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The Diocese in History

By Cheryl White

As the Episcopal Church seeks to administer itself today while simultaneously engaging and identifying with the broader Anglican Communion, there are potentially multiple points of conflict due to inexact corresponding structures within other global provinces. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is that some Communion provinces are structured to have true archbishops. The Episcopal Church instead developed the office of “Presiding Bishop” as a reflection of a tempered democratic understanding of authority which framed our early national republic. There is a shared common structure in the concept of the diocese, however; indeed, it is a strong and legitimate link which joins the Episcopal Church with all of Catholic Christianity.

The diocese has been the organizational framework for the life of the Church throughout the ages. Therefore, it is useful to review the diocese’s history as an administrative structure in order to frame a more complete understanding of its place within polity and governance today. However, there is much more to the concept of the diocese than mere matters of human administration. It is also an expression of God’s great work in the world and the practical framework for carrying out the Great Commission of Christ.

The diocesan structure is at least 18 centuries old, with its roots in the secular governance of imperial Rome. The concept quickly took on an added dimension as Christianity spread throughout the empire by the end of the fourth century. Because its place in early Christian history corresponds directly with the development of episcopal authority, the diocese can be identified as the basic foundation for the governance of the whole Church. Indeed, it is the most prominent and consistent structure of the ordered historic faith.

With the advance of time and addition of territory, the administration of the Roman Empire reflected a policy of increasing subdivision of authority and bureaucracy. Imperial provinces were eventually grouped together to be part of larger administrative units known as dioceses. By the time of the third century, the diocese was the intermediate level of Roman governmental structure as organized by Emperor Diocletian. Each diocese was governed by a vicar, or representative, of the prefect, who was accountable to the emperor in all civil and military affairs.

Because Christianity openly flourished with imperial sanction by the time of Constantine the Great in the fourth century, the Roman diocese became the logical framework for the center of ecclesiastical authority in the office of the bishop. Just as Christianity experienced this freedom of expression, the inevitable decay and decline of the Empire began. By the end of the fifth century, the collapse of imperial authority in the West was complete and the structures of civil government were gone. In many dioceses, the only remaining authority for social order was the bishop, whose office developed in parallel to that of the imperial governor. In fact, episcopal authority and imperial authority often overlapped in issues related to the general social order of the diocese, with the effect of strengthening the power of the office of bishop by the early Middle Ages. It is easy to understand how the diocese survived the Roman Empire as the seat of ecclesiastical authority in any given geographic region.

The development of the episcopacy is tangential to the history of the diocese, and although scholars may disagree on its origin and expression in the primitive Church, the hierarchical authority of bishops is well-documented in history. Considerable historical evidence points to the episkopos as the highest ecclesiastical authority within a diocese, and religious life in the region submissive to that authority, from Late Antiquity into the current age. Indeed, the bishop of any given diocese possesses a jurisdiction of divine origin, an authority over the faithful understood to be conferred by consecration.

Following the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, the Roman Catholic understanding of episcopal jurisdiction deriving from God through a supreme bishop (pope) became untenable for many for obvious reasons. Yet, even in the reformed Church of England, episcopal authority within a diocese continued to be subordinate to that of the archepiscopal authority of either Canterbury or York. The traditional Church hierarchy and ancient structures of organization remained intact within the Church of England, save the papal supremacy centered in Rome. It was this understanding of Church governance that survived the English Civil War and Interregnum of the 17th century and was transplanted in English colonies around the globe.

This was the understanding of ecclesiology that found its way to the American colonies. In the colonial period, Anglican clergy were under the authority of the Diocese of London, which in turn answered to the archiepiscopal authority of Canterbury. Following American independence, the Anglican expression in the new nation retained the traditional model of diocesan organization and yet simultaneously reflected a society infused with democratic values. There was no archiepiscopal authority once the colonial tie with England was severed. Each diocese began to select its bishop and naturally reverted to the traditional model of church governance with each diocese operating autonomously. Samuel Seabury, the first Episcopal bishop of Connecticut, obviously functioned in this manner, as did William White of Pennsylvania and Samuel Provoost of New York, whose consecrations as diocesan bishops took place before the formation of the Episcopal Church. Therefore, the diocesan structure existed in America both before and after independence from England, and before the first Constitution of the Episcopal Church.

One might be tempted to make the argument here that when meeting in convention in 1789 to ratify the first Constitution of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States diocesan bishops relinquished all autonomy in exchange for unity as a “national” church. However, the rejection of archiepiscopal authority is apparent in the naming of a presiding bishop, who, until the early 20th century, maintained diocesan obligations while simply presiding over conventions of the church. It was diocesan structure and authority from which the Episcopal Church derived its very existence.

Today, through the mystery of communion with all the faithful of previous ages, the diocese continues to reflect on a local level the teachings and ministry of the Church universal. It is the same historical concept that once nurtured the episcopacy as God’s instrument of authority for the faith and continues as a tangible link to the Church Catholic and apostolic. The Episcopal Church is therefore heir to one of the oldest manifestations of the visible and living Church, through the life of the diocese.

Cheryl White is professor of European and Christian Church history at Louisiana State University-Shreveport.

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