The Presbytery (or Chancel)                        
A ‘Presbyter’ was a religious elder, and the Presbytery was named for the location within the church where these elders (the clergy, or those of highest rank or importance) would sit.   The presbytery could be raised higher than the nave, with the high altar at the easternmost point, perhaps raised higher still.

Earliest altars were simply tables, or the tombs of martyred saints.  As churches grew and the clergy regulated worship,  the altar was set apart and placed within the most sacred part of the church, decorated over with canopies and curtains, and access to it was limited.  Stone remained, however, the primary material used in building the high altar, and often the precious relics or bones of a particularly powerful saint might be interred within it.  In this way they resembled the shrines, or tabletombs of the Roman and Byzantine burials.


[Church, interior, Ross-on-Wye, England]
As the place where the most sacred of the church mysteries took place, the presbytery was the holiest part of the church.   After the 12th century, the presbytery was separated from the choir below by a screen, called a rood (featuring the crucifix) or chancel screen.  The choir was further separated from the nave by a choir screen, so a member of the congregation looking up toward the pulpit (lectern) would see two screens, behind which the most sacred parts of the Mass were carried out, the chanted liturgical song of the monastery choir, and behind them, the celebration of the Eucharist.  

[Hereford Cathedral]
Surrounding the presbytery/chancel were smaller chapels (see chapels) or shines to the patron or important saints of the abbey or community, as well as to benefactors of the abbey itself. On the eastern wall was usually a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  The Virgin was a primary figure to all Christians of the time, and many monasteries, hospitals and universities, and almost all Cistercian foundations, were dedicated to her.     

To the south side of the presbytery was the Priest’s Door where the priest could enter and begin services.  The door led directly into the presbytery/chancel from either the churchyard, vestry, or cloister.

Copyright (c) Richenda Fairhurst and, 2007  All rights reserved. No commercial permissions are granted.  Keep author, source and copyright permissions with this article.