Were bishops really that important?

I’ve never been one to value the role of a bishop. To be sure, part of it comes from my Congregational background, which trains Christians to look askance at authority and especially the cumulative authority of monarchs or bishops. (Really….can you imagine Prince Charles becoming head of the Church of England….he’s only one bad arrhythmia away.)

When I was ordained, an Episcopal priest friend made darned sure that she had her hand on my head during the “laying on of hands,” so as to ensure that the apostolic succession made it through to my ministry. And while that isn’t my theology, I really appreciated the gesture of having that transmission from Peter and Paul down the millennia to Christy Shain-Hendricks’ touch. Image

The Council of Nicaea in 335 with Constantine center stage and our discredited bishop, Arius, in humiliation. (He was right, by the way.)

I’ve been reading with great interest Constantine and the Bishops: The Politics of Intolerance by Hal Drake. It isn’t simply cogent historical argument, it’s a very good read! Here are a few observations about the role bishops played in the first three centuries of Christian history:

“Over the centuries, bishops displayed a remarkable ability to absorb every kind of distinction into their corporate identity.” We don’t always think about black bishops from north Africa, brown bishops from Jerusalem, and white bishops from Lyons, but they were there…along with bishops from differing social strata. The one BIG exception that was still evident at the Vatican during the most recent conclave (literally “with” + “lock”) is sex…Bishops in the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England and others still exclude women. It kind of reminds me – in a twisted way – of the 1960s Connie Francis song, “Where the Boys Are.” And God bless Katharine Jefferts Schiori, presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (USA).


One of the things Drake writes that was new to me is that “Congregations played a significant role in the selection of their bishop, and this popular participation in their selection gave bishops a power base among citizenry which few civic officials could match.”

“Bishops,” writes Drake, offered “stability through an alternate principle of authority, according to which personal traits counted for less than the cumulative powers that each bishop acquired up accession to the office. In Christian terms, this became known as the principle of ‘apostolic succession,’ which held that each bishop belonged to a line that, through the ‘laying on of hands’ [what my 12-year-old son Chris referred to as “petting”] by other bishops which took place at the time of his accession, traced back to the apostles.” It “played the same role in the Christian community which dynastic succession plays in a monarchy.”

Though I quibble with the office of bishop theologically, it certainly had an impact politically in the early church, and perhaps beyond. That is why we know who the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church is, but most people don’t know who the general minister and president of the UCC is. (Episcopalians in the U.S. have 2.1 million members; the UCC has 1.3 million members, but their influence seems disproportionately wider.)

Drake concludes, “Though rarely as charismatic as martyrs or as eloquent as apologists, bishops were more significant than either, because they constituted the effective power of the church. The bishops were the players.”

I’m finding the politics of the early church fascinating. I wish this was the kind of stuff we had been reading in divinity school courses on church history. I’m glad that I have the opportunity to read it now, in anticipation of my pilgrimage to Italy. And, yes…bishops were very important, at least in the politics of the early church.