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Nicea and the "Invasion" of Bishops in Other Dioceses - by Dr. Robert J. Sanders

Nicea and the "Invasion" of Bishops in Other Dioceses

An examination of the crossing of diocesan lines as based on Nicea, its Creed and canons as approved by the Nicene Council.

April 23, 2004

The Rev. Dr. Robert J. Sanders

Does the Council of Nicea forbid bishops from carrying out Episcopal functions in dioceses not their own? This question pertains directly to conditions holding in the Episcopal Church today in that several bishops have recently crossed diocesan lines to administer Confirmation and celebrate the Eucharist. My objective here is to consider whether or not Nicea would approve of bishops functioning in dioceses not their own, and if so, under what circumstances. I base my conclusions on Nicea itself, the Creed and canons approved by the Nicene Council.

When one reads the acts of the Council of Nicea, several facts become readily apparent. First, it was understood that bishops belonged to the order of the Church. That is to say, all Christians were to be under the oversight of a bishop. Further, there was to be only one bishop in each diocese, or only one ruling bishop. Third, bishops were not to officiate in dioceses other than their own, except perhaps, by invitation. There is, however, a critical exception to these three conclusions, but for the moment, let me present some of the evidence that they hold true.

Of the twenty canons ratified by Nicea, at least seven directly refer to the qualifications and prerogatives of bishops. Several others pertain to clergy in general, including bishops. Further, it is obvious that the canons presuppose a diocesan system with the bishop as the head of each diocese. For example, canon six describes the geographical area under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Alexandria. Or, canon seven describes the honor due the bishop of Jerusalem. Further, each bishop was the ecclesiastical head of his diocese, responsible for its worship, beliefs, and moral norms. Canon five describes how an excommunicated person cannot be readmitted to communion by another bishop in another diocese, but only by council. In other words, bishops, in their dioceses, ruled on who was excommunicate, and only a council could overrule a local bishop. Canon eight describes how the heretical Cathari bishops were to be received back into the fellowship of the Church if they renounced their heresy and accept the catholic and apostolic faith. When received, they were to be relegated to the status of priest, except if the local bishop gave them title, but even in this case, they were restricted in carrying out Episcopal functions. This canon ends with the statement that "there may not be two bishops in the city." Here it is understood that each diocese can have only one bishop. Further, canon fifteen prohibited the translation of a bishop from one diocese to another. By this it was meant that a bishop, learning of a vacancy in another see, could not accept a call to that vacant see except by the express consent of the Provincial Council. It was understood that consecration in a diocese was a type of marriage to that diocese. This covenant could only be broken if the good of the Church as a whole became the dominant factor, a decision that could only be taken by the larger Church. Clearly, if a bishop could not of his own volition become bishop in a vacant diocese, even if invited by the people of that diocese, he could not officiate in another diocese, except perhaps, by the permission of its bishop. Canon sixteen forbade priests and deacons from officiating in dioceses other than their own, except by reason of letters dimissory sent to the bishop. This indicated that priests and deacons were under the oversight of one bishop, a bishop who governed the liturgical functions of his own diocese. It short, it is clear that Nicea presupposes the idea that all Christians belong to specific dioceses, that there is only one chief bishop in each diocese, and that this bishop oversees the work of the church in his diocese. For this reason, bishops could not, simply if they wished, officiate outside their own dioceses. There is, however, one absolutely critical exception that must now be addressed as it pertains to conditions that now hold in the Episcopal Church.

In regard to bishops, all the foregoing applies only to orthodox and morally sound bishops. Heretical bishops, morally lapsed bishops, do not belong to the Church. The faithful are not to receive Holy Communion from them nor accept their Episcopal oversight. Such bishops are outside the Church. This is utterly obvious from the canons and creed accepted by Nicea. Of the twenty canons adopted by Nicea, seven concerned rules for admitting persons into the Church and to Holy Communion. Nicea maintained the integrity of Holy Communion. Not everyone was admitted. For example, the followers of the heretical bishop Novatian were not admitted to Holy Communion in the Church. The followers of Novatian were called Novatians, or the Cathari. Novatian was a rigorist. He did not believe that those who had lapsed under persecution could be admitted into the Church, nor could one share Holy Communion with those who were twice married. As a bishop, he consecrated other bishops and sent them throughout the empire where they functioned parallel to orthodox bishops. Both he and his followers were judged heretical. The orthodox were not to communicate with them. A number of Cathari, however, were willing to renounce their errors and come into the orthodox and apostolic church. Canon eight reads as follows,

CONCERNING those who call themselves Cathari, if they come over to the Catholic and Apostolic Church, the great and Holy Synod decrees that they who are ordained shall continue as they are in the clergy. But it is before all things necessary that they should profess in writing that they will observe and follow the dogmas of the Catholic and Apostolic Church; in particular that they will communicate with persons who have been twice married, and with those who having lapsed in persecution have had a period [of penance] laid upon them, and a time [of restoration] fixed so that in all things they will follow the dogmas of the Catholic Church. Wheresoever, then, whether in villages or in cities, all of the ordained are found to be of these only, let them remain in the clergy, and in the same rank in which they are found. But if they come over where there is a bishop or presbyter of the Catholic Church, it is manifest that the Bishop of the Church must have the bishop's dignity; and he who was named bishop by those who are called Cathari shall have the rank of presbyter, unless it shall seem fit to the Bishop to admit him to partake in the honor of the title. Or, if this should not be satisfactory, then shall the bishop provide for him a place as Chorepiscopus, or presbyter, in order that he may be evidently seen to be of the clergy, and that there may not be two bishops in the city.

