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Image Map : Christian Books : CHAPTER X. THE PROGRESS OF PRELACY.

The Ancient Church by William Dool Killen


We cannot tell when the president of the presbytery began to hold office for life; but it is evident that the change, at whatever period it occurred, must have added considerably to his power. The chairman of any court is the individual through whom it is addressed, and, without whose signature, its proceedings cannot be properly authenticated. He acts in its name, and he stands forth as its representative. He may, theoretically, possess no more power than any of the other members of the judicatory, and he may be bound, by the most stringent laws, simply to carry out the decisions of their united wisdom; but his very position gives him influence; and, if he holds office for life, that influence may soon become formidable. If he is not constantly kept in check by the vigilance and determination of those with whom he is associated, he may insensibly trench upon their rights and privileges. In the second century the moderator of the city eldership was invariably a man advanced in years, who, instead of being watched with jealousy, was regarded with affectionate veneration; and it is not strange if he was often permitted to stretch his authority beyond the exact range of its legitimate exercise.

Evidence has already been adduced to shew that, on the rise of Prelacy, the presidential chair was no longer inherited by the members of the city presbytery in the order of seniority. The individuals considered most competent for the situation were now nominated by their brethren; and as the Church, especially in great towns, was sadly distracted by the machinations of the Gnostics, it was deemed expedient to arm the moderator with additional authority. As a matter of necessity, the official who was furnished with these new powers required a new name; for the title of president by which he was already known, and which continued long afterwards in current use, [590:1] did not now fully indicate his importance. It was, therefore, gradually supplanted by the designation of bishop, or overseer. Whilst this functionary was nominated by the presbyters, he might be also set aside by them, so that he felt it necessary to consult their wishes and to use his discretionary power with modesty and moderation; but, when he began to be elected by general suffrage, his authority was forthwith established on a broader and firmer foundation. He was now emphatically the man of the people; and from this date he possessed an influence with which the presbytery itself was incompetent to grapple.

As early as the middle of the second century the bishop, at least in some places, was entrusted with the chief management of the funds of the Church; [590:2] and probably, about fifty years afterwards, a large share of its revenues was appropriated to his personal maintenance. [590:3] His superior wealth soon added immensely to his influence. He was thus enabled to maintain a higher position in society than any of his brethren; and he was at length regarded as the great fountain of patronage and preferment. Long before Christianity enjoyed the sanction of the state, the chief pastors of the great cities began to attract attention by their ostentatious display of secular magnificence. Origen, who flourished in the former half of the third century, strongly condemns their vanity and ambition; and though perhaps his ascetic temperament prompted him to indulge somewhat in the language of exaggeration, the testimony of so respectable a witness cannot be rejected as untrue. |We,| says he, |proceed so far in the affectation of pomp and state, as to outdo even bad rulers among the pagans; and, like the emperors, surround ourselves with a guard that we may be feared and made difficult of access, particularly to the poor. And in many of our so-called Churches, especially in the large towns, may be found presiding officers of the Church of God who would refuse to own even the best among the disciples of Jesus while on earth as their equals.| [591:1] In these remarks the writer had doubtless a particular reference to his own Church of Alexandria; but it is well known that elsewhere some bishops in the third century assumed a very lofty bearing. It is related of the celebrated Paul of Samosata, the bishop of Antioch, that he acted as a secular judge, that he appeared in public surrounded by a crowd of servants, and that he took special pleasure in pomp and parade; and yet, had he not lapsed into heresy, there is no evidence that his overweening pride would have brought down upon him the vengeance of ecclesiastical discipline. In the third century the chief pastor of the Western metropolis must have been known to the great officers of government, and perhaps to the Emperor himself. Decius must have regarded the Roman bishop as a somewhat formidable personage when he declared that he would sooner tolerate a rival candidate for the throne, and when he proclaimed his determination to annihilate the very office. [591:2]

