How Many Bishops?: Background on the Tradition of Three Consecrating Bishops

By H. Boone Porter

Recent discussion of the consecration of bishops has called attention to the ancient practice of having at least three bishops officiate at the consecration or ordination of a new bishop. To most churchpeople, this is perhaps a rather obscure and unfamiliar point. What is involved here, and why?

Our oldest clear description of Christian ordinations is given in a book known as The Apostolic Tradition, generally believed to have been written by St. Hippolytus of Rome about 215 A.D. The directions given in this short book have had such force that they were widely accepted in ancient times, and still today, after so many centuries, some of Hippolytus’s rubrics are still with us. The Apostolic Tradition, like many other ancient liturgical books, gives the form for ordaining bishops first. The new bishop is first chosen by the people. Silent prayer follows, and all the bishops present lay their hands on the candidate’s head. Then one of the bishops utters the prayer, “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Father of all mercies and God of all comfort.” Hippolytus does not specify the number of bishops participating, but seems to assume several.

What is the purpose of the presence of several bishops, apart from the fact that the importance of the occasion would naturally attract visitors from the neighboring diocese? Later reflection indicates several functions. Their presence serves to assure the Church at large of the propriety of the election of the new bishop, and that his ordination took place “in decency and order.” It guards against the possibility of an episcopal ordination being carried out by an incompetent or irresponsible individual bishop. Above all, it expresses the collegial and corporate character of the episcopate. One bishop does not simply ordain another on a one-to-one basis. The new bishop rather is brought into the collective body of bishops who, as a group, are successors of the apostles and of the religious leaders of Israel.

Later on, the Council of Nicaea in 325, the first great world-wide assembly of the church, dealt with this matter in Canon IV and directed that all the bishops of a province should meet together to make a new bishop, “but should this be difficult, either on account of urgent necessity or because of distance, three at least should meet together and the votes of the absent (bishops) also should be given and communicated in writing, then the ordination should take place.” This effectively closes the door to clandestine or splinter-group consecrations.

The canons of Nicaea have strongly influenced later usage in the Eastern churches. In Western Europe, the rules for the ordination of clergy, from Hippolytus and other sources, were codified about 500 A.D. in a document known as the Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua (or “Ancient Statutes of the Church”). It appears to anticipate four or more bishops assisting the one who presides when a new bishop is ordained. Thus catholic usage, both in East and West, accepted the requirement of at least three bishops participating in such a consecration or ordination (both terms are used in traditional literature).

On the other hand, it was sometimes conceded that two or even one bishop might ordain another in special circumstances — as for instance, in a remote missionary area. This was understandable in ages when travel was difficult and hazardous, even for short distances. The Roman Catholic Church classed post-reformation England as a remote mission field and permitted solo consecrations there. Thus, as is well known, the first American bishop of that church, John Carroll, was so consecrated in England in 1790. Returning to this country, some years later, he consecrated others. This apparently did not offend the sensitivities of his coreligionists at that time, since papal approval of the consecrations was what mattered to them.

In the present century, attitudes have changed. Pius XII affirmed that the co-consecrators, as well as the chief consecrator, are genuine ministers of the act of ordination. More recently, the revised Roman rite of ordination, like that of the Episcopal Church, directs all the participating bishops to join together in reciting one paragraph of the consecratory prayer.

Consecrations by one bishop have also occurred in the Old Catholic Church, a communion of churches under the primacy of the Archbishop of Utrecht in the Netherlands, with whom Anglicans enjoy intercommunion. This church is not only numerically small but, until recent times, had few bishops of its own and was not in communion with any other churches. Hence this practice occurred.

The Church of England inherited the basic rules for ordination which went back to ancient times, and had no reason to change them. Matthew Parker, the first Archbishop of Canterbury under Queen Elizabeth I, had four consecrators, two of whom assisted him in further consecrations. The requirement of at least three bishops participating was clearly written into the rubrics of the English Ordinal which was attached to the Book of Common Prayer, and is now regarded as part of it. The words from this service or its subsequent revisions, may be used, but the Prayer Book consecration rite has not been actually followed unless at least three bishops take part.

In the establishment of the episcopate in the United States, the history of Samuel Seabury, first bishop, contrasts with that of John Carroll. After long delay and costly travel, Seabury obtained consecration from three Scottish Episcopal bishops in 1785. In 1787, William White and Samuel Provoost were consecrated for the United States by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and two other co-consecrators. In 1790, James Madison was also consecrated in England. It was not until further negotiation brought all four of these American bishops together, that the first bishop was consecrated in this country in 1792. Thus they conformed quite literally to Canon IV of Nicaea. Article II of the Constitution of the Episcopal Church states that “the consent of a majority of the Bishops of this church exercising jurisdiction” is necessary, and that “No one shall be ordained and consecrated Bishop by fewer than three Bishops.” The influence of the ancient canons is evident.

In recent generations, disagreement about the episcopate among different Christian bodies has strengthened Anglican insistence on the traditions of regularity. There has appeared a number of so-called episcopi vagantes (or “wandering bishops”) who have no recognized dioceses or stable constituencies, but who appear to treat the episcopate as a kind of personal honor to be handed from one to another. The churches of the Anglican Communion accord no recognition to these bishops who have been consecrated, and who consecrate others, without any authentic jurisdiction.

In this century, Old Catholic, Swedish Lutheran, or other bishops have sometimes participated in Episcopal or Anglican consecrations. Yet it has usually been required that our bishops have a chief consecrator and two principal co-consecrators from our own church, irrespective of how many visiting bishops from other churches take part. This has not been intended to cast doubt on the authenticity of the episcopate in other churches with which we are in communion, but rather to keep the position of our own bishops, within our own tradition, beyond dispute. In rare instances, a bishop of another church has been invited to serve as one of the three principal officiants, but only after careful previous canonical arrangements and with the full approval of his own church.

From this brief survey, it appears that the churches claiming to possess the apostolic succession of the episcopate have consistently required at least three bishops for the regular and lawful transmissions of this order, but that exceptions have been made in exigent circumstances. Anglicanism has recognized the authenticity of the episcopate in some other churches in which this has occurred in the past, but no such exceptions have been permitted within the Anglican Communion itself. In short, bishops, so ordained may, in some cases, be fully recognized as bishops, but not as Anglican bishops, and not as bishops consecrated in accordance with the requirements of the Book of Common Prayer. Most of the bishops irregularly ordained in modern times are not recognized by Anglican churches because they were consecrated for no duly constituted jurisdiction, by consecrators who themselves represented no jurisdiction with authority to consecrate. Irregularity, including an inadequate number of consecrators, has been seen in these cases as reflecting a church structure inadequate for the proper transmission of the historic succession of the episcopate.

The Rev. Dr. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977 to 1990. This article was published in our February 27, 1978 issue.

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