Holy Trinity Cathedral - Ecclesiology

The Function of Church Administration - The Episcopacy

From Nastolnaia kniga sviaschennosluzhitelia

The first and highest level in the Church hierarchy is the Episcopacy, whose origin from Apostolic times is acknowledged by both the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches.  Ancient Christian writings provide us with a threefold basis for regarding the rank of bishop as being the most ancient and special.  Saint Ignatius the God Bearer (1st century), one of the first Church writers, in his letter to the Magnesians, among others, exhorts his flock to act in all things in perfect accord under the command of their authorities.  These authorities are the bishops, the vicars of God; the presbyters, the class of the Apostles; and the deacons, to whom is entrusted the service of Jesus Christ.  From the most ancient times the episcopacy had been charged with the right of service, administration, teaching and the appointment of priests.

Ecclesiastical administration and teaching are special functions in the Church, for which special gifts are required.  In the grace gifted society of the people of God right from the historical beginning of the Church’s existence there were those whom God Himself put in charge of the business of administration through the communion of the gifts of grace of the Holy Spirit:  “And God indeed has appointed in the Church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, services of help, power of administration, and the speaking of various tongues” (I Cor. XII, 28).  “And His gift was for some to be apostles, and some — prophets, and some — evangelists, and some — pastors and teachers, in order to perfect the saints for a work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. IV, 11).  Only he who has received the gift of administration may govern God’s people.

As stated in the most ancient prayer at the appointment of a bishop preserved in “The Apostolic Tradition” of St. Hippolytus of Rome (3rd century): “O God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, . . . look down upon Thy servant, and impart the Spirit of grace that he might be part of the presbytery andthat he may guide Thy people with a pure heart” (VIII, 2).  The entire people of God are called to the service of the priesthood, so that each upon entering the Church is appointed to that service through the communion of the gifts of grace of the royal priesthood, without which the laity could not serve the Liturgy together with the celebrant.  But administration belongs only to those who are specially called and not to all the people, who have not received the gifts of administration, and without gifts of grace there is no service in the Church, nor can there be.

“To the bishop are entrusted the people of the Lord, and he will answer for their souls” (39th Apostolic Rule).  The bishop is called and appointed by God to the service of administration, and for that reason he tends Christ’s flock as its pastor.  The laity, not possessing the charisma of administration, cannot govern together with the bishop, as they also cannot govern themselves.  They are not coworkers with the bishop in the area of administration.  “To the bishop are entrusted the people of the Lord” — the living, active members of the Church, for which cause the administration of Church life by the bishop does not exclude the activity of the laity, but that activity is of a completely different nature from that of the bishop.  Activity in the Church signifies service, and service presupposes a corresponding charisma, for there can be no service in the Church without the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Although they do not possess the gift of administration, “the people of the Lord” do have the gift of deliberation and examination, which presuppose a special type of service entrusted, not to individual members of the Church but to the entire people of God, i.e. all members of the Church working in common.  “Of the prophets, let two or three speak at a meeting, and let the rest act as judges” (I Cor. XIV, 29).  “Put everything to the test; hold fast what is good” (I Thess. V, 21).  It therefore follows that the people have to deliberate and examine what takes place in the Church.  The bishop administers God’s people along with the priests not in his own name and not based on any right, as if he had received power from the people or through the people — he administers in the name of God, as the one appointed by God for the function of administration.  Possessed of the charisma of deliberation and examination, the people bear witness that all accomplished in the Church under the guidance of her pastors is accomplished in accordance with the will of God through the revelation of the Holy Spirit.  In the ancient Church all ecclesiastical actions, whether it be the administering of sacraments, the reception of catechumens or penitents into the Church, the expulsion of heretics, etc. were executed with the participation of the people.  The witness of the people to the discovery of the will of God in the ancient Church bore the characteristic of agreement (consensus) with that, which was supposed to be performed in the Church, and acceptance (reception) of that, which was performed there as corresponding to the will of God.  The agreement and acceptance of the people, however, did not signify that each representative of the clergy or the people expressed his own opinion or desire about the execution of one or another ecclesiastical action.  Ecclesiastical authority in the person of the bishops was not connected to the will of the laity, as the people were not connected to the will of their leaders.  Here may be cited the remarkable words of the Bishop Cyprian of Carthage (+258):  “From the very beginning of my episcopacy I made it my rule never to do anything according to my own judgment without your (the priests’) advice and without the agreement of the people.”  Neither the will of bishops or the will of the people are sufficient of themselves for operation in the Church.  The Church lives and acts not by the will of humans but by the will of God.  Agreement and acceptance signified the witness of the entire Church that the action and administration of its leaders was in accordance with the will of God.

