CHANCEL (through O. Fr. from Lat. plur. cancelli, dim. of cancer, grating, lattice, probably connected with an Indo-European root Kar-, to bend; cf. circus, curve, &c.), in the earliest and strictest sense that part of a church near the altar occupied by the deacons and sub-deacons assisting the officiating priest, this space having originally been separated from the rest of the church by cancelli or lattice work. The word cancelli is used in classical Latin of a screen, bar or the like, set to mark off an enclosed space in a building or in an open place. It is thus used of the bar in a court of justice (Cicero, Verres, ii. 3 seq.). It is particularly used of the lattice or screen in the ancient basilica, which separated the bema, or raised tribunal, from the rest of the building. The use of the name in ecclesiastical buildings is thus natural, for the altar stood in the place occupied by the bema in the apse of the basilica. From the screen the term was early transferred to the space inter cancellos, i.e. the locus altaris cancellis septus. This railed-off space is now generally known among Roman Catholics as the “sanctuary,” the word chancel being little used. In the Church of England, however, the word chancel survived the Reformation, and is applied, both in the ecclesiastical and the architectural sense, to that part of the church occupied by the principal altar or communion table and by the clergy and singers officiating at the chief services; it thus includes presbytery, chancel proper and choir (q.v.), and in this sense, in the case of cathedrals and other large churches, is often used synonymously with choir. In this more inclusive sense the early basilican churches had no chancels, which were a comparatively late development; the cancelli, e.g. of such a church as San Clemente at Rome are equivalent not to the “chancel screen” of a medieval church but to the “altar rails” that divide off the sanctuary. In churches of the type that grew to its perfection in the middle ages the chancels are clearly differentiated from the nave by structural features: by the raising of the floor level, by the presence of a “chancel arch,” and by a chancel or rood screen (see Rood). The chancel screen might be no more than a low barrier, some 4 ft. high, or a light structure of wood or wrought iron; sometimes, however, they were massive stone screens, which in certain cases were continued on either side between the piers of the choir and (on the European continent) round the east end of the sanctuary, as in the cathedrals of Paris, Bourges, Limoges, Amiens and Chartres. These screens served the purpose, in collegiate and conventual churches, of cutting off the space reserved for the services conducted for and by the members of the chapter or community. For popular services a second high altar was usually set up to the west of the screen, as formerly at Westminster Abbey. In parish churches the screen was set, partly to differentiate the space occupied by the clergy from that reserved for the laity, partly to support the representation of the crucifixion known as the Rood. In these churches, too, the chancel is very usually structurally differentiated by being narrower and, sometimes, less high than the nave.
In the Church of England, the duty of repairing the chancel falls upon the parson by custom, while the repair of the body of the church falls on the parishioners. In particular cases, as in certain London churches, the parishioners also have to repair the chancel. Where there are both a rector and a vicar the repairs are shared between them, and this is also the case where the rector is a lay impropriator. By the rubric of the English Prayer Book “the chancels shall remain as they have done in times past,” i.e. distinguished from the body of the church by some partition sufficient to separate the two without interfering with the view of the congregation. At the Reformation, and for some time after, this distinction was regarded by the dominant Puritan party as a mark of sacerdotalism, and services were commonly said in other parts of the church, the chancels being closed and disused. The rubric, however, directs that “'Morning and Evening Prayer' shall be used in the accustomed place in the church, chapel or chancel, except it shall be otherwise determined by the Ordinary.” Chancel screens, with or without gates, are lawful, but chancellors of dioceses have refused to grant a faculty to erect gates, as unnecessary or inexpedient.