house", as it is sometimes called. There is a church in every parish ('the parish church'), and other types are recognized. The full name of a Cathedral (the church where a Bishop and not just a subordinate priest presides) is usually 'The Cathedral Church of [a Saint's name]'. See church - chapel for more refinement.
  • The other meaning of church is institutional. A Church - or to some of the adherents of each The Church - is the community of like-minded Christians who share their beliefs, habits of worship, funds and so on. Originally, a church (institutional) was that group of Christians who met in a particular church (architectural) for their worship; but as doctrine has developed and arguments happened, there have been so many amalgamations and groupings of local groups that an institutional church is often world-wide, and numbers its members in millions - the Roman Catholic church claims over a billion. Many churches claim to be catholic, or universal - which is in itself a source of dispute, and to a disinterested observer appears impossible.
    • The verb 'to church', most commonly in the form of the verbal noun 'churching [of a woman]' is the taking of someone to the building for a particular ceremony. Historically this was most often when a new mother was taken to church for a public thanksgiving for the safe delivery of a new baby, and for ritual cleansing. This last element has led to the service of churching having fallen out of favour.

Because the Christian religion was central to life and society in the British Isles for more than a thousand years, there are many words, compounds and place-names that contain church as an element. These nearly always derive from the word for a building.

Etymological note: the word church is the English spelling of a common Germanic word. (In North Germanic, the form is more usually the current Scots kirk.) The ultimate origin, though disputed, is most likely the Greek κυριακός (kuriakos), an adjective meaning 'of the Lord, dominical'. The expression τὸ Κυριακὸν (δῶμα) (to Kuriakon (dōma)), 'the Lord's (House)', was used, from the 3rd century, to mean a Christian house of worship. (After OED.)