It was not strange that dignitaries who affected so much state soon contrived to surround themselves with a whole host of new officials. Within little more than a century after the rise of Prelacy the number of grades of ecclesiastics was nearly trebled. In addition to the bishop, the presbyters, and the deacons, there were also, in A.D.251, in the Church of Rome lectors, sub-deacons, acolyths, exorcists, and janitors. [592:1] The lectors, who read the Scriptures to the congregation [592:2] and who had charge of the sacred manuscripts, attract our attention as distinct office-bearers about the close of the second century. The sub-deacons are said to have had the care of the sacramental cups; the acolyths attended to the lamps of the sacred edifice; the exorcists [592:3] professed by their prayers to expel evil spirits out of the bodies of those about to be baptized; and the janitors performed the more humble duties of porters or door-keepers. At a subsequent period each of these functionaries was initiated into office by a special form of ordination or investiture. It was laid down as a principle that no one could regularly become a bishop who had not previously passed through all these inferior orders; [592:4] but when the multitude wished all at once to elevate a layman to the rank of a bishop or a presbyter, ecclesiastical routine was compelled to yield to the pressure of popular enthusiasm. [592:5]

The great city in which Prelacy originated appears to have been the place where these new offices made their first appearance. Rome, true to her mission as |the mother of the Catholic Church,| conceived and brought forth nearly all the peculiarities of the Catholic system. The lady seated on the seven hills was already regarded with great admiration, and surrounding Churches silently copied the arrangements of their Imperial parent. In the East, at least one of the orders now instituted by the great Western prelate, that is, the order of acolyths, was not adopted for centuries afterwards. [593:1]

The city bishops were well aware of the vast accession of influence they acquired in consequence of their election by the people, and did not fail to insist upon the circumstance when desirous to illustrate their ecclesiastical title. Any one who peruses the letters of Cyprian may remark the frequency, as well as the transparent satisfaction, with which he refers to the mode of his appointment. Who, he seems to say, could doubt his right to act as bishop of Carthage, seeing that he had been chosen by |the suffrage of the whole fraternity| -- by |the vote of the people?| [593:2] The members of the Church enthusiastically acknowledged such appeals to their sympathy and support, and in cases of emergency promptly rallied round the individuals whom they had themselves elevated to power. But as all the other church officers were meanwhile likewise chosen by common suffrage, the bishops soon betrayed an anxiety to appropriate the distinction, and began, under various pretexts, to interfere with the free exercise of the popular franchise. In one of his epistles Cyprian excuses himself to the Christians of Carthage because he had ventured to ordain a reader without their approval. He pleads that the peculiar circumstances of the case and the extraordinary merits of the candidate must be accepted as his apology. |In clerical ordinations,| says he, |my custom is to consult you beforehand, dearest brethren, and in common deliberation to weigh the character and merits of each. But testimonies of men need not be awaited when anticipated by the sentence of God.| [593:3] The sanction of the people should have been obtained before the ordination; but, as persecution now raged, it is suggested that it would have been inconvenient to lay the matter before them; and Cyprian argues that the informality was pardonable, inasmuch as the Almighty himself had given His suffrage in favour of the new lector; for Aurelius, though only a youth, had nobly submitted to the torture rather than renounce the gospel.

The ordination of Aurelius under such circumstances was not, however, a solitary case; and there is certainly something suspicious in the frequency with which the bishop of Carthage apologizes to the clergy and people for neglecting to consult them on the appointment of church officers. In another of his letters he announces to the presbyters and deacons that, |on an urgent occasion| he had |made Saturus a reader, and Optatus the confessor a sub-deacon.| [594:1] Again, he tells the same parties, and |the whole people,| that |Celerinus, renowned alike for his courage and his character, has been joined to the clergy, not by human suffrage, but by the divine favour;| [594:2] and at another time he informs them that he had been |admonished and instructed by a divine vouchsafement to enrol Numidicus in the number of the Carthaginian presbyters.| [594:3] These cases were, no doubt, afterwards quoted as precedents for the non-observance of the law; and from time to time new pretences were discovered for evading its provisions. In this way the rights of the people were gradually abridged; and in the course of two or three centuries, the bishops almost entirely ignored their interference in the election of presbyters and deacons, as well as of the inferior clergy.

New canons relative to ordination were promulgated probably about the time when the city presbyters ceased to have the exclusive right of electing their own bishop. The altered circumstances of the Church led to the establishment of these regulations. The election of the chief pastor of a great town was often a scene of much excitement, and as several of the elders might be regarded as candidates for the office, it was obviously unseemly that any of them should preside on the occasion. It was accordingly arranged that some of the neighbouring bishops should be present to superintend the proceedings. The successful candidate now began to be formally invested with his new dignity by the imposition of hands; and at first, perhaps, one of the bishops, assisted by one of the presbyters of the place, performed this ceremony. [595:1] But the elders soon ceased to take part in the ordination. At the election, the people and the clergy sometimes took opposite sides; and, in the contest, the ecclesiastical party was not unfrequently completely overborne. It occasionally happened, as in the case of Cyprian, [595:2] that one of the elders was chosen in opposition to the wishes of the majority of the presbytery; or, as in the case of Fabian of Rome, [595:3] that a layman was all at once elevated to the episcopal chair; and, at such times, the disappointed presbyters did not care to join in the inauguration. The bishops availed themselves of the pretexts thus furnished to dispense with their services altogether. At length the power of admitting to the ministry by the laying on of hands began to be challenged as the peculiar prerogative of the episcopal order.

