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by Jacques More

There are a great many opinions and beliefs on the validity of the bishop of Rome to lead the Catholic Church: the Body of Christians everywhere. This article is not an examination of these beliefs and opinions, or a statement about these per se, for or against, any such belief or opinion. Instead, this is a look at historical material in the form of letters and decisions - known as canons - which have come out of the gatherings of church leaders which were called Councils.

This is where the rubber hits the road. This is not the world of opinion and belief or fantasy, pervasive or otherwise, among writers of belief or theology over a short or long period of time. This is the world of the men who led the churches and agreed together on how to run things. There is a difference. The difference is that whatever has been said or believed, what counts the most, in the telling of the history, is the actual practice on the ground.

Was at any time the bishop of Rome recognised as supreme over the bishops: in particular by those not in the immediate vicinity and jurisdiction of Rome?

This is important. There is no denial of the validity of the existence of the bishop of Rome. There is no denial of the bishop of Rome having leadership function in his own jurisdiction. There is however, a denial of the bishop of Rome having further jurisdiction.
       Who are the men from these other jurisdictions?

These are the bishops of all the other major jurisdictions of their day: the African bishops; the Cyprus bishops; the bishops of the jurisdiction known as the See of Antioch; the bishops of the See of Alexandria; and, all other such major regions not part of the local oversight: i.e. of those in the vicinity of Rome. The period in question will lead us up to the middle of the 5th century AD.

Cyprian and Stephen
The first letter and Council in this period to mention is from Carthage, where Tunis is today, what is now the Capital of Tunisia in North Africa. It is exactly South-South-West across the Mediterranean Sea from Rome. Carthage and all of North Africa had a thriving Christian community right up until the Islamic invasion of the whole Southern Mediterranean region in the 7th and 8th century AD.

Cyprian was the Prelate i.e. the Bishop of Carthage in 248-258AD. He acted as head speaker for the bishops of the North African region West of Egypt. Though he was the most prominent bishop of the region he is seen to repeatedly act with consent of other bishops. The bishops of North Africa met regularly at Carthage to decide on matters that concerned them or by specific request.
       An issue of concern was the re-baptising of heretics. After such a Council to discuss and agree on the matter in 255, as was the common courtesy, Cyprian wrote of the outcome to Stephen, the then bishop of Rome. Stephen however, was known for his different view on this subject. So that, in sharing this opposite outcome of the Council, Cyprian affirms to Stephen his position on his own jurisdiction and that of the African bishops as he closed his letter with:

. . . each prelate has in the administration of the Church the exercise of his will free, as he shall give an account of his conduct to the Lord.

Cyprian Epistle 71:3 (255AD)

We read here that in Cyprian's mind no bishop - a prelate - had any jurisdiction over another bishop, but only had Jesus as his head as supreme authority. We know this was as a courtesy, as I mentioned, since this is Cyprian's explicit reasoning:

. . . we have brought these things, dearest brother, to your knowledge, for the sake of our mutual honour and sincere affection; believing that, according to the truth of your religion and faith, those things which are no less religious than true will be approved by you.

Cyprian Epistle 71:3 (255AD)

And, in knowing of Stephen's contrary view the letter alludes to this with:

But we know that some will not lay aside what they have once imbibed, and do not easily change their purpose; but, keeping fast the bond of peace and concord among their colleagues, retain certain things peculiar to themselves, which have once been adopted among them. In which behalf we neither do violence to, nor impose a law upon, any one, since each prelate has in the administration of the Church the exercise of his will free, as he shall give an account of his conduct to the Lord. We bid you, dearest brother, ever heartily farewell.

Cyprian Epistle 71:3 (255AD)

Talk about wisdom in diplomatic language and a heart to keep unity!