In the ancient Church, this was the concern of both the clergy and the people.  If it is correct to say that the bishop is the supreme representative of the local Church, and that the Church in its formations represents a union of both clergy and laity, then the participation of the latter in the election of a bishop is entirely normal in principle.

History presents a number of facts, which confirm the existence of just such a method of electing bishops:  Chrysostom, for example, was elected by both the clergy and the people.  Socrates the historian informs us that after the death of the Bishop of Constantinople, Nectarius, when the necessity of consecrating a new bishop arose, some demanded one person, others demanded another, and after many conferences in the matter, it was finally decided to summon the Priest John from Antioch, because rumor had it that he was learned and eloquent.  So after a while the King Arcadius on the common advice of all, i.e. clergy and people, summoned him.  (Socrates, History of the Church, VI, 2 pp. 449-450)  Eustathius of Antioch and Cornelius (Cyprian) were also elected with the participation of the people.  But apart from these separate facts, history informs us also of general rules by which episcopal elections were governed.

No bishop could be elected without the participation of both the clergy and the people.  The only exceptions were newly formed Churches, which had not yet acquired sufficient expertise in the electoral process.  At times in such a case the people proposed their candidate for consideration by the bishops.  On the other hand, at times the will of the people, in the absence of legitimate objections, was of deciding significance.  The participation of the people in the election of a bishop was not just a formality.  In the case of a unanimous decision the people expressed their verdict by exclaiming “worthy!” or “unworthy!”

This right was affirmed by the Council of Nicea in its epistle to the Church in Alexandria (regarding the Meletians) and by the first regulation of the Fourth Council of Carthage (a bishop is consecrated with the consent of the clergy and the people).  The same right is affirmed in the Rules of the Apostles:  “Consecrate as a bishop him who is blameless . . . chosen by all the people.  When he is named and approved, then let the people . . . give their consent” (VIII, 4).  But this practice did not exist for an especially long time in the Church: the authority of the Byzantine emperors dealt it a serious blow.  In the laws of the Emperor Justinian the right of the election of bishops is already left not to the people, but to the clergy and dignitaries; later it became the unconditional right of eminent persons, who considered themselves patrons of a certain church, to individually select a bishop for this purpose, and the clergy was forced to assent to the will of the patrons, with the rare exception of the selection of a certain person being directly contradictory to the canons of the Church.  The Emperor Theodosius took this limitation of the rights of the clergy and people to such a degree, that he allowed himself, in spite of the common will, to appoint Nectarius bishop of Constantinople.  Since the clergy and the people had long not been able to come to a definite decision, the emperor demanded the list of candidates from which he chose Nectarius, with no regard to the fact that he had not yet been baptized but was still a catechumen.  The bishops attempted to discuss the legitimacy of such an election, but the emperor’s will remained inflexible.  Thus the people were denied little by little the right of electing bishops.  It remained the right of the clergy and the secular authorities, but the latter retained that right only up until the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which decreed: “Bishops elected by secular leaders will not be recognized . . . he who is to be made a bishop must be chosen by bishops.”

The process of selecting a bishop was quite uncomplicated.  At the time of the election, the metropolitan notified all the district bishops who were to appear at the appointed time in the locality, which was in need of a bishop.  In the case of a bishop’s inability to appear personally he retained the right to make a written declaration.  Usually on a Sunday or a holy day, the bishops arrived in church and after reaching an agreement with the people on the candidate, they proceeded to consecrate him.  The best source of information on episcopal consecration in ancient times are the Rules of the Apostles, but the information there is not grouped together in one place:  part of it is in the tenth chapter of the third book, and part is in the fourth chapter of the eighth book.