Here we see the following: The Cathari are not allowed in the Church unless they renounce their errors in writing. Further, some of the Cathari are living and worshipping in areas where there is an orthodox bishop. In this case, if a Cathari bishop renounces his errors and accepts the "dogmas of the Catholic and Apostolic Church," such a bishop could not remain a functioning bishop but must become a priest under the oversight of the local orthodox bishop, although the local orthodox bishop could grant him title. From this it is evident that orthodox bishops officiated in areas governed by heretical Cathari bishops and conversely. In other words, orthodox bishops officiated in areas governed by heretical Cathari bishops because all Christians must be under the oversight of a bishop, and orthodox Christians could not take Holy Communion from heretical bishops. For these reasons, orthodox bishops had to carry out Episcopal functions in areas where bishops had become Cathari.

Canon nineteen concerns the Paulianists, the followers of the heresy of Paul of Samosata. Paul of Samosata was a bishop who denied the Trinity. He did not, however, deny the names Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In fact, he and his heretical followers baptized their followers in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They were heretical because they interpreted these names in ways that denied their orthodox meaning. This is especially relevant to the Episcopal Church today. The revisionists do not deny the language of faith, Scripture and Creeds, rather, they interpret them along novel lines that destroy their meaning. I have documented this in detail in other essays. (www.rsanders.org) Since the Paulianists falsely interpreted the doctrine of the Trinity, while maintaining its language, those baptized by the Paulinists had to be rebaptized once they renounced their errors and entered the apostolic Church. Further, those ordained by Paulianist bishops had to be reordained since Episcopal duties carried out by heretics were not valid. Here are the opening words of canon nineteen,

CONCERNING the Paulianists who have flown for refuge to the Catholic Church, it has been decreed that they must by all means be rebaptized; and if any of them who in past time have been numbered among their clergy should be found blameless and without reproach, let them be rebaptized and ordained by the Bishop of the Catholic Church;

Finally, it must be understood that the principal reason for the Council of Nicea was to address the teaching of Arius, a priest who denied that Jesus Christ was divine. The creed adopted at Nicea ended with these words,

And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not, or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence [from the Father] or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion ‑ all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.

Not long after Nicea, a number of bishops embraced the Arian heresy. The orthodox were not allowed to come under their oversight. Among other things, that is what “anathematize” entails. Nevertheless, the order of the church presumed that every believer be under the oversight of a bishop. As a result, geographical areas were divided, containing both orthodox and Arian bishops, with the orthodox avoiding the communions celebrated by priests and bishops of Arian persuasion. Werner Elert, in his Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries, describes the aftermath of Nicea as follows,

There is no period in the early church when the question of the conditions and boundaries of church fellowship were not acute. It was already so in the time of Hegesipus, and quite intensely so after Nicaea. In the conflicts between provincial churches in the second and third centuries it is possible to indicate geographically the boundaries between the protagonists, and so also between one fellowship and another. After Nicaea the boundaries, at least in the East, cut right through the provinces and even through individual parishes. (p. 141)

What does Nicea teach us? It teaches us that believers need to come under the oversight of bishops, that they cannot receive from heretical bishops, and therefore, orthodox bishops must officiate in dioceses headed by heretical bishops. In short, if Nicea means anything, there must be a network.

It is a miserable fact that Christendom is divided into so many churches, sects, and parties. It is tragic that the Episcopal Church may well be in the process of division, adding more wounds to the body of Christ. These wounds exist because Christians are sinful. We teach false doctrine and live immoral lives. We cannot hide from this. The wounds of Christ tell us who we are. The one thing Christians cannot do is to deny these wounds exist, and even worse, to use the wounds themselves to deny the wounds. This is what the revisionists would have us do. They will use the Holy Eucharist to achieve a false unity based upon nothing but a vague sense of inclusion, bringing us together beneath a cross without cost, a cross without truth, a cross without sacrifice, and a Jesus without wounds. No, if we are divided -- and our divisions are not superficial, the very substance of the faith is at stake -- then we must set forth a crucified Christ by not celebrating Eucharists with those who deny the historical faith and morals of the universal Church. Only then can we be faithful to Christ crucified. Anything less profanes his broken body and spilt blood. That, above all, is why we must have a network.

The Rev. Dr. Robert J. Sanders is the Associate Rector, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church Jacksonville, Florida

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