The issue in hand continued to be a concern for some time and will not be discussed here. I am merely highlighting the recognition of the independence of individual bishops in Cyprian's letter. Stephen's response however - not so wise and diplomatic - was strong and contrary, calling Cyprian names and refusing to actually meet the African delegation. There was no postal service in those days. All letters of importance were sent with someone. Stephen is recorded as saying "Cyprian, a false Christian, a false apostle, a deceitful worker", but his full letter in response to this letter from the African Council is lost. Cyprian then, on account of Stephen's response just brought the whole matter back to the African bishops. Not unlike Jesus' counsel to "tell it to the Church" (Matthew 18:17), this is exactly what Cyprian does. The 1st Council the African bishops held on this matter comprised of 21 bishops. The next one which produced the above quoted letter involved 71 bishops. But this third Council consisted of 87 African bishops, as well as priests, deacons and laity. Every bishop was offered an opportunity to state their position on this matter in turn without prejudice and, with everyone in full knowledge of Stephen's contrary view, Cyprian states:

For neither does any of us set himself up as a bishop of bishops, nor by tyrannical terror does any compel his colleague to the necessity of obedience; since every bishop, according to the allowance of his liberty and power, has his own proper right of judgment, and can no more be judged by another than he himself can judge another.

Cyprian - Council of Carthage 256

The Carthage council was a "local" council, as opposed to what was to be named an ecumenical council and that due to the greater range of provinces of the Roman Empire assembled. The first such ecumenical Council occurred at Nicea in 325AD - now the town of Isnik in Northern Turkey.

At the beginning of the 4th century, some 50 years after Cyprian's interaction with Stephen we hear of Meletius in Egypt. Meletius was bishop of Lycopolis in the Thebais, in Upper Egypt about halfway between Thebes (Luxor) and Alexandria. During another period of persecution, as these were regular occurrences in various parts of the Roman Empire, he began to ordain priests in other bishops' jurisdictions. It may have been due to the persecution and the resulting absence of senior oversight that this situation arose, but that Meletius acted out on his own, without agreement or reasonable communication with the relevant bishop is apparent. Four bishops with concern on hearing of this practice wrote to Meletius a letter whilst they were imprisoned together. These were bishops, Hesychius, Pachomius, Theodorus and Phileas. The letter mentioned that Peter the bishop of Alexandria at the least, having a senior role of oversight in the whole province, should have been consulted. Now, Bishop Peter was also away, but not imprisoned. Just like others of his day, he was in hiding from the persecuting authorities. Meletius is then, following this letter, reported to have gone to Alexandria and appointed two priests, whilst Peter in fact had already made provision for oversight with some appointed persons during his absence, though not actual priests. These Meletius deposed of their responsibility. Peter's response was to write to the faithful not to "communicate" with Meletius, which then as a term, meant not have anything to do with. Now, this improper activity by Meletius of ordaining outside of his jurisdiction was of great concern to other bishops and continued to be so with Peter's successors as bishops of Alexandria: Achillas and Alexander (and the then Arch Deacon Athanasius). Alexander was the incumbent when the Council of Nicea assembled to rule on the matter. It was the third most important order of business after the Arian heresy and the issue of dating the festival of Easter. Both those issues would continue for some time.

Nicea Council 325AD
Now, the importance of this 325AD Council is huge.
This is the first ecumenical Council in history. A council that involved all the Church in the Roman Empire could not really happen before then with the prevailing persecution. The restrictions up till then tended to limit such events to local Councils of bishops. But, when Emperor Constantine came to power and put a final end to persecution, he saw to the occurrence of this Council to provide answers to dividing issues. In this assembly, remembered more today for the first main salvo against the Arian doctrine than anything else, some more fundamental things came into place. It is these that show how the Church viewed its composition. Things not in "concrete" were now solidified, and new rules were put in place.

What will be seen is that:


Each province was totally independent from another in many ways.


Few exceptions to that, of "super-provinces", but again these are distinct from each other and recognised with only oversight of a few local provinces.


The term Catholic was representative of all the Christians in all provinces.


No single province had jurisdiction over all the others.

Some of these things came into being as Canons at Nicea as a direct result of the Meletius story and we are indebted to that event for the rules it engendered. This is the connection the historian Hefele gives in regards to Meletius and the 4th canon "Meletius was probably the occasion of this canon. It may be remembered that he had nominated bishops without the concurrence of the other bishops of the province, and without the approval of the metropolitan of Alexandria, and had thus occasioned a schism. This canon was intended to prevent the recurrence of such abuses." It is of note that even to Hefele for this time, with the term "bishop", still lay some fluidity, as he calls the "priests/elders" Meletius appointed in bishop Peter of Alexandria's absence. It must be remembered, Paul uses both the terms in Greek "episkopé' (bishop; episcopate) interchangeably with "presbuteros" (elder; overseer; presbyter) in Titus 1:5-7.

