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4. Official duties of the Bishop

Antiquities of the Christian Church
CHAPTER III. Of the Ministers of the Church

4. Official duties of the Bishop

The office of bishop comprehended in general two different classes of duties.

  1. All those that relate to the worship of God. This division comprises all the offices of religious worship without exception, whether performed by the bishop in person, or by others acting under his commission.
  2. II. Duties relating to the government, and discipline of the church. Under this class, is comprised the oversight in all the churches of his diocese, both of the laity and the priesthood; and the management of the affairs of the several churches which were submitted to his care.

These separate divisions require, each, a careful examination.

  1. In regard to duties pertaining to religious worship, we are to distinguish carefully, between the right or vocation, and the actual exercise of the duties consequent upon this vocation. In the earliest period of the church, while yet the greatest simplicity of form prevailed, and before any determinate distinction was known between bishop and presbyter*, many services relating to the worship of God were prescribed to the deacons and ministers*, who were already known in the New Testament. According to Justin Martyr, it was the duty of the minister*, synonymous with *, to consecrate the elements. To the deacons belonged the duty of distributing them. The same distribution of the services is also prescribed in the Apostolical Constitutions. Other duties are also assigned to the deacons and subordinate officers of the church, to be performed however by the direction, or under the immediate oversight of the bishop, whose representatives they all are.

    It is made especially the duty of the bishop to perform the services of catechist and preacher. Ambrose expressly declares that it was the duly of the bishop to instruct the people. This duty was distinctly acknowledged, and actually performed by Chrysostom, Gregory Nazianzen, Cyprian, Augustine, Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, and others. Such was not only the sentiment of the church generally, but Charlemagne and Louis I., expressly enjoin the bishops not to neglect this important part of their official duties on any plea of ignorance or indolence. The same duty is explicitly taught by the council of Trent in the following terms, and in perfect accordance with the views of the primitive church. "Whereas the preaching of the gospel, which is the peculiar office of bishops, is as essential to every christian community as the reading of the word, therefore, this sacred synod has determined and decreed that all bishops, archbishops and primates, and all other prelates of the churches, are themselves required, and personally bound, to preach the blessed gospel of Jesus Christ unless specially prevented, legitime prohibiti." 

    Such, beyond all controversy is the duty of those who sustain the office of bishop, though their practice has at times been altogether the reverse of this, and still is in part. Occasionally, even in the ancient church, the bishops, through the pressure of secular cares, neglected entirely their ministerial duties. At other times they refused in the pride of office their duties as preachers and catechists; and the more humble duties of the sacred office, as derogatory to their character. But at no time has the right and the duty of the bishop, to discharge all the offices of the ministry been called in question. The act of ordination, of itself, and according to the canons of the church, exclusively invests them with all the offices and prerogatives of the priesthood.

    It only remains to specify certain other offices which belong exclusively to them.

    1. The confirmation of baptized persons, by which they are received as regular members of the church. This, which is styled the sealing of the covenant, was the prerogative of the bishop. This rite is still performed in the Roman Catholic church by the bishop himself, or his substitute. In the orthodox churches, as the act of confirmation follows immediately upon baptism, and no rule is given respecting it, the priest is permitted to administer the ordinance.
    2. The ordination of the clergy, and consecration of other officers of the church. It has been a uniform rule of the church, both in ancient and modern times, to which there have been only occasional exceptions that the right of ordaining belongs to the bishop. The substitute was regarded as acting strictly in the place of the bishop, and in this way the bishop gained peculiar influence and consideration in the view of pagan observers. The archdeacon is sometimes represented as officiating in the ancient church in the ordination of inferior officers; but he is to be regarded as acting in such cases in the place of the bishop, so that what he does by another he does of himself. Instances of this kind are also to be found in the ancient church. Three bishops were required to assist in the ordination of one to that office; but some of the higher officers in other orders of the clergy were subsequently permitted to assist in this service.
    3. The reconciling of penitents, or the restoration of offending members of the church. It is the duty of the bishop to announce those who make profession of penitence – to receive them on probation – to prescribe the time and form of their penance, and to exercise a watch over them; though in all this the presbyter often cooperates with him. But to remove the sentence of excommunication was in the ancient church the especial prerogative of the bishop which was very seldom delegated to a presbyter or any other. On the introduction of the forms of confession and private absolution, the whole system of penance previously in use was changed, but there still remained much to be administered publicly by the bishop.
    4. It was especially the duty of the bishop to perform the several acts of consecration, and to pronounce the benediction.
  2. Of the power of the bishop in the government and discipline of the church, after the establishment of the hierarchy.