The essential features of episcopal consecration according to the Apostolic Regulations consist of the following: 1) The laying of hands on a bishop is accomplished by two or three bishops; in this case this source expresses the same requirement as the Rules of the Apostles (Rule 1), the First Council of Nicea (Rule 4), the Council of Carthage (Rule 13), the Council of Antioch (Rule 19), and others.  2) At the consecration the opened book of the Gospels is placed (writing down) on the head of the candidate by deacons.  This custom is also borne witness to by the author of a composition on church hierarchy with the addition that at this point the candidate kneels on one knee before the altar, and the consecrating bishop places his hand on his head.  Saint John Chrysostom explains the significance of the placing of the Gospel in the following manner:  at the consecration of a bishop the Gospel is placed on his head, so that he who is being consecrated might learn that he is receiving the true tiara of the Gospel and furthermore would know that, although he is the head of all, he is nevertheless subject to laws; he has authority in everything, yet he serves the laws; he governs all according to the law, but he is subject to the law.  For this reason the famous server at the altar and martyr Ignatius wrote to one bishop: “Nothing must be without your will, but you must not do anything without the will of God.  So that the bishop receives the Gospel on his head as witness to the fact that he is vested in authority, yet he himself is under authority.” 3) At the consecration a prayer was recited, but the text of the prayer is not cited in other sources. 4) After the prayer an Oblation is delivered to the candidate:  in the latest forms of ritual procedures the newly consecrated bishop communes of the Body and Blood of Christ before the others and offers the Holy Chalice to the others.  5) The new bishop gives the peace to the people, “for the pastor at the altar, in the words of Saint Simeon, Archbishop of Thessalonica, represents the Lord Himself and gives the peace on His behalf to the entire Church.” 6) The new bishop gives the sermon to the people by which he bears witness to his capacity in the fulfillment of episcopal duties.  7) On the following day the new bishop was seated upon his throne.  The compiler of the Apostolic Regulations does not communicate any other details of episcopal consecration.  The rite was known even at the time of Saint Simeon, Archbishop of Thessalonica, but took place only in the Great Church alone.  And in previous times, in the words of Saint Simeon of Thessalonica, it was celebrated solemnly in all episcopates.  8) The enthronement was accompanied by greetings of the bishops, since the newly consecrated bishop became equally enthroned with the other bishops.  9) The time of the consecration was the Lord’s Day.  But this was not always observed, because it was a pastoral responsibility to find a replacement for a cathedra immediately after the death of its bishop.  10) The consecration took place during Divine Liturgy.

In the course of time in place of the shorter simple rite there appeared the rather complicated ceremony of consecration to the rank of bishop.  Taken in its complete form, which was ultimately defined at a later time, it consists of three main parts: a) preparatory ceremonies, b) the rite of consecration proper and c) rites accompanying consecration.  The right of electing a bishop in earliest times was left to the clergy and the people; but this custom, motivated by life itself, was in the course of time forced to give way to another.

The election was reserved for the bishops themselves, and they decided this matter in part by personal agreement and in part by lot.  This type of electoral process existed for a very long time in Greece and was carried over into Russia.

Here is how it is described in the written monuments of Russian antiquity (see the rite of election and consecration of a bishop, 1428.  Russian Historical Library, vol. VI, p. 438):  When the need to consecrate a new bishop arises in any see, “then the metropolitan convokes all the bishops in his district at a certain time.  And if anyone is unable to appear in person, then let him send a letter in his own hand in which he expresses his agreement with the choice of the remaining bishops.  And if anyone does not appear out of evil intent, for example out of disobedience, pride or a previous arrangement with a prince or other authorities, he is to be deprived of his episcopal rank as having voluntarily separated himself from communion with the other bishops.  When the bishops assemble, the metropolitan, in the presence of only trustworthy clergy, advises them of the widowed see, explains the need to elect a new bishop, and, having given them his blessing, dismisses them.  Now they, accompanied by the librarian or one of the greater clerics and the metropolitan secretary, depart to one of the chapels of the church.

Here the senior bishop, having vested himself in the epitrahelion and standing before the icon of the Savior with censer in hand, censes first the icons and the bishops, after which he begins in the usual manner:  “O Heavenly King,” “Most Holy Trinity,” “Our Father,” troparion of the Trinity — “Blessed art Thou, O Christ our God,” the kontakion — “When the Most High came down and confused the tongues,” the litany — “Have mercy on us, O God,” “more honorable than the cherubim,” and the dismissal.

After this they are seated and begin, each in his turn, to propose their candidates worthy of the episcopacy.  Having considered the qualifications of all, from these they elect three.  The secretary writes their names on a separate sheet of paper, which is rolled and sealed by the senior bishop.  The packet is handed to the librarian, and the bishops disperse.  The librarian gives the packet over to the metropolitan, and the metropolitan, receiving it, goes to an isolated place where he is accustomed to pray, places the packet before the icon of the Savior or the Theotokos, offers fervent prayer, and then unseals the packet and chooses one of the three candidates.  At times this process was somewhat altered:  the names of the three candidates were written on three separate sheets of paper, which were then placed in the church on the table of oblation, after which a little boy was sent into the altar, who brought out two of the sheets of paper from the table of oblation, the remaining third sheet of paper indicating the candidate who had been chosen by God Himself.”