Canon 4
The bishop shall be appointed by all (the bishops) of the eparchy (province); if that is not possible on account of pressing necessity, or on account of the length of journeys, three (bishops) at the least shall meet, and proceed to the imposition of hands (consecration) with the permission of those absent in writing. The confirmation of what has been done belongs by right, in each eparchy, to the metropolitan.

What this put in stone is the practice of some oversight of the main city of a province, the metropolitan, over that province as well as establish a rule that the civil administrative area of a province was also the recognised limits for the Church of that province (with few exceptions). The number of bishops involved in the giving of Orders (ordination) also removed unilateral appointments by a single bishop from anywhere and excluded completely involvement of a bishop from another province.

Canon 5
As regards the excommunicated, the sentence passed by the bishops of each province shall have the force of law, in conformity with the canon which says: He who has been excommunicated by some should not be admitted by others. Care must, however, be taken to see that the bishop has not passed this sentence of excommunication from narrow-mindedness, from a love of contradiction, or from some feeling of hatred. In order that such an examination may take place, it has appeared good to order that in each province a synod shall be held twice a year, composed of all the bishops of the province: they will make all necessary inquiries that each may see that the sentence of excommunication has been justly passed on account of some determined disobedience, and until the assembly of bishops may be pleased to pronounce a milder judgment on them. These synods are to be held, the one before Lent, in order that, having put away all low-mindedness, we may present a pure offering to God, and the second in the autumn.

This canon not only continues the recognition of a province's self governing status, but also gives instruction on how to do so for one task in particular. All the bishops of each province are to meet twice yearly. The prime topic in view here is the looking into the fair justice of any excommunication. What is significant is the preservation of jurisdiction of the province where any one was excommunicated. No bishop of another province by this canon can interfere into another province's decisions. Equally it is of note that if the lead bishop or archbishop of a province also made a bad decision, then this canon shows the other bishops within that province possessing equal right of testing that decision.

Canon 6
The old custom in use in Egypt, in Libya, and in Pentapolis, should continue to exist, that is, that the bishop of Alexandria should have jurisdiction over all these (provinces); for there is a similar relation for the Bishop of Rome. The rights which they formerly possessed must also be preserved to the Churches of Antioch and to the other eparchies (provinces). This is thoroughly plain, that if anyone has become a bishop without the approval of the metropolitan, the great Synod commands him not to remain a bishop. But when the election has been made by all with discrimination, and in a manner conformable to the rules of the Church, if two or three oppose from pure love of contradiction, it will be carried by the majority.

Here in Canon 6 is something more than in Canon 4 and 5 where, in those two canons, the provincial jurisdiction is already recognised. Its importance is in the recognition of some metropolitans having also jurisdiction over a number of local provinces: A form of "Super-province" exception.
       Lybia and Pentapolis were West of Egypt and already recognised as separate provinces. This is well seen in the historical record of Synesius being made bishop of Ptolemais the metropole city of the Pentapolis province in 410AD under the then bishop Theophilus of Alexandria. Their extant correspondence reveals this relationship emphasis between the local province and what would be called the patriarchate (what I have called the "super-province") of Alexandria or diocese of the same. As the canon states this local supervisory interaction already existed, but in Canon 6 given specific recognition. Perhaps in already stating the independence of local provinces in canons 4 and 5, it was right to then mention the known exceptions to complete independence in canon 6: that is, to mention the places that had oversight of others already recognised and understood: In particular, the pre-eminent mention of Alexandria in view of the recent Meletius affair. Upper Egypt which, understood as within Egypt and not mentioned separately, is where Meletius was already bishop of the major town of that sub-province. Of significance to our discussion is the mention of the other Patriarchy/Diocesan regions: Rome; Antioch; others which are not specified. The others not specified at Nicea are told us in the later Council of Constantinople (381) as Pontus, Asia, and Thrace. That Rome is mentioned, on a par with Alexandria and Antioch, is explicit and tells us that this oversight of specific smaller regions existed for each of these. And, more significantly, that each of these patriarchates was independent of each other. Later Councils would introduce Constantinople also as a new and separate Patriarchy to Rome, so that there is no doubt here of independence in the East and, as we shall see, the South too (i.e. North Africa) from Rome.
       Nicea makes no mention of any other separate oversight (type) of any kind, in existence like the "primacy" as claimed by Rome. With the establishment in canon law of existing jurisdictions such as separate autonomous provinces and, a handful of Patriarchates ("super-provinces") and, with the whole Roman Empire represented at this First Ecumenical Council, it is not just odd, but utterly incongruous not to then mention or establish clarification of any other form of oversight or superiority like the suggested "primacy" of Rome, that is, if it was practised and recognised. That this was not read or understood, even if not mentioned at Nicea, is confirmed to us by the later Councils of Carthage and Ephesus. But, before we go there, let's look at the next two canons of Nicea also.

