The Function of Bishops


For many years the question of bishops has exercised the minds of many authors and scholars and there has been and, indeed, we believe that there still is, a great deal of confusion regarding the function of bishops in the early church.

There are two principal sources of confusion - the fact that bishops in the Early Church in Scotland did not fit into the mould of bishops in the Middle-Eastern tradition; that too many individuals have approached the subject of bishops in the Early Church whilst 'straight-jacketed' by notions of how bishops functioned in the Medieval Age - from within the bounds of a well defined diocese. Both have created problems but the latter has been a particular source of confused thinking.

That bishops existed within the infant Christian Church in the Middle-East, since almost the very first days, is without question. But it should be remembered that these bishops were to be found in the cities and their influence was much less marked in the rural areas. In most cases they also reflected  the Roman administrative structures. It is interesting to note here that the larger sub-divisions of the Empire were called 'diocese', a term which soon found its way into the Roman Church. By the time of the first of the Six Great Councils of the Church, the Council of Nicea (325AD), the function of bishops was a major topic of discussion alongside those directed toward countering the Arian Heresy. Almost 300 individuals attended this Council which opened May/June 325 at Iznik near Nicomedia, a fact which is of interest in itself. Canon VI determined the three great centres of Christianity - Rome, Alexandria and Antioch - in the face of a lengthy history of friction regarding the precedence of these bishoprics. Another interesting ruling was that, henceforth, the translation of bishops from see to see was forbidden and the concept arose of a bishop being "wedded" to his see. Canon VII laid down that the see of Jerusalem (Aelia), while remaining subject to the Metropolitan of Caesarea, should be given the next place in honour after Antioch. Of course, it was also this Council which determined the new method of calculating the date of Easter - independent of 14 Nisan (from the Jewish calendar) - a reformation which was to have huge consequences for the Early Church in Britain. A great deal of time at the Council of Nicea was spent discussing matters which impinged upon the office of bishop and it is a theme which runs through the deliberations of all of these first Councils. One soon recognises the great importance of the bishop within his see. However, this 'importance' is not reflected in the Early Church in Scotland. There were no great centres of population in Alba and, in a number of other ways, the need for bishops was not as pronounced. There was no overarching administrative structure, nor, indeed, a tradition of an all-powerful ruler. The Picts were virtually independent aggregations of tribes people who only owed a loose fealty to the Ard Ri (High King) and this, probably, only in matters relating to war and the defence of the country. The tribes were independent to the extent that it may not be appropriate to speak of such an entity as 'the Pictish People' or 'the Pictish Nation'. We believe that these tribes were possibly as different from each other as they were similar. The chief was more of a father to the tribe rather than a supreme ruler and so it is not too surprising that the heads of the church communities were, in the same way, fatherly figures ('abb' - means father) rather than bishops in the sense of a supreme ruler of a people or a district. Some of these abbs were in Episcopal orders but this was only to allow for the apostolic ordination of presbyters and other bishops. St Paul taught that the whole energy of the Christian life depends on spiritual endowments specially given. Whether it be the administration of the society or other church work, or instruction or mediation that occupies the individual, each has his Charisma. A man did not gain any distinction of honour within the community because of the type of Order he was in. A bishop may not have expected any greater deference from the members of the community than say a presbyter - we should remember that Colum Cille was only ever a presbyter. In the services of the church the bishop was held in high regard because he was the representative and recipient of the Apostolic succession and we can see St Columba being respectful to a bishop when he was present at the mass. In all other senses and at all other times the community was supervised by the elected 'abb'. In this way we can see that the presence of a bishop within a community did not, in any way, signify the existence of a diocesan structure. The term 'Bishop of Mortlach', for instance, should be interpreted as the member of the community who had the responsibility of ensuring the Apostolic Succession, not an individual who had any administrative function either within the community or in the geographical region about it. In some senses, the position of the bishop within the muinntir may be thought of as reflecting the position of the druid within the tribal organisation - the guardian of religious traditions. They were also, as were the very earliest bishops in the Church, the teachers of the faith. Also, these early bishops, who were not numerous, were to be found moving around the countryside, from muinntir to muinntir, as was required to administer orders - the 'episcopus vagantes' of the early writers.

Writers, over the years, have demonstrated a distinct inability to shake themselves free of the Medieval 'mould' when it comes to the discussion of bishops. They have attempted to project the Medieval structures and norms backwards in time not because of any concrete evidence but rather, it would seem, because of an assumption that if it was so in Medieval times, then it must have been so in earlier times. We hear them speak of these early bishops as rulers, approaching the 'Princes of the Church' that bishops were to become in later ages. Likewise, some have been tempted to assume that because we hear of "a Bishop of ~~~~" then we must assume that from this time there was de facto "a Diocese of ~~~~" and this is very misleading. The fundamental faith and liturgy of the Early Church was not very different to the Roman Church but, and because of the very different social structures, its administration was not centralised.

Marjorie Anderson proposes that 'it will be convenient to speak of Kinrimund until 1093 as 'Celtic' and of St Andrews from 1144 onwards as 'medieval', with an intervening half-century of disintegration and experiment.