At the time of the establishment of the Russian Holy Synod the process of electing a bishop changed:  the members of the Synod became the electors, and the election and naming also took place in the Synod.  The elected candidate was confirmed by imperial authority, and then at a special meeting of the Synod an announcement was made or, in other words, the naming took place.

After “Blessed art Thou, O Christ our God,” the chief secretary read the decree naming the new episcopal candidate, and the latter answered, “I accept and say nothing to the contrary,” and then gave the usual speech.

Another rite preceding the consecration of the bishop is the episcopal oath.  The formation of this rite was influenced, on the one hand, by the removal of the role of the people in the election of bishops and, on the other hand, the appearance of numerous heresies and schisms in the Church.  The existence of numerous heretical errors among Christians raised the question — does the new candidate for bishop really confess the Orthodox Faith and not hold to any heresy or schism.  In early times, when the episcopal candidate was elected by the clergy and the people themselves, there could be no doubt as to his orthodoxy: the people and the clergy were excellently acquainted with the religious convictions of their candidate, and a public confession of faith was superfluous.  In examining more closely the content of the ancient oath, we see that it concerns those same Christian dogmas, which were distorted by heretics and even points out those heretical errors.  Such topics here are, first, the doctrine of the Trinity and second, that of the incarnation of God the Word.  The rite proceeded in this manner:  the senior bishop turned to the candidate with the request to expound upon first the teaching of the Three Persons of the Divinity, and after he had expounded in detail he was asked by the senior bishop to expound upon his confession of the incarnation of God the Word and how many natures are recognized in Christ.  The candidate answered this with a new detailed response.  Taking into account the character of such a confession it can be concluded that in its full form it appeared not earlier than the Monophysite and Monothelite disputes and even not earlier than the appearance of the iconoclastic heresy, since in the Allatius transcript (oath) mention is made of the true veneration of icons.

As to the embryonic beginnings of the confession, we can refer back to an earlier time, to the 4th century at least, since the Fourth Council of Carthage, which met in 398, had already prescribed that new episcopal candidates be examined in the Orthodox Faith and recite the Symbol of Faith (Rule 12).  This was often changed in accordance with the requirements of a given time and place.  Several characteristic examples of this type have come down to us in ancient manuscripts.

In them we see a reflection of the contemporary ills and apprehensions of the Church, clear indications of the relationship between the bishop and the metropolitan and the lesser clergy, also the princes and great lords, heterodox and the like.  For example, in the text of the oath of the Hieromonk Emelian, who was named bishop of Novgorod at the time of Photius, Metropolitan of Kiev (beginning of the 15th century), apart from the confession of faith and the general recitation of direct episcopal duties, attention is called to those elements, which characterize the relationship of the newly appointed bishop to the metropolitan.  Of unusual interest is the fact that the text of the oath, especially the second section has been drawn up at the direct instruction of Greeks.  They zealously guarded their hierarchical superiority in Russia and forced the new candidate to swear that he would recognize no metropolitan other than the one who would be sent from Constantinople; they placed him in unconditional obedience to this metropolitan; they made him swear that he would appear before the metropolitan at his first request, even in spite of detention on the part of princely authority.  Finally, the Greeks did not forget to add to the oath the matter of tribute for the benefit of the metropolitan, even though that matter could have been decided apparently apart from an ecclesiastical oath.  And the bishop was bound to fulfill all this, notwithstanding any threats on the part of the Tsar or the Grand Prince.  Such were the relationships between the higher clergy and the secular powers even in the 15th — 16th centuries.  That general oath formula lasted with minor changes into the 17th century.  But times changed and so did oaths.

If we take one of the latest versions of it in the Russian Church, we will notice that it contains numerous updates.  The second section is especially changed.  The essence of this updated oath is the vow — to preserve unchanged all dogmas of the faith, the Symbol of the Faith, as well as the Church canons of the Holy Apostles and the Holy Fathers, the statutes of the seven Ecumenical and nine Local Councils, to preserve peace, to educate the flock, to obey the Patriarch, not to ordain outside his flock, not to ordain two or three priests or deacons at one Liturgy, but only one; not to accept the Roman doctrine that the bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood (of Christ) at the recitation of the words, “Take, eat…” and “Drink of this, all of you…;” not to excommunicate any except unrepentant sinners; to hold monks to the monastic rules; not to enter into secular dealings, and not to pretend to be ignorant with regard to the teaching of the Church.  It is clear from the very character of this oath that it already comprises a new composition adjusted to the spirit of the times at the beginning of the 18th century, although at its root lies the ancient tradition of the essence of the episcopal oath.