In many places, perhaps before the middle of the third century, elders were no longer permitted to take part in the consecration of bishops; but Prelacy had not yet completely established itself upon the ruins of the more ancient polity. Sometimes the presbytery itself still discharged the functions of the bishop. After the martyrdom of Fabian in A.D.250, the Church of Rome remained upwards of a year under its care, [596:1] as the see was meanwhile vacant; and about the same period we find Cyprian, when in exile, requesting his presbyters and deacons to execute both his duties and their own. [596:2] It was still admitted that elders were competent to ordain elders and deacons, as well as to confirm and to baptize; and the bishop continued to recognise them as his |colleagues| and his |fellow-presbyters.| [596:3] It is clear, however, that the relations between them and their episcopal chief were now very vaguely defined, and that the ambiguous position of the parties led to mutual complaints of ambition and usurpation. The Epistles of Cyprian supply evidence that the bishop of Carthage, during a great part of his episcopate, was engaged with his presbyters in a struggle for power; [596:4] and though he asserted that he was contending for nothing more than his legitimate authority, he was sometimes obliged to abate his pretensions. In one case he complains that, |without his permission or knowledge,| his presbyter Novatus |of his own factiousness and ambition| had |made Felicissimus his follower a deacon;| [596:5] but still he does not venture to impeach the validity of the act, or refuse to recognise the standing of the new ecclesiastic. Felicissimus seems to have been ordained in a small meeting-house in the neighbourhood of Carthage; and as Novatus, who probably presided on the occasion, appears to have proceeded in conjunction with the majority of the presbytery, they no doubt considered that, under these circumstances, the sanction of the bishop was by no means indispensable. The manifestation of such a spirit of independence was, however, exceedingly galling to their imperious prelate.

From the manner in which Cyprian expresses himself we may infer that he would not have been dissatisfied had Novatus and the elders who acted with him obtained his permission to ordain the deacon Felicissimus. But about this period the bishops were beginning to look with extreme jealousy on all presbyterian ordinations, and were commencing a series of encroachments on the rights of their episcopal brethren in rural districts. These country bishops, [597:1] who wore simply ministers of single congregations, and who were generally poor and uninfluential, soon succumbed to the great city dignitaries. By a council held at Ancyra in A.D.314, or very shortly after the close of the Diocletian persecution, they were forbidden to perform duties which they had hitherto been accustomed to discharge, for one of its canons declares that |country bishops must not ordain presbyters or deacons; neither must city presbyters in another parish without the written permission of the bishop.| [597:2]

This canon illustrates the strangely anomalous condition of the Church at the period of its adoption. It takes no notice of country elders, as the proceedings of such an humble class of functionaries probably awakened no jealousy; and it degrades country bishops, who unquestionably belonged to the episcopal order, by placing them in a position inferior to that of city presbyters. About sixty years before, or in the middle of the third century, three of these country bishops were deemed competent to ordain a bishop of Rome; [598:1] but now they are deprived of the right of ordaining even elders and deacons. It is easy to understand why city presbyters were still permitted, under certain conditions, to exercise this privilege. As they constituted the council of the city chief pastor, their influence was considerable; and as they had, until a recent date, been accustomed even to take part in his own consecration, it was deemed inexpedient to tempt so formidable a class of churchmen to make common cause with the country bishops by stripping both at once of their ancient prerogatives. The country bishops, as the weaker party, were first subjected to a process of spoliation. But the recognition of Christianity by Constantine gave an immense impulse to the progress of the hierarchy, and the city presbyters were soon afterwards deprived of the privilege now wrested from the country bishops.

