This excerpt is taken from the introduction to Dom Gregory Dix’s 1938 study Jurisdiction in the Early Church: Episcopal and Papal (London: Faith House, 1975), pp. 17-21. Dix writes in response to Anglican scholar B. J. Kidd’s study, The Roman Primacy to A.D. 461 (London: SPCK, 1936), and in particular Kidd’s definition of the early Papal ministry as “a primacy of leadership: more than a primacy of honour, though less than a primacy of jurisdiction.” This excerpt is only to whet the appetites of my blog’s readers and encourage them to find a copy of Dix’s important little book for themselves.
COMING to Dr. Kidd’s book fresh from a collection of the early material on the episcopate (undertaken for a purpose remove from the Papal controversy, the preparation of a book on early Christian ideas about the Sacraments), I am a little surprised to find that his definition of the early Papal primacy in the Universal Church corresponds very exactly with the estimate formed quite independently in my own notes of the local bishop’s primacy in the local church during the pre-Nicene period. If the comparison holds good, there is matter for serious consideration here.
It is, I think, possible to show that during the fourth century a very considerable change took place in the relation of the local bishop to his Church, and above all in the way in which that relation was regarded both by bishops and their flocks. It is not merely a change of language, though that is noticeable. From being the “leader” and “president” (proestamenos, prokathemenos) of a “Church” the bishop becomes the “ruler” of a “diocese” (with its implications of a secular government) and a “territory.” There does develop, as we shall see, a partly new technical vocabulary to describe a bishop’s authority, and a new regalism of language about bishops which carries new implications. But this only represents a much more important shift of emphasis in the conception of the episcopate, from the sacramentally bestowed charismatic endowment of an “Order” to the juridically bestowed power of an “Office.” Both elements had always been there to some extent in the bishop’s authority. But before the fourth century one was predominant, and after it the other. In the result there is all the difference between an authority in the Church and an authority over it. It is a change which can be watched taking place simultaneously in other departments of the Church’s life; it alters, for instance, the relation of the eucharistic celebrant to the worshippers . . .
This universal shifting of emphasis in the conception of the Church seems to have passed unrecognized at the time. There are virtually no protests or reactions. Old forms continue everywhere, though with a changing meaning. Its completion is symbolized by the substitution of the new conception of a written statute Canon Law for the old customary Canon Law of pre-Nicene days, which takes place everywhere more or less at the same time, A.D. 390-410. To indicate only one aspect of the importance of this: Custom recognized as binding can only change slowly by the common change of mind of all concerned; statute law changes by the decision of an accepted law-giver. What is involved in the whole process is nothing less than a rewriting of the old conception of the Church in a quite new “juridical” idiom. And among other old things then rewritten in that new idiom is, it seems to me, the position of the Papacy . . .
The Church not only acquiesced in this reading of its constitution, but instinctively furthered a process which the whole mind of the age and the new “established” situation of the Church rendered natural and appropriate. Old ideas lingered for a while, especially in monastic circles. But they soon ceased to have any root in the Church, and were extinguished altogether by the extension of episcopal jurisdiction to the monasteries in the Eighth Canon of Chalcedon. It is fair to say that the revolution was completed everywhere by ecclesiastical custom, yet without the Church being aware that it