EPISCOPACY (from Late Lat. episcopatus, the office of a bishop, episcopus), the general term technically applied to that system of church organization in which the chief ecclesiastical authority within a defined district, or diocese, is vested in a bishop. As such it is distinguished on the one hand from Presbyterianism, government by elders, and Congregationalism, in which the individual church or community of worshippers is autonomous, and on the other from Papalism. The origin and development of episcopacy in the Christian Church, and the functions and attributes of bishops in the various churches, are dealt with elsewhere (see Church History and Bishop). Under the present heading it is proposed only to discuss briefly the various types of episcopacy actually existing, and the different principles that they represent.

The deepest line of cleavage is naturally between the view that episcopacy is a divinely ordained institution essential to the effective existence of a church as a channel of grace, and the view that it is merely a convenient form of church order, evolved as the result of a variety of historical causes, and not necessary to the proper constitution of a church. The first of these views is closely connected with the doctrine of the Apostolical Succession. According to this, Christ committed to his apostles certain powers of order and jurisdiction in the Church, among others that of transmitting these powers to others through “the laying on of hands”; and this power, whatever obscurity may surround the practice of the primitive Church (see Apostle, ad fin.) was very early confined to the order of bishops, who by virtue of a special consecration became the successors of the apostles in the function of handing on the powers and graces of the ministry.[1] A valid episcopate, then, is one derived in an unbroken series of “layings on of hands” by bishops from the time of the apostles (see Order, Holy). This is the Catholic view, common to all the ancient Churches whether of the West or East, and it is one that necessarily excludes from the union of Christendom all those Christian communities which possess no such apostolically derived ministry.

Apart altogether, however, from the question of orders, episcopacy represents a very special conception of the Christian Church. In the fully developed episcopal system the bishop sums up in his own person the collective powers of the Church in his diocese, not by delegation of these powers from below, but by divinely bestowed authority from above. “Ecclesia est in episcopo,” wrote St Cyprian (Cyp. iv. Ep. 9); the bishop, as the successor of the apostles, is the centre of unity in his diocese, the unity of the Church as a whole is maintained by the intercommunion of the bishops, who for this purpose represent their dioceses. The bishops, individually and collectively, are thus the essential ties of Catholic unity; they alone, as the depositories of the apostolic traditions, establish the norm of Catholic orthodoxy in the general councils of the Church. This high theory of episcopacy which, if certain of the Ignatian letters be genuine, has a very early origin, has, of course, fallen upon evil days. The power of the collective episcopate to maintain Catholic unity was disproved long before it was overshadowed by the centralized authority of Rome; before the Reformation, its last efforts to assert its supremacy in the Western Church, at the councils of Basel and Constance, had broken down; and the religious revolution of the 16th century left it largely discredited and exposed to a double attack, by the papal monarchy on the one hand and the democratic Presbyterian model on the other. Within the Roman Catholic Church the high doctrine of episcopacy continued to be maintained by the Gallicans and Febronians (see Gallicanism and Febronianism) as against the claims of the Papacy, and for a while with success; but a system which had failed to preserve the unity of the Church even when the world was united under the Roman empire could not be expected to do so in a world split up into a series of rival states, of which many had already reorganized their churches on a national basis. “Febronius,” indeed, was in favour of a frank recognition of this national basis of ecclesiastical organization, and saw in Episcopacy the best means of reuniting the dissidents to the Catholic Church, which was to consist, as it were, of a free federation of episcopal churches under the presidency of the bishop of Rome. The idea had considerable success; for it happened to march with the views of the secular princes. But religious people could hardly be expected to see in the worldly prince-bishops of the Empire, or the wealthy courtier-prelates of France, the trustees of the apostolical tradition. The Revolution intervened; and when, during the religious reaction that followed, men sought for an ultimate authority, they found it in the papal monarch, exalted now by ultramontane zeal into the sole depositary of the apostolical tradition (see Ultramontanism). At the Vatican Council of 1870 episcopacy made its last stand against papalism, and was vanquished (see Vatican Council). The pope still addresses his fellow-bishops as “venerable brothers”; but from the Roman Catholic Church the fraternal union of coequal authorities, which is of the essence of episcopacy, has vanished; and in its place is set the autocracy of one. The modern Roman Catholic Church is episcopal, for it preserves the bishops, whose potestas ordinis not even the pope can exercise until he has been duly consecrated; but the bishops as such are now but subordinate elements in a system for which “Episcopacy” is certainly no longer an appropriate term.

