A presbytery (Greek, presbyterion, from presbyteros, meaning “elder”) is the area of the church reserved for the clergy to carry out their liturgical functions. It is identical to the sanctuary. In early Christian basilicas, the presbytery was usually a rectangular area at the east end of the nave in front of the apse. It was raised above the floor by several steps—it is sometimes called a bema (the Greek word for “raised platform”)—and was shut off by cancelli from the area of the church for laity on the west and frequently also from the apse on the east. The altar stood at the western end facing the area for the laity.
The reading of scripture also took place at that end. The presbytery could be entered from both sides and from the western end. In special situations a prostasis (an area of varying length closed at the sides by cancelli) was placed in front of it, as in several churches in Abu Mina. In several large Egyptian churches, the presbytery was itself subdivided by inner screens into two sections. In early monastic churches at Kellia the presbytery was simpler—a rectangular altar chamber closed off from the laity by a screen between the jambs of the triumphal arch that formed its front opening.
The presbytery continued in use in medieval English cathedrals, where it often occupied the space between the choir and the high altar. In Egypt, however, it lost its significance, as the khurus (see above) developed in the late seventh and eighth century as a room for the clergy carved out of the naos.
- Delvoye, C. “Bema.” In Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, Vol. 1, pp. 583-99. Stuttgart, 1966.
- Nussbaum, O. Der Standort des Liturgen am christlichen Altar vor dem Jahre 1000, Vols. 1-2. Bonn, 1965.
- Orlandos, A. K. Basilik», pp. 509-535. Athens, 1952.