    It was a favorite sentiment in the church after the establishment of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, that all power centered in the bishop as an universal hierarch – that all the clergy were subject to his authority – that all spiritual benefices and preferments proceeded from him, and that all the sacraments were to be administered in his name, and by a commission from him. Both the Apostolical Constitutions and the liturgy of the pseudo Dionysius the Areopogite, represent that everything relating to the worship of God in all its parts, is the collective work of the bishop. But restrictions were early laid upon the authority of the bishop by regulations of the church, by synodical divisions, and by metropolitan, patriarchal, and papal decrees. By these regulations and decrees, the power of the bishop was at times greatly reduced. But however limited his prerogatives, the bishop uniformly remained the source and centre of ecclesiastical authority within his own diocese. The diocesan clergy of every rank were dependent upon him, and by him were the regulations of the churches directed. His influence was especially manifested in the following particulars.

    1. In the superintendence of religious worship. All the forms of public worship were subject to his direction. This direction he gave at pleasure, either in accordance with his own will, or in conformity with usage, or by rules more or less specific. It was his business to see that everything was done according to the established order. Over occasional and peculiar religious acts, such as processions, pilgrimages, fasts, and vows, he had a special control.
    2. The oversight of all the members of his diocese in regard to spiritual and ecclesiastical matters. This oversight he exercised by adjudicating, excommunicating, prescribing penance, and regulating the laws of the marriage institution. The doings of the priest were especially open to an appeal to him and subject to his revision. In a word, all that related to the discipline of the church, was subject to his control.
    3. All the subordinate members of the priesthoods and the servants in the church were subject to the superintendence of the bishops, both as to the discharge of their offices, and the conduct of their lives. It was an ancient rule in the church that the clergy are under the same subjection to the bishop as the soldier to his commander. History indeed abounds with examples of severe punishment inflicted upon a refractory and disobedient priesthood. At first, no exemption was made in favor even of the monks; but in the middle ages they threw off their subjection to the bishops to the great dishonor of that office – to the injury of the parochial clergy and of the welfare of the church.
    4. It was the specific duty of the bishop to visit curates, churches, schools, cloisters, and religious establishments. Many rules of the church enforce this duty upon the bishops personally, and it was with reluctance allowed to the bishop to appoint to this service rural bishops, chorepiscopi, exarchs, and itinerant or visiting presbyters*. The council of Laodicea in the middle of the fourth century, decreed that bishops should not reside in the country or smaller villages; but itinerant presbyters only, and that these should do nothing without the knowledge of the bishop residing in the city, just as presbyters acted in subordination to his will. Under the Carlovingian dynasty, bishops and counts of the realm were placed on equal footing, and exercised a joint jurisdiction.
    5. The bishop acted as moderator of all synods within his diocese, and gave direction to their doings. This was formerly a privilege of great importance. The disrespect into which synodical councils and decrees have fallen in modern times, has greatly reduced the authority and influence of the bishops. Ecclesiastical councils are supposed to have been first held in the Greek church towards the close of the second century.
    6. The bishop controlled and disbursed at pleasure, hath the occasional contributions and the stated revenues of the church. The deacons at first, acted as his assistants in the business, but as the management of the revenue became more intricate and responsible, it was intrusted to stewards subject to the direction of the archdeacons, over whom the bishop retained a general superintendence.
    7. The bishop exercised in part a civil as well as ecclesiastical jurisdiction, especially in cases relating to marriages and divorces, and to the person or goods of ecclesiastics; and in what are called mixed cases in civil and penal actions which are to be adjudged, both by statute and by common law. At first there were certain justices*, and advocati*, and consules, who acted as his substitutes and in his name. Special tribunals were established here as occasion required for the management of his various judicial concerns. Such was the origin of the office of deputies, officials and chancellor, and of the courts of the archdeacons and consistories. But these all acted in the name, and by the authority of the bishop, and were accountable to him.

    Chapters of clergy and collegiate establishments were entirely unknown in the ancient church. The first traces of them appear in the ninth century. In the twelfth they obtained a constitution through the influence of the court of Rome and the favor of their sovereigns, which laid, indeed, salutary restraints upon the arbitrary will of the bishop; but, at the same time, it laid the foundation for a most pernicious aristocracy in the church. The bishop continued indeed to be nominally at the head of these bodies, but his best intentions and efforts were baffled by their detraction and intrigue.

Apolog. II, p. 97.

Constitut. Apost. lib. viii. c. 12, 13 seq.

Ambrose. De Offic. Saer. lib. i. c 1.

Concii. Trullan c. 19; Conci} Mogunt I. c. 2; Ludovici. Pii Capitui. I. a.816.c. 28 seq.

Concii. Trident. Sess. 5. c. 2. Sess. 24. c. 4.

Concii. Laodic. c. 57.
(No tag #6 appears in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)

Kanonisch-historische Darstellnng einer Geschichie der heutigen sogenannlen Domherro. 1797. 3; J. A. de Ickstad de Capitulorura origine. S. Ejusd. Opusc. torn. ii. p. 386 seq.
(No tag #7 appears in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)

(* denotes Greek text in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)


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