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§ 49. Beginnings of the Metropolitan and Patriarchal Systems


Though the bishops were equal in their dignity and powers as successors of the apostles, they gradually fell into different ranks, according to the ecclesiastical and political importance of their several districts.

1. On the lowest level stood the bishops of the country churches, the chorepiscopi who, though not mentioned before the beginning of the fourth century, probably originated at an earlier period.215215    The country bishops (χωρεπίσκοποι) appear first in the councils of Ancyra and Neo-Caesarea, 314, and again in the Council of Nicaea. They continued to exist in the East till the 9th century, when they were superseded by the exarchs (ἔξαρχοι) In the West, the chorepiscopi performed regular episcopal functions, without proper subordination to the diocesans, and hence excited jealousy and hostility till the office was abolished under Charlemagne, and continued only as a title of various cathedral dignitaries. See Haddan in Smith & Cheetham Dict. Chr. Ant. I. 354, and the authorities quoted there14 They stood between the presbyters and the city bishops, and met the wants of episcopal supervision in the villages of large dioceses in Asia Minor and Syria, also in Gaul.

2. Among the city bishops the metropolitans rose above the rest, that is, the bishops of the capital cities of the provinces.216216    μητροπόλεις, Hence μητροπολιται.15 They presided in the provincial synods, and, as primi inter pares, ordained the bishops of the province. The metropolitan system appears, from the Council of Nicaea in 325, to have been already in operation at the time of Constantine and Eusebius, and was afterwards more fully carried out in the East. In North Africa the oldest bishop, hence called senex, stood as primas, at the head of his province; but the bishop of Carthage enjoyed the highest consideration, and could summon general councils.

3. Still older and more important is the distinction of apostolic mother-churches,217217    Sedes apostolicae, matrices ecclesiae.16 such as those at Jerusalem, Antioch) Alexandria, Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome. In the time of Irenaeus and Tertullian they were held in the highest regard, as the chief bearers of the pure church tradition. Among these Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome were most prominent, because they were the capitals respectively of the three divisions (eparchiae) of the Roman empire, and centres of trade and intercourse, combining with their apostolic origin the greatest political weight. To the bishop of Antioch fell all Syria as his metropolitan district; to the bishop of Alexandria, all Egypt; to the bishop of Rome, central and lower Italy, without definite boundaries.

4. Here we have the germs of the eparchal or patriarchal system, to which the Greek church to this day adheres. The name patriarch was at first, particularly in the East, an honorary title for all bishops, and was not till the fourth century exclusively appropriated to the bishops of the three ecclesiastical and political capitals of the Roman empire, Antioch, Alexandria and Rome, and also to the bishop of Jerusalem honoris causa, and the bishop of Constantinople or New Rome. So in the West the term papa afterwards appropriated by the Roman bishop, as summus pontifex, vicarius Christi, was current for a long time in a more general application.



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