In our little church in Langley, B.C., there is a chair on which no one sits, nor would anyone ever dare to. We have many chairs and places to sit—we have benches along the sides of the nave (but no pews), chairs in the narthex for overflow visitors, chairs in the church hall for our post-Liturgy lunch. We have chairs in the library. We have places to sit in the altar. But this chair remains empty, as if there were an invisible RESERVED sign resting upon it. It is found in the back of the altar area, and it is the episcopal throne, in its traditional place. (In churches using the Greek style of church architecture, the bishop’s throne is located outside the altar, on the south side of the nave.) It is clearly episcopal, for it is a part of the synthronon or bench for the clergy to sit on during the reading of the lessons at Liturgy, and in our church it is the only part of the bench that comes with arm-rests. Sometimes leaving the throne vacant feels a little like reserving a chair for Elijah at a Jewish bris: one always keeps the chair available, even if one never expects its occupant to actually show up. If the sacramental reality of Christ’s true Body and Blood in the Eucharist has been called “the Real Presence”, there is a sense that the bishop’s reality in the Eucharist might be called “the Real Absence”: we have his picture in the narthex, we elevate and pronounce his name repeatedly throughout all the services, we have his crucial signature on our antimension, we love him and have him always in our prayers and in our hearts. But despite all this, he is pretty much never actually here.
In this our bishop is like every other bishop I have ever heard of. His own cathedral city and home (the so-called “see”, from the Latin sedes, or seat) is many miles away, and he is very busy taking care of his diocese and his many parishes. Not being able to bi-locate, of course he can only be in one place at a time, and so most parishes have to do without the bishop’s actual presence for most of the time. When he does come to visit, it is an occasion of joy, and celebration, and high festivity. We bake special bread which we offer him along with salt as the traditional gifts of welcome when he first enters. Everyone wants to see him, and get his blessing, to exchange a few words with him. (I always make sure that our catechumens in particular get some time with him.) At the service, we pull out all the liturgical stops as we vest him and make things as fully glorious as we can. The choir has been practicing the special music well in advance of his arrival, as have the subdeacons. Lots of photographs are taken when he comes. Everyone is happy when he visits.
Note the verb in the last sentence: we are happy when he visits. It is this verb and this reality which most differentiates our situation from that of the early church. In the days prior to Constantine and even afterward in the days of St. John Chrystostom, the bishop never visited a church any more than I can be said to visit my little parish in Langley. I don’t visit my church; I am there because I am the pastor. So it was in the days of Chrysostom: he didn’t visit the Church of the Hagia Sophia; he was there all the time because he was its pastor—that it, because he was its bishop.
And it was not just the church in the Imperial capital that experienced its bishop as its normal Sunday morning pastor and weekly preacher. Every church was like that. The bishop was everywhere the pastor of the local church. And in that day, “the local church” was really local. Every little village, hamlet, town, or city had its own bishop, so that his “church” (what we now call his “diocese”) consisted of the village or city where he lived and the surrounding countryside. (We even see this reflected in our Liturgy today, when we pray for Christians in “every city and country”—for by “country” is not meant “nation”, but “countryside”, the region surrounding the city.) The bishop was the local pastor, the one who blessed and presided at every baptism, who anointed all in his church who were sick, who excommunicated the straying, and who reconciled the excommunicated back into the communion of the church when they repented. He was assisted in his pastoral work and deliberations by a committee of presbyters, and further helped by his deacons. But he was the face of the local church, the pastoral face upon which all the faithful looked every Sunday. In the early days he was chosen by them and was bound to them until he died. He never “visited” his church, for he never went away.
A celebration of the Eucharist was unthinkable without the presidency of the bishop. We see this in a rule in an Egyptian Church Order that declares that a community of Christians cannot have their own bishop if they only number twelve persons. This of course tells us that there were some little enclaves of Christians numbering less than twelve that still wanted their own bishop, otherwise the canon would have been unnecessary. This reveals as nothing else could the importance of the bishop to the local church in those early days. If the number of Christians grew in a village or city so that all could not meet in the same place, then the bishop would deputize one of the presbyters to serve that group. But the bishop was still the main pastor of the village or city, the hub around which Christian life in that area revolved.
This means that things have changed dramatically in the life of the local church. Now a presbyter, not the bishop, is the local pastor, for bishop’s church or diocese is now no longer a single community and its outlaying countryside, but a sizable area consisting often of many cities and villages and vast distances. (Our own bishop has all of Canada for his diocese.) He can only visit each of his parishes once in a while, and thus can only maintain a slight familiarity with the parishioners there. For day to day pastoral care, the parishioners rely not on the bishop who often lives at a great distance away and who is busy with many other parishes, but on the local presbyter. He is their priest (a title which once normally described not the presbyter but the bishop). He is the one who gets the late night emergency call to the hospital. He is the one who presides at the normal Sunday Eucharist, who baptizes the babies and catechumens, who anoints the sick, hears the confessions, and buries the dead. The bishop is loved and respected, but he functions as a beloved but distant uncle more than as a father. Things have changed.
Canonically and constitutionally, of course, things remain what they have always been. Gregory Dix, writing some time ago in his chapter “Ministry in the Early Church” in Kirk’s large volume The Apostolic Ministry, distinguishes between what he calls the “constitutional” history of the episcopal office and the “administrative” one. Constitutionally, the office remains what it was from apostolic days: a ministry of shepherding, consecrating, ordaining, and (for the Anglican Dix in Britain), confirming. But administratively the office underwent many changes. Dix recounts:
“There is the first stage [in Britain] when the bishop is above all an evangelist, a missionary monk. Under the Heptarchy he becomes something not very readily distinguishable from a tribal wizard. Under the Anglo-Saxon monarchy he becomes a royal counselor…passing by slow degrees into a great feudal landlord and than a national noble. After this, both before and after the Reformation, he is primarily the great civil servant. Later still he becomes the somewhat torpid grandee of the eighteenth century. Finally he is translated into the Victorian philanthropist and the modern spiritual bureaucrat.”
Obviously Dix writes here only of bishops in his native Britain, but his point holds for bishops in all places, in that while the bishop’s constitutional role remains constant, his administrative role is in flux. “Continuity of name does not necessarily imply continuity of function.” So it is that although the name of bishop has remained constant through Christian history and his constitutional role has remained unchanged, his administrative role has changed almost out of all recognition.
To truly help our bishops in their ongoing tasks, it is necessary to understand the history of the office, and to see how it has changed administratively since the pre-Nicene days. That is not because the pre-Nicene period constituted a “golden age” of church history, but because it was only then that we first get to examine in some detail how the church was structured in the apostolic days and how it was meant to function. As we will see, though there is little in the New Testament which would help us learn how the church leadership actually interacted with the rest of the church, many of these details can be found in the literature of the second and third centuries—details of an office first established by the apostles as part of the deposit of the Faith.
The present relationship of bishop to presbyter and parish in Orthodoxy is the fruit of a long and convoluted development, paralleling that the development of the bishop’s office in Britain that Dix recounted. Therefore we will attempt to summarize some of those changes in the chapters to come, to show how we arrived at our present situation. After a quick survey of the long evolution of the bishop’s office in the eastern part of the church, we will offer some concluding reflections.
We begin at the beginning, in the apostolic first century.
The book from which this Introduction was taken has been published by Ancient Faith Publications and is also available from Amazon.com