Canon 7
As custom and ancient tradition show that the Bishop of AElia ought to be honored (in a special manner), he should have precedence; without prejudice, however, to the dignity which belongs to the metropolis.

Here we find a further exception to the 4th and 5th canons of giving full authority and independence of each province to its metropolis city alone. In the 6th canon we see three explicit named examples of patriarchies over a number of provinces and other unnamed implicit ones (see above). The 7th canon highlights the special case of respect and honour due to Jerusalem that had been renamed Aelia under Emperor Hadrian... However, it says this special mention still meant that Aelia was nevertheless to be second in authority to the metropolis in that province: namely, 2nd to Caesarea.

Now, to the name "Catholic":

Canon 8
With regard to those who call themselves Cathari, the holy and great Synod decides, that if they wish to enter the Catholic and Apostolic Church, they must submit to imposition of hands, and they may then remain among the clergy: they must, above all, promise in writing to conform to and follow the doctrines of the Catholic and Apostolic Church; that is to say, they must communicate with those who have married a second time, and with those who have lapsed under persecution, but who have done penance for their faults. They must then follow in every respect the doctrines of the Catholic Church. Consequently, when in villages or in cities there are found only clergy of their own sect, the oldest of these clerics shall remain among the clergy, and in their position; but if a Catholic priest or bishop be found among them, it is evident that the bishop of the Catholic Church should preserve the episcopal dignity, whilst any one who has received the title of bishop from the so-called Cathari would only have a right to the honours accorded to priests, unless the bishop thinks it right to let him enjoy the honor of the (episcopal) title. If he does not desire to do so, let him give him the place of rural bishop (chorepiscopus) or priest, in order that he may appear to be altogether a part of the clergy, and that there may not be two bishops in one city.

The Cathari is the name the Donatists gave themselves as it just means "the pure" and as per that emphasis their central tenet was to handle severely anyone who denied their faith under persecution and who then tried to return to the Church. Also, they held that if you remarried after the death of your first spouse, you were committing adultery. To them this canon was addressed. The immediate thing to note in Canon 8 is that priests and bishops are separately spoken of, ending any doubt as to the term "bishop" used with fluidity any longer: as to represent any elder of a local church. It is explicit that "there may not be two bishops in one city" [Paul had advocated "elders in every city" (Titus 1:5)].
       I include this canon for the simple purpose of demonstrating that in the recognition that there were provinces and patriarchates distinct and separate from each other, and Rome was no more than just one patriarchate among several, the term "Catholic Church" is an explicit reference to all the world of Christians. The complete and simple reasonable truth therein is: The Catholic Church is not the Church of Rome; the Church of Rome is just one part of the Catholic Church.
       That the Council of Nicea is appropriately understood this way in regards to Rome and its jurisdiction is further attested in the ensuing Councils from Carthage of 398 and 424. The events in these later councils were brought about due to the story of the priest Apiarius.

Just under 100 years after the council at Nicea a priest of Sicca in proconsular Africa by the name of Apiarius for various wrongs was excommunicated by his bishop Urbanus (who himself had previously been a priest under Augustine at Hippo - down the coast about two towns West of Carthage). Sicca was somewhere inland in between Hippo and Carthage. This tells us this situation was very much local to Carthage. During this time, and as soon as Zosimus was made bishop of Rome in March of 417AD, he was involved in writing a number of letters to Aurelius bishop of Carthage in regards to the issues of doctrine in the Pelagian controversy. Just as his letter of March 418 reached Aurelius on this matter at the end of April, a council had gathered of over 200 bishops to meet on 1st May. Their main business was the ongoing Pelagian Issue, but in their knowledge that Apiarius had gone to Rome to appeal his excommunication, they also made this rule:

Canon 17
Carthage 398AD

If priests, deacons, and inferior clerics complain of a sentence of their own bishop, they shall, with the consent of their bishop, have recourse to the neighbouring bishops, who shall settle the dispute. If they desire to make a further appeal, it must only be to their primates or to African Councils. But whoever appeals to a court on the other side of the sea (Rome), may not again be received into communion by any one in Africa.

