Chapter 17 - CHURCH GOVERNMENT

By this time the Gospel had not only been firmly settled as the religion of the great Roman empire, but had made its way into most other countries of the world then known. Here, then, we may stop to take a view of some things connected with the Church; and it will be well, in doing so, to remember what is wisely said by our own Church, in her thirty-fourth article, which is about "the Traditions of the Church" (that is to say, the practices handed down in the Church) --"It is not necessary that traditions and ceremonies be in all places one, and utterly alike; for at all times they have been divers" (that is, they have differed in different parts of Christ's Church), "and they may be changed according to the diversities of countries, times, and men's manners, so that nothing be ordained against God's Word."

First, then, as to the ministers of the Church. The three orders which had been from the beginning,--bishops, presbyters (or priests), and deacons (page 6), were considered to stand by themselves, as the only orders necessary to a church. But early in the third century a number of other orders were introduced, all lower than that of deacons. These were the "sub-deacons", who helped the deacons in the care of the poor, and of the property belonging to the church; the "acolytes", who lighted the lamps, and assisted in the celebration of the sacraments; the "exorcists", who took charge of persons suffering from afflictions resembling the possession by devils which is spoken of in the New Testament; the "readers", whose business it was to read the Scriptures in church; and the "doorkeepers". All these were considered to belong to the clergy; just as if among ourselves the organist, the clerk, the sexton, the singers, and the bell-ringers of a church were to be reckoned as clergy, and were to be appointed to their offices by a religious ceremony or ordination. But these new orders were not used everywhere, and, as has been said, the persons who were in these orders were not considered to be clergy in the same way as those of the three higher orders which had been ever since the days of the Apostles.

There were also, in the earliest times, women called deaconesses, such as Phoebe, who is mentioned in the Epistle to the Romans (xvi. 1.). These deaconesses (who were often pious widows) were employed among Christians of their own sex, for such works of mercy and instruction as were not fit for men to do (or, at least, were supposed not to be so according to the manners of the Greeks, and of the other ancient nations). But the order of deaconesses does not seem to have lasted long.

All bishops, as I have said already, are of one order (page 6). But in course of time, it was found convenient for the government of the Church, that some of them should be placed higher than others; and the way in which this was settled was very natural. The bishops of a country found it desirable to meet sometimes, that they might consult with each other, as we are told that the Apostles did at Jerusalem (Acts xv); and in most countries these meetings (which were called "synods" or "councils") came to be regularly held once or twice a year. The chief city of each district was naturally the place of meeting; and the bishop of this city was naturally the chairman or president of the assembly-- just as we read that, in the council of the Apostles, St. James who was bishop of Jerusalem, where it was held, spoke with the greatest authority, after all the rest, and that his "sentence" was given as the judgment of the assembly. These bishops, then, got the title of "metropolitans", because each was bishop of the metropolis (or mother-city) of the country in which the council was held; and thus they came to be considered higher than their brethren. And, of course, when any messages or letters were to be sent to the churches of other countries, the metropolitan was the person in whose name it was done.

And, as all this was the natural course of things in every country, it was also natural that the bishops of very great cities should be considered as still higher than the ordinary metropolitans. Thus the bishoprics of Rome, of Alexandria, and of Antioch, which were the three greatest cities of the empire, were regarded as the chief bishoprics, and as superior to all others. Those of Rome and Antioch were both supposed to have been founded by St. Peter, and Alexandria was believed to have been founded by St. Mark, under the direction of St. Peter. Hence it afterwards came to be thought that this was the cause of their greatness; and the bishops of Rome, especially, liked to have this believed, because they could then pretend to claim some sort of especial power, which they said that our Lord had given to St. Peter above the other Apostles, and that St. Peter had left it to his successors. But such claims were quite unfounded, and it is clear that the real reason why these three churches stood higher than others was that they were in the three greatest cities of the whole empire.

But the Church of Rome had many advantages over Alexandria and Antioch, as well as over every other. It was the greatest and the richest of all, so that it could send help to distressed Christians in all countries. No other church of the West had an Apostle to boast of, but Rome could boast of the two great Apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul, who had laboured in it, and had given their blood for the faith of the Gospel in it. Most of the western nations had received their knowledge of the Gospel through the Roman Church, and on this account they looked up with respect to it as a mother. And as people from all parts of the empire were continually going to Rome and returning, the Church of the great capital kept up a constant intercourse with other churches in all quarters. Thus the bishops of Rome were naturally much respected everywhere, and, so long as they did not take too much upon themselves, great regard was paid to their opinion; but when they tried to interfere with the rights of other bishops, or to lord it over other churches, they were firmly withstood, and were desired to keep within their proper bounds, as Stephen of Rome was by St. Cyprian of Carthage (page 29).

Another thing must be mentioned as creditable to the Roman Church, and as one which did much to raise the power of its bishops. The heresies which we have read of all began in the East, where the people were more sharp-witted and restless in their thoughts than those of the West. The Romans, on the other hand, had not the turn of mind which led to these errors, but rather attended to practical things. Hence they were disposed to hold to the faith which had come down to them from their fathers, and to defend it against the new opinions which were brought forward from time to time. This steadiness, then, gave them a great advantage over the Christians of the East, who were frequently changing from one thing to another. It gained for the Roman Church much credit and authority , and when the great Arian controversy arose, the effects of the difference between the Eastern and the Western character were vastly increased. The Romans (except for a short time, when a bishop named Liberius was won over by the Arians) kept to their old faith. The Eastern parties looked to the bishop of Rome as if he had the whole Western Church in his hands. They constantly carried their quarrels to him, asking him to give his help, and he was the strongest friend that they could find anywhere. And when the side which Rome had always upheld got the victory at last, the importance of the Roman bishops rose in consequence. But even after all this, if the bishop of Rome tried to meddle with other churches, his right to do so was still denied. Many "canons" (that is to say, rules of the Church) were made to forbid the carrying of any quarrel for judgment beyond the country in which it began; and, however glad the churches of Africa and of the East were to have the bishop of Rome for a friend, they would never allow him to assume the airs of a master.

And from the time when Constantinople was built in the place of Byzantium, a new great Church arose. Byzantium had been only a common bishopric, and for a time Constantinople was not called anything more than a common bishopric; but in real importance it was very much more, so that even a bishop of Antioch, the third see in the whole Christian world, thought himself advanced when he was made bishop of Constantinople instead. But the second General Council (which as we have seen (page 70) was held at Constantinople in the year 381) made a canon by which Constantinople was placed next to Rome, "because," as the canon said, "it is a new Rome." This raised the jealousy, not only of Antioch, and still more of Alexandria, at having an upstart bishopric (as they considered it) put over their heads; but it gave great offence to the bishops of Rome, who could not bear such a rivalry as was now threatened, and were besides very angry on account of the reason which was given for placing Constantinople next after Rome. For the council, when it said that Constantinople was to be second among all Churches, because of its being " a new Rome," meant to say that the reason why Rome itself stood first was nothing more than its being the old capital of the empire, whereas the bishops of Rome wished it to be thought that their power was founded on their being the successors of St. Peter.

We shall by-and-by see something of the effects of these jealousies.