The word Episcopacy has, in fact, since the Reformation, been more especially associated with those churches which, while ceasing to be in communion with Rome, have preserved the episcopal model. Of these by far the most important is the Church of England, which has preserved its ecclesiastical organization essentially unchanged since its foundation by St Augustine, and its daughter churches (see England, Church of, and Anglican Communion). The Church of England since the Reformation has been the chief champion of the principle of Episcopacy against the papal pretensions on the one hand and Presbyterianism and Congregationalism on the other. As to the divine origin of Episcopacy and, consequently, of its universal obligation in the Christian Church, Anglican opinion has been, and still is, considerably divided.[2] The “High Church” view, now predominant, is practically identical with that of the Gallicans and Febronians, and is based on Catholic practice in those ages of the Church to which, as well as to the Bible, the formularies of the Church of England make appeal. So far as this view, however, is the outcome of the general Catholic movement of the 19th century, it can hardly be taken as typical of Anglican tradition in this matter. Certainly, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Church of England, while rigorously enforcing the episcopal model at home, and even endeavouring to extend it to Presbyterian Scotland, did not regard foreign non-episcopal Churches otherwise than as sister communions. The whole issue had, in fact, become confused with the confusion of functions of the Church and State. In the view of the Church of England the ultimate governance of the Christian community, in things spiritual and temporal, was vested not in the clergy but in the “Christian prince” as the vicegerent of God.[3] It was the transference to the territorial sovereigns of modern Europe of the theocratic character of the Christian heads of the Roman world-empire; with the result that for the reformed Churches the unit of church organization was no longer the diocese, or the group of dioceses, but the Christian state. Thus in England the bishops, while retaining their potestas ordinis in virtue of their consecration as successors of the apostles, came to be regarded not as representing their dioceses in the state, but the state in their dioceses. Forced on their dioceses by the royal Congé d’élire (q.v.), and enthusiastic apostles of the High Church doctrine of non-resistance, the bishops were looked upon as no more than lieutenants of the crown;[4] and Episcopacy was ultimately resisted by Presbyterians and Independents as an expression and instrument of arbitrary government, “Prelacy” being confounded with “Popery” in a common condemnation. With the constitutional changes of the 18th and 19th centuries, however, a corresponding modification took place in the character of the English episcopate; and a still further change resulted from the multiplication of colonial and missionary sees having no connexion with the state (see Anglican Communion). The consciousness of being in the line of apostolic succession helped the English clergy to revert to the principle Ecclesia est in episcopo, and the great periodical conferences of Anglican bishops from all parts of the world have something of the character, though they do not claim the ecumenical authority, of the general councils of the early Church (see Lambeth Conferences).

Of the reformed Churches of the continent of Europe only the Lutheran Churches of Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland preserve the episcopal system in anything of its historical sense; and of these only the two last can lay claim to the possession of bishops in the unbroken line of episcopal succession.[5] The superintendents (variously entitled also arch-priests, deans, provosts, ephors) of the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church, as established in the several states of Germany and in Austria, are not bishops in any canonical sense, though their jurisdictions are known as dioceses and they exercise many episcopal functions. They have no special powers of order, being presbyters, and their legal status is admittedly merely that of officials of the territorial sovereign in his capacity as head of the territorial church (see Superintendent). The “bishops” of the Lutheran Church in Transylvania are equivalent to the superintendents.