Aurelius at Carthage already had possession of the decrees of the Nicea Council from Caecilian the previous bishop of Carthage who had been at Nicea. Canon 5 (as quoted above) gave clear guidelines as to how to appeal and never outside of the province. Apiarius had by-passed this standing rule and had gone to Rome. The new canon 17 made the situation even more clear.

On news of the outcome of this council and having been approached by Apiarius, Zosimus agreed to Apiarius' re-instatement. He sent bishop Faustinus as a legate to handle the matter on his behalf accompanied by two priests. They brought with them a Commonitorium, a copy of a kind of compendium of canons as kept at Rome, which by error at some point, had amalgamated canons of the local council of Sardica of about 342AD with canons of the ecumenical council of Nicea. The 7th Sardican canon established an avenue of appeal to the bishop of Rome for bishops, though not for priests. Canon 17 of Sardica established a priest's right to appeal to a neighbouring province. These two canons combined thus gave an appearance of legal authority for Zosimus to rule on the matter.

A small assembly of bishops with Aurelius received the envoys near the end of 418 and agreed to abide by Zosimus' requests and to abide by the Sardican canons, as if from Nicea, though their record of Nicea did not contain them. They wrote a letter to Zosimus to this effect and suggested obtaining copies of Nicea from Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria. Zosimus died in December 418 before replying. Faustinus and his colleagues remained and awaited (or returned for) the opportunity to present the bishop of Rome's position to a greater assembly of Bishops. This was convened 25 May 419 and 217 bishops assembled. Faustinus read the Commonitorium and it was agreed by all to follow through on the writing to the Eastern Patriarchates for copies of their records of Nicea. They wrote to Zosimus' successor Boniface to this effect repeating contents of their letter to Zosimus. By November 419, copies of Nicea arrived from bishop Cyril of Alexandria and bishop Atticus of Constantinople. These copies agreed with the old record kept at Carthage and, on 26 November these were passed on to Boniface with a new letter from Aurelius.

Now, Apiarius had been re-instated as already agreed, but on condition of being some distance from his old bishop Uranus. He was now under the bishop of Thabraca on the coast. On 10 September 422 Boniface is succeeded by Celestine 1. Then in 424AD again Apiarius is excommunicated for wrongdoing. Again he appeals to Rome. Faustinus is sent again to Carthage to have him accepted in communion. This time however, Aurelius and a number of bishops over a period of three days examined the matter in a council. The matter was finally resolved with Apiarius under conviction confessing openly to his wrongdoing and sealing thus the truth. The council then wrote to Celestine:

To the most beloved lord and our honourable brother Celestine, Aurelius . . . and the rest who were present in the universal African Council of Carthage.

We could wish that even as your Holiness has intimated your joy at the arrival of Apiarius in the letters you have sent us by our fellow-priest Leo, so we like manner could send these writing with joy at his acquittal. The cheerfulness on both sides would be better founded, and would seem less precipitate if it preceded instead of following the hearing.

For upon the arrival of our holy brother and fellow-bishop Faustinus, we gathered a council together, and we believed him to have been sent in order that, as by his assistance Apiarius had been formerly restored to the priesthood, now he might by his labours be acquitted of the grave accusations urged against him by the people of Thabraca. But the course of examination by our Council discovered such enormous crimes of his, that they were too much for the patronage and pleading which Faustinus substituted for judgment and justice. For how at first he resisted against the whole Council, and cast upon it many insults, under colour of asserting the privileges of the Roman Church . . . This, however, was in no wise permissible, as you will understand by the acts. For after the judgment had been discussed with much labour for three days, while we inquired with great grief into the various accusations, God the Judge, strong and patient, cut short both the obstructions of our fellow-bishop Faustinus and the tergiversations of Apiarius by which he tried to hide his unspeakable disorders. For whilst he held fast to the black and shameful obstinacy with which he hoped to hide the filth of his passions by the impudence of his denial, God straitened his conscience, and published even before man the secrets which He had already condemned in his heart as in a mire of crimes, so that in spite of his crafty denial be broke forth into a confession of all the evil deeds of which he was accused. And at length of his own will he convicted himself of all the incredible charges, and converted into groaning the very hope by which we both believed and desired that he might be acquitted of such shameful stains. Only that this our sadness was mitigated by one consolation, that he both absolved us from further labour of inquiry, and provided a medicine, such as it was, for his own wounds, in spite of the unwillingness and rebelliousness against conscience with which he confessed, lord brother.

