The Dignity of the Episcopal Order

Pre-Nicene bishops derive their jurisdiction from their priesthood that was wholly confined to a spiritual jurisdiction and as such the authority of the bishop was highly esteemed. Episcopal authority was never greater than when they concerned themselves only with the exercise of their proper spiritual authority. They were called ‘princes of the people’ that denoted no secular ruling authority, but in Jerome’s term principes ecclesiae, princes of the Church and derived from Isaiah 60.17 ‘I will make your princes peace and your bishops righteousness.’ The Greek Fathers called them governors and princes, Cyprian and Tertullian called them presidents or provosts of the Church. The care, presidency and inspection of the church describes the true character of the bishop. Moreover, because this presidency was not only over the people but also over the clergy, they were further dignified with the distinguishing character of chief priests and princes of the clergy. Ambrose calls the bishop chief priest and prince of priests. Another title attributed to all bishops was summus pontifex and as Cyprian points out in several of his letters that every bishop is vice Christi, Christ’s vicar or vicegerent.

Though the office of the priesthood is exercised on earth, it ranks, nevertheless, in the Celestial order of things – and rightly so. It was neither man nor an angel nor an archangel nor any other created power, but the Paraclete himself who established this ministry, and who ordained that men abiding in the flesh should imitate the ministry of angels. (John Chrysostom, On the Priesthood 3.4)

Margaret Barker (The Great High Priest, T & T Clark, London 2003, p103), claims that the most ancient traditions say that Israel's worship had to replicate heaven on earth. She quotes Eusebius, that, ‘Whatever was done on earth, then, whether in tabernacle or temple, was not a matter for human choice but was replicating something seen in a vision. Moses is ordered to establish figures and symbols on earth of what he had seen in his mind in visions’ (Eusebius, Proof 4.15).

Anglican views

The Anglican divine George Hickes (1642–1715) in The Dignity of Episcopal Order, stresses the importance of the organic connection between the Jewish and Christian understanding of priesthood that illuminates the use of such titles.

… it is no wonder such titles are given to bishops and their office, because to them is committed the government of the whole Church throughout the world, even the kingdom of Jesus Christ, which, as it is of greater extent than any worldly empire was or ever will be, so it is of greater dignity than all the kingdoms of the earth. This vast spiritual empire, which reaches from the rising to the setting sun, is committed by God to the bishops in general, as well as particular, in whole, as well as in part, which is a prerogative, that no temporal prince can challenge, whose authority is confined and limited to his dominions. And, Sir, if you rightly consider this, you will see the reason of the princely titles which I shall shew the fathers give them and their power (Hickes’s Treatises, Vol II, LACT, pp282–83).

Church authority and the spiritual power of Church governors was little understood in Hickes’ time, and was despised and depressed. Small wonder that the ancient writers’ language that styled the Church a spiritual principality, and the bishops the spiritual princes sounded exaggerated. For they taught that the Church, as the Scriptures represent it, was the empire of Jesus Christ, whose vicegerents they were, to govern it. ‘But, if you had the same notion of the dignity and honour of the priesthood that the Jews had of it, I believe you would not think I had spoken too loftily of the archieratical or episcopal office …’


First General Council

Constantine the Great, in his speech to the bishops at the first general council, says ‘God hath appointed you to be priests and princes, to judge the people, and determine causes, and hath described you to be gods, as being more excellent than all other men; according to what is written, (I have said ye are gods, and all the sons of the Most High;' and again, "God standeth in the congregation of gods." That this was applicable to Christian bishops, as priests, is expounded by Eusebius of Caesarea.

The Apostolical Constitutions (Bk II, ch 11), describe the bishop: ‘Wherefore, O bishop, study to be pure, and to make known thy conversation and dignity, as one that represents God among men in presiding over all men, priests, kings, princes, fathers, sons, doctors, and all who in like manner are thy subjects; and so preach from thy seat in the Church as one who hath power to judge offenders; for it is bishops, who can bind and loose … The bishop is the mediator in the Divine worship betwixt you and God; the teacher of religion; the father in God, … therefore let the bishop so preside over you as honoured with authority from God, by which he governs the clergy and all the people.’


Arthur Middleton is a Tutor at St Chad’s, Durham.

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