Episcopacy in a stricter sense is the system of the Moravian Brethren (q.v.) and the Methodist Episcopal Church of America (see Methodism). In the case of the former, claim is laid to the unbroken episcopal succession through the Waldenses, and the question of their eventual intercommunion with the Anglican Church was accordingly mooted at the Lambeth Conference of 1908. The bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church, on the other hand, derive their orders from Thomas Coke, a presbyter of the Church of England, who in 1784 was ordained by John Wesley, assisted by two other presbyters, “superintendent” of the Methodist Society in America. Methodist episcopacy is therefore based on the denial of any special potestas ordinis in the degree of bishop, and is fundamentally distinct from that of the Catholic Church—using this term in its narrow sense as applied to the ancient churches of the East and West.

In all of these ancient churches episcopacy is regarded as of divine origin; and in those of them which reject the papal supremacy the bishops are still regarded as the guardians of the tradition of apostolic orthodoxy and the stewards of the gifts of the Holy Ghost to men (see Orthodox Eastern Church; Armenian Church; Copts: Coptic Church, &c). In the West, Gallican and Febronian Episcopacy are represented by two ecclesiastical bodies: the Jansenist Church under the archbishop of Utrecht (see Jansenism and Utrecht), and the Old Catholics (q.v.). Of these the latter, who separated from the Roman communion after the promulgation of the dogma of papal infallibility, represent a pure revolt of the system of Episcopacy against that of Papalism.  (W. A. P.) 

  1. See Bishop C. Gore, The Church and the Ministry (1887).
  2. Neither the Articles nor the authoritative Homilies of the Church of England speak of episcopacy as essential to the constitution of a church. The latter make “the three notes or marks” by which a true church is known “pure and sound doctrine, the sacraments administered according to Christ’s holy institution, and the right use of ecclesiastical discipline.” These marks are perhaps ambiguous, but they certainly do not depend on the possession of the Apostolic Succession; for it is further stated that “the bishops of Rome and their adherents are not the true Church of Christ” (Homily “concerning the Holy Ghost,” ed. Oxford, 1683, p. 292).
  3. “He and his holy apostles likewise, namely Peter and Paul, did forbid unto all Ecclesiastical Ministers, dominion over the Church of Christ” (Homilies appointed to be read in Churches, “The V. part of the Sermon against Wilful Rebellion,” ed. Oxford, 1683, p. 378). Princes are “God’s lieutenants, God’s presidents, God’s officers, God’s commissioners, God’s judges ... God’s vicegerents” (“The II. part of the Sermon of Obedience,” ib. p. 64).
  4. Juridically they were, of course, never this in the strict sense in which the term could be used of the Lutheran superintendents (see below). They were never mere royal officials, but peers of parliament, holding their temporalities as baronies under the crown.
  5. During the crisis of the Reformation all the Swedish sees became vacant but two, and the bishops of these two soon left the kingdom. The episcopate, however, was preserved by Peter Magnusson, who, when residing as warden of the Swedish hospital of St Bridget in Rome, had been duly elected bishop of the see of Westeraes, and consecrated, c. 1524. No official record of his consecration can be discovered, but there is no sufficient reason to doubt the fact; and it is certain that during his lifetime he was acknowledged as a canonical bishop both by Roman Catholics and by Protestants. In 1528 Magnusson consecrated bishops to fill the vacant sees, and, assisted by one of these, Magnus Sommar, bishop of Strengness, he afterwards consecrated the Reformer, Lawrence Peterson, as archbishop of Upsala, Sept. 22, 1531. Some doubt has been raised as to the validity of the consecration of Peterson’s successor, also named Lawrence Peterson, in 1575, from the insufficiency of the documentary evidence of the consecration of his consecrator, Paul Justin, bishop of Åbo. The integrity of the succession has, however, been accepted after searching investigation by men of such learning as Grabe and Routh, and has been formally recognized by the convention of the American Episcopal Church. The succession to the daughter church of Finland, now independent, stands or falls with that of Sweden.