Therefore, after the due salutation, we greatly beseech you that henceforth you will not too readily admit to your ears those who come from hence, nor be willing henceforward to receive into communion those whom we have excommunicated because your Reverence will easily perceive that this has been defined by the council of Nicea . . . And let your Holiness, as is worthy of you, reject also the infamous appeals of priests and lower clerics, both because of this right has not been taken away from the African Church by any definition of the Fathers, and because the decrees of Nicea most plainly committed not only clerics of inferior grade, but even bishops to their own Metropolitans. For they most prudently and justly perceived that all business should be finished in the place where it was commenced. Nor would the grace of prudence from the Holy Ghost be wanting to any, by which equity should by the bishops of christ be both perceived with wisdom and preserved with constancy. Above all, because it is allowed to each, if he is offended with the judgment of the examiners, to appeal to the Councils of his province, or even to the universal Council (of Africa) . . . For that any should be sent as from your Holiness's side, we have not found to be ordered in any synod of the Fathers; since what you sent before by the same Faustinus our fellow-bishop as proceeding from the Council of Nicea, in the truer councils which are received as Nicene, sent to us from the original by Holy Cyril, our fellow-bishop of the Church of Alexandria, and by the venerable Atticus, Bishop of Constantinople, which even before this were sent on by Innocent the priest, and Marcellus the subdeacon (by whom they had been forwarded to us) to your predecessor Bishop Boniface of venerable memory, in these we have not been able to find anything of the sort.

And further, do not send, do not grant your clerical executores to any who may ask, lest we should seem to introduce the smoky pride of the world into the Church of Christ, which offers the brightness of simplicity and the daylight of humility to those who desire to see God.

For as our brother Faustinus (now that the miserable Apiarius is removed from the Church of Christ for his unspeakable disorders) we are certain that with the rectitude and moderation of your holiness, Africa will suffer from him no more.

Our God keep your Holiness for a longer age praying for us, Lord brother.

Letter to Celestine 1 from the Carthage Council 424 Tergiversations: equivocation: falsification by means of vague or ambiguous language

So, it is now clear, the canons of Nicea 100 years after their creation were fully seen as limiting the rule and oversight of Rome to its own jurisdiction and the same for all the other patriarchates. The Catholic Church of Africa wholly denied Rome a say in its matters of clerical judgment. It is reasonable to see thereby that canons 4, 5 and 6 of Nicea fully expressed all the existing limits of authority which existed then in the whole of the Catholic Church. There was no such thing as a "primacy" for the bishop of Rome in Nicea.

As persecution arose again, this time from barbarians and, within three further centuries all of North Africa fell under the conquest of Islam, the truth of the judicial independence from Rome of the other Patriarchates and of the provinces not under Patriarchates, like the North Africans, became distant.
However, before that realisation, a further council and canon is worth noting.

The 3rd Ecumenical Council of Ephesus 431AD
Canon 8 of the 3rd ecumenical council at Ephesus in 431AD, the short version:

Canon 8 (end of)
Wherefore, this holy and ecumenical Synod has decreed that in every province the rights which heretofore, from the beginning, have belonged to it, shall be preserved to it, according to the old prevailing custom, unchanged and uninjured: every Metropolitan having permission to take, for his own security, a copy of these acts. And if any one shall bring forward a rule contrary to what is here determined, this holy and ecumenical Synod unanimously decrees that it shall be of no effect.