The rite of episcopal consecration itself according to the first Barberini transcript, which has come down to us, presents itself in this form:  after the Trisagion hymn the senior bishop stands before the holy table.  The candidate is brought to him from the right, and from the left the librarian delivers the document to him, which is immediately read by the metropolitan or senior bishop.  On it is written:  “Through the election and approbation of the (most senior) most sacred metropolitans, Divine Grace, which ever heals that which is infirm and fulfills that which is lacking, through the Laying on of Hands, elevates this presbyter, Most Beloved of God, to the episcopacy; let us pray for him that the Grace of the All-Holy Spirit may come upon him.”  The senior bishop takes into account what is written in this document, and those who are standing within and without the altar sing, “Lord, have mercy.”  Then the senior bishop, having made the Sign of the Cross three times on the head of the candidate, places his hand on him and reads the prayer: “O Master, Lord our God…” After the reading of the prayer one of the bishops reads the litany: “In peace let us pray to the Lord,” and the rest of the bishops respond.  There follows a second prayer:  “O Lord our God…” After the prayer the senior bishop removes the Gospel from the candidate’s head and places it on the holy table, and in exchange for the Gospel he places the omophorion on him, saying “Axios,” and the clergy repeats after him.  The consecration of the newly installed bishop ends with the greeting (kiss), and all stand in their places.  The newly installed bishop, after the reading of the Epistle, is the first to pronounce “Peace be to thee”; he communes of the Body and Blood of Christ before the others and distributes the gifts to the bishops who consecrated him.  Such is the most ancient rite of episcopal consecration, which has come down to us.  In later Allatius transcripts to this is added:  the image of the eagle, the oath, the presentation of the staff and the kneeling position in the altar at the time of consecration.  Here is already present almost everything that is most important in our contemporary rite, where is added only the vesting of the newly consecrated bishop in the sakkos and in addition — a supplementary rite accompanying the consecration: the vesting of the newly consecrated bishop after the Liturgy in the mantle with the well-springs [or the “fountains” — red and white ribbons encircling the mantle and signifying flowing streams of teaching and wisdom] and the presentation of the staff.  What there was not first in ancient times and could not be is self-understood:  the sakkos in the Greek Church comprised the appurtenance of patriarchs and metropolitans, and archbishops and bishops did not have the right to wear it.  For this reason, apparently, there could be no talk of vesting of the newly consecrated bishop in the sakkos.  His ecclesiastical vestment was the phelonion, but he received that vestment previously when he was consecrated to the priesthood.  In the ancient Russian ritual of episcopal consecration there is no mention of the sakkos for the very same reason.  In all of Russia it seems there was not one sakkos until the 15th century.  Photius, Metropolitan of Kiev, brought it from Greece for the first time, and from then on it became the vestment of Russian metropolitans, and from the time of the establishment of the patriarchate it was assimilated by the patriarchs.  As for archbishops and bishops, they were vested in the phelonion, and only some of them, for special merit, were allowed to wear the sakkos in the 17th century.  Such permission was granted by the Moscow Council in 1664 to the Archbishop of Chernigov, Lazarus Baranovich.  In 1669, the Greek Patriarch, Paisius, made the recommendation to Patriarch Joachim, with the Tsar’s permission, that all archbishops be permitted the right to wear the sakkos, but that proposal was not accepted, and it was only from the time of Peter the Great that the sakkos became the common vestment of bishops.  From that time the vesting in the sakkos entered into the composition of the rite of episcopal consecration.  As to the presentation of the staff, it is not part of the ancient Russian rite, and it appeared in newer versions, probably in the 18th century, from the Greek rite with the difference, that in the Greek rite it takes places immediately after the oath, but in the Russian rite at the end.  The same probability applies to the mantle, although it is not mentioned in any monuments known to us, neither Greek nor Russian.

Nastolnaia kniga sviaschennosluzhitelia [Sacred servants’ handbook], vol. 4, Moscow, 1983, pp. 330-338

Translated from Russian by Robert A. Parent

Last modified: April 28, 2004 - webmaster@holy-trinity.org.