The current of events had placed the Church, about the middle of the third century, in a position which it could not long maintain. As the growth of Christianity in towns was steady and rapid, the bishop there rose quickly into wealth and power; but, among the comparatively poor and thinly-scattered population of the country, his condition remained nearly stationary. When Cyprian, in A.D.256, addressed the eighty-seven bishops assembled in the Council of Carthage, and told them that they were all on an equality, he might have felt that the doctrine of episcopal parity, as then understood, must be given up as indefensible if assailed by the skill of a vigorous logician. Who could believe that the bishop of Carthage held exactly the same official rank as every one of his episcopal auditors? He was the chief pastor of a flourishing metropolis; he had several congregations under his care, and several of his presbyters were preachers; [599:1] but many of the bishops before him were ministers of single congregations and without even one elder competent to deliver a sermon, [599:2] In point of ministerial gifts and actual influence some of the presbyters of Carthage were, no doubt, far superior to many of the bishops of the council. And who could affirm that Paul of Samosata, the chief pastor of the capital of the Eastern Empire, was quite on a level with every one of the village bishops around him whom he bribed to celebrate his praises? No wonder that it was soon found necessary to remodel the episcopal system. The city bishops had a show of equity in their favour when they asserted their superiority, and their brethren in rural districts were too feeble and dependent effectively to resist their own degradation.

The ecclesiastical title metropolitan came into use about the time of the Council of Nice in A.D.325. [599:3] and there is reason to believe that the territorial jurisdiction it implied was then first distinctly defined and generally established; but the changes of the preceding three quarters of a century, had been preparing the way for the new arrangement. Many of the country bishops had meanwhile been reduced to a condition of subserviency, whilst a considerable number of the chief pastors in the great cities had been recognized as the constant presidents of the synods which met in their respective capitals. It is easy to see how these prelates acquired such a position. Talent, if exerted, must always assert its ascendency; and it is probable that the metropolitan bishops were generally more able and accomplished than the majority of their brethren. They could fairly plead that zeal for the good of the Church prompted them to take a lead in ecclesiastical affairs, and their place of residence supplied them with facilities for communicating with other pastors of which they often deemed it prudent to avail themselves. When the synod met in the metropolis, the bishop of the city was wont to entertain many of the members as his guests; and, as he was elevated above most, if not all, of those with whom he acted, in point of wealth, social standing, address, and knowledge of the world, he was usually called on to occupy the chair of the moderator. In process of time that which was originally conceded as a matter of courtesy passed into an admitted right. So long as the metropolitan bishop was inducted into office by mere presbyters, the circumstances of his investiture pointed out to him the duty of humility; but when the most distinguished chief pastors of the province deemed it an honour to take part in his consecration, he immediately increased his pretensions. Thus it is that the change in the mode of episcopal inauguration forms a new era in the history of ecclesiastical assumption.

About the middle of the third century various circumstances conspired to augment the authority of the great bishops. In the Decian and Valerian persecutions the chief pastors were specially marked out for attack, and the heroic constancy with which some of the most eminent encountered a cruel death vastly enhanced the reputation of their order. In a few years several bishops of Rome were martyred; Cyprian of Carthage endured the same fate: Alexander of Jerusalem, and Babylas of Antioch, also laid down their lives for their religion. [600:1] At the same time the schism of Novatian at Rome, and the schism of Felicissimus at Carthage threatened the Church with new divisions, and the same arguments which were used, upwards of a hundred years before, for increasing the power of the president of the eldership, could now be urged with equal pertinency for adding to the authority of the president of the synod. In point of fact perhaps the earliest occasion on which the bishop of Rome executed discipline in his archiepiscopal capacity was immediately connected with the schism of Novatian; for we have no record of any exercise of such power until Cornelius, at the head of a council held in the Imperial city, deposed the pastors who had officiated at the consecration of his rival. [601:1] From this date the Roman metropolitan probably presided at all the ordinations of the bishops in his vicinity.

To prevent the recurrence of schisms such as had now happened at Rome and Carthage, it was, in all likelihood, arranged about this period, at least in some quarters of the Church, that the presence or sanction of the stated president of the provincial synod should be necessary to the validity of all episcopal consecrations. There were still, however, many districts in which the provincial synod had no fixed chairman. Hence an ancient canon directs that at the ordination of a member of the hierarchy, |one of the principal bishops shall pray to God over the approved candidate.| [601:2] By a |principal bishop| we are to understand the chief pastor of a principal or apostolic church; [601:3] but in some provinces several such churches were to be found, and this regulation attests that there no single ecclesiastic had yet acquired an unchallenged precedence. As the close of the third century approached, the ecclesiastical structure exhibited increasing uniformity; and one dignitary in each region began to be known as the stated president of the episcopal body. In one of the so-called apostolical canons, framed probably before the Council of Nice, this arrangement is embodied. |The bishops of every nation,| says the ordinance, |ought to know who is the first among them, and him they ought to esteem as their head, and not do any great thing without his consent. ... But neither let him do anything without the consent of all.| [602:1]