What was that all about?
At the 7th session of the Ephesus Council, newly elected Rheginus, Cyprus' senior bishop of Contantia read a petition to the effect that the Patriarchs of Antioch claimed superiority over Cyprus. His own election by his peers in Cyprus had been disputed by Antioch as they, as the Patriarchate over several provinces, saw Cyprus as one such minor province. It was not therefore Canon 4 of Nicea at issue, with regard to the independence of each and every province, but canon 6 which mentioned the preservation of ancient custom for a few of the super-provinces now called Patriarchates, of which Antioch was one. So, as the council queried with the Cyprus bishops as to their proof of the ancient custom, the Cyprus bishop Zeno then produced evidence that Trollus, predecessor of Rheginus, and all his predecessors right back to the apostles, had always been ordained by no other than the bishops of Cyprus. Independence thus proved as an ancient custom, the council resolved "That the churches of Cyprus should be confirmed in their independence, and in their right to consecrate (and elect) their own bishops; that the liberties of all ecclesiastical provinces generally should be renewed, and all intrusions into foreign provinces forbidden" whereupon canon 8 came into being. However the wording of the whole canon is of interest in that a message to all including the bishop of Rome was also thereby being given. It is a robust and healthy description of the affirmed rights of the Cyprians and to each province that has equally held that similar independence from the beginning. Here is the whole canon:

Canon 8
Our brother bishop Rheginus, the beloved of God, and his fellow beloved of God bishops, Zeno and Evagrius, of the Province of Cyprus, have reported to us an innovation which has been introduced contrary to the ecclesiastical constitutions and the Canons of the Holy Apostles, and which touches the liberties of all. Wherefore, since injuries affecting all require the more attention, as they cause the greater damage, and particularly when they are transgressions of an ancient custom; and since those excellent men, who have petitioned the Synod, have told us in writing and by word of mouth that the Bishop of Antioch has in this way held ordinations in Cyprus; therefore the Rulers of the holy churches in Cyprus shall enjoy, without dispute or injury, according to the Canons of the blessed Fathers and ancient custom, the right of performing for themselves the ordination of their excellent Bishops. The same rule shall be observed in the other dioceses and provinces everywhere, so that none of the God beloved Bishops shall assume control of any province which has not heretofore, from the very beginning, been under his own hand or that of his predecessors. But if any one has violently taken and subjected [a Province], he shall give it up; lest the Canons of the Fathers be transgressed; or the vanities of worldly honour be brought in under pretext of sacred office; or we lose, without knowing it, little by little, the liberty which Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Deliverer of all men, has given us by his own Blood.

Wherefore, this holy and ecumenical Synod has decreed that in every province the rights which heretofore, from the beginning, have belonged to it, shall be preserved to it, according to the old prevailing custom, unchanged and uninjured: every Metropolitan having permission to take, for his own security, a copy of these acts. And if any one shall bring forward a rule contrary to what is here determined, this holy and ecumenical Synod unanimously decrees that it shall be of no effect.

There we have it. Ecclesiastical ancient law denies superiority or supremacy to any patriarchate over the Catholic Church. The Church of Rome thereby is an important part of the Catholic Church, but not its head. The bishop of Rome shares with all other senior leaders of the Church responsibility for its care in ancient ecclesiastical law. But, there is no place for a historical claim to supremacy or superiority of the Bishop of Rome in the agreed canons of the early church.

Observed reasonable opinion
In view of the historical facts above, any claim to headship or exclusivity of senior leadership in the Catholic Church: the Body of Christians worldwide, by the bishop of Rome is a schism and departure from the Catholic Church. Historically thereby, as observed here since Stephen, repeated claims to this kind of superiority and supremacy are a division in the Body of Christ foreign to the teaching of Jesus and his apostles and, probably, one of the first and most ancient divisions of all in the Church. The protests from Cyprian to Aurelius and all the like-minded saints, who desire unity on reasonable grounds, will continue in this regard until Rome denies "primacy": A tradition of men that hinders unity.


The Early Church by Henry Chadwick published by Penguin Books
Henry Chadwick KBE, Regius Professor at Oxford and Cambridge: a priest in the Anglican Church.

A History of The Councils of the Church by Karl Josef von Hefele
Karl Joseph Hefele D.D., Roman Catholic Bishop of Rottenburg (1869-1893),
Formerly Professor of Theology at Tubingen University.

Studies on the Early Papacy: whole Chapter on Apiarius
Author not mentioned, but I am indebted to the research within including the contents of the Carthage 424 Council letter to pope Celestine

Ante-Nicene Christian Library: Vol. 8 - The Writings of Cyprian, T&T Clark

Unless otherwise stated Bible quotes are from
The New King James Version

© copyright Thomas Nelson Inc. 1979,1980,1982.

© copyright Jacques More 2014. All Rights Reserved.


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