The Scotic kings did try to create a central authority and as part of their strategy there seems to be evidence of a use of Bishops and, perhaps, embryonic Dioceses. However, the concept of a 'first Bishop of Scotland' either in the sense of chronology or authority, may be a statement of intent rather than of fact. Ailred's account of King David's times is the most dependable and he says that the king found three or four bishops - not bishoprics - when he came to the Scottish throne. David, Ailred goes on, restored some old bishoprics and founded some new ones. That David, on his accession, found bishops at Dunkeld, Moray, Ross and Mortlach (or Aberdeen) is more than likely. St Andrews was without a consecrated bishop, Whithorn had presumably been long without a bishop, and there may have chanced at the time to be no Bishop at Brechin, While Dunblane was very likely in a state of decay. Caithness has by far the strongest claim to be regarded as a new foundation by David; but Dunblane possibly underwent such reconstruction in David's reign, if not at his own hands, that it would be regarded as falling into the same category; and if David moved a bishop's locus from Mortlach to Aberdeen, then that see might likewise rank as a new foundation. Glasgow, to which appointments were made when David was earl in Cumbria, would be reckoned as one of his restorations. Some such picture agrees broadly with what Ailred says, and accords better with the facts than does the convention which has dominated writers over the years.

It was only with the coming of St Margaret and her sons that things began to change and most of this movement was fuelled by political rather than theological 'causes'. The traditional structure of the Early Church allowed no centralised control at all. Some of the various communities owed an allegiance of sorts to their 'mother house' but were in most senses independent. This lack of a central 'authority' did nothing to promote the influence and authority of the Crown - indeed it hindered the imposition of this political authority. So, for political reasons, it had to go and the Medieval system started to be formed using a framework of Diocese and supported by the influence of strategically placed monasteries. The 'Roman' system was always based on a central authority - that of the Bishop of Rome - and so it was seen as the ideal vehicle by which the Crown could extend its influence over the face of what was in these times a very unruly country! Many 'ruses' were used to convince the people that their old Church did not have the ancestry of an Apostolic Tradition. Celtic Saints were not really saints because they had not been 'approved' but had simply been canonized by popular acclaim. Churches had never been 'dedicated' but had simply inherited names that often linked them with those clerics who had first come to the area. Hence, the Archbishop of St Andrews, David de Bernham, spent a considerable time 'dedicating' churches. This did not mean that these churches had necessarily been recently founded but rather that he was officially, and using the Roman Rite, dedicating churches often of ancient foundation, regularly replacing their traditional Celtic names with dedications to more 'appropriate' Roman Saints. Quite often though, probably because of the comfort that comes from habit the local people resisted these new names and the Celtic ones prevailed.

It may be argued that Malcolm III (king from 1058-1093) and Margaret (queen from 1071-1093)  were responsible for starting to regularize the Church in Scotland. It is possible and probable that Bishops to came to reside more and more in the major centres of population and Royal power, becoming less and less 'wanderers' across the countryside. There is a claim in the infamous Scotichronicon that "Bishop Cellach II of St Andrews," in the late 10th century - during the reign of Culén son of Indulf (966-971), was the first bishop of the Sots to go to Rome for confirmation of his consecration; and there is the claim made by the York historian, Hugh the Chantor, that Bishop Fothad II (c 1059-1093) had professed canonical subjection to York as his metropolitan 'by counsel and command of Malcolm King of Scots and Queen Margaret'. If this is true, Malcolm, under the influence of his queen, must have conceded the claim made by York in 1072, a claim which was stubbornly resisted by their son Alexander I. Either way, it would seem that in the time of Malcolm and Margaret, the winds of change were starting to blow across the Scottish countryside and that the organisation of the Church was slowly being drawn more and more into line with the Roman way. At the beginning of the century the church in Scotland, floating on the edge of the archbishop of York's sphere of influence and even uncertain about ecclesiastical usage, can be described at best as a backward daughter of the Roman church. By the 1190's, however, York's control was broken, and the entire Scottish church now existed as the Papacy's 'special daughter', subject directly to the apostolic see with no intermediary. The application of this exemption to an entire kingdom was an extraordinary and apparently unparalleled act in medieval church history. In this sense, the Scottish church of the Middle Ages was unique and attained a rank that was the envy of many, particularly in England! Scottish diocesan bishops, in many cases having the care of poverty stricken establishments within sparsely populated and remote parts of northern Europe,  had direct access to the Pope himself, whereas in all other provinces this was a much guarded privilege of the princely metropolitan archbishops.

It can be argued that it was only with this Romanizing influence that we can start to talk of a Church in Scotland in the sense of a cohesive and co-ordinated organism. Before, Christianity existed only in isolated muinntirs which sometimes shared certain traditions with other communities. Dioceses in Pictish Alba were superfluous and inappropriate and did not exist except in the minds of some wishful metropolitans! They came to be out of a political need - the need of the Crown to be able to exercise a co-ordinated, central, rule over a disparate population.

For further reading, see:
1. "Scottish Bishop's Sees before the Reign of David I," Donaldson. G., Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1952-53.  pp 106-117

2. "Scotia Pontifica," Somerville, Robert. Oxford. Clarendon Press 1982.



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