This canon is apparently couched in terms of studied ambiguity, for the expression |the first among the bishops of every nation| admits of various interpretations. In many cases it probably meant the senior bishop of the district; in others, it perhaps denoted the chief pastor of the chief city of the province; and in others again, it may have indicated the prelate of a great metropolis who had contrived to establish his authority over a still more extensive territory. The rise of the city bishops had completely destroyed that balance of power which originally existed in the Church; and much commotion preceded the settlement of a new ecclesiastical equilibrium. During the last forty years of the third century the Christians enjoyed almost uninterrupted peace; the chief pastors were meanwhile perpetually engaged in contests for superiority; and about this time the bishops of Rome, of Alexandria, and of Antioch, rapidly extended their influence. So rampant was the usurping spirit of churchmen that even the violence of the Diocletian persecution was not sufficient to check them in their career of ambition. A contemporary writer, who was himself a member of the episcopal order, bears testimony to this melancholy fact. |Some,| said he, |who were reputed our pastors, contemning the law of piety, were, under the excitement of mutual animosities, fomenting nothing else but disputes and threatenings and rivalry and reciprocal hostility and hatred, as they contentiously prosecuted their ambitious designs for sovereignty.| [601:2]

What a change had passed over the Christian commonwealth in the course of little more than two hundred years! When the Apostle John died, the city church was governed by the common council of the elders, and their president simply announced and executed the decisions of his brethren: now, the president was transformed into a prelate who, by gradual encroachments, had stripped the presbytery of a large share of its authority. At the close of the first century the Church of Rome was, perhaps, less influential than the Church of Ephesus, and the very name of its moderator at that period is a matter of disputed and doubtful tradition; but the Diocletian persecution had scarcely terminated when the bishop of the great metropolis was found sitting in a council in the palace of the Lateran, and claiming jurisdiction over eight or ten provinces of Italy! These revolutions were not effected without much opposition. The strife between the presbyters and the bishops was succeeded by a general warfare among the possessors of episcopal power, for the constant moderator of the synod was as anxious to increase his authority as the constant moderator of the presbytery. About the close of the third century the Church appears to have been sadly scandalised by the quarrels of the bishops, and Eusebius accordingly intimates that, in the reign of terror which so quickly followed, they suffered a righteous retribution for their misconduct.

Discussions respecting questions of Church polity are often exceedingly distasteful to persons of contracted views but of genuine piety, for they cannot understand how the progress of vital godliness can be influenced by forms of ecclesiastical government. [603:1] About this period such sentiments were probably not uncommon, and much of the apathy with which innovations were contemplated may thus be easily explained. Besides, if the early bishop was a man of ability and address, his influence in his own church was nearly overwhelming; for as he was the ordinary, if not the only, preacher, he thus possessed the most effective means of recommending any favourite scheme, and of giving a decided tone to public opinion. When a parochial charge became vacant by the demise of the chief pastor, the election of a successor was often vigorously contested; and when an influential presbyter was defeated, he sometimes exhibited his mortification by contending for the rights of his order, and by disputing the pretensions of his successful rival. But as such opposition was obviously dictated by the spirit of faction, it was commonly brief, ill-sustained, and abortive. The young, talented, and aspiring presbyters must have been strongly tempted to encourage the growth of episcopal prerogative, for each might one day hope to occupy the place of dignity, and thus to reap the fruits of present encroachments. The bishops seem to have resisted more strenuously the establishment of metropolitan ascendency. An ecclesiastical regulation of great antiquity, [604:1] condemned their translation from one parish to another, so that when the episcopate was gained, all farther prospects of promotion were extinguished, for the place of first among the bishops was either inherited by seniority or claimed by the prelate of the chief city. Hence it was that the pastors withstood so firmly all infringements on their theoretical parity; and hence those |ambitious disputes,| [604:2] and those |collisions of bishops with bishops,| [604:3] even amidst the fires of martyrdom, over which the historian of the Church professes his anxiety to cast the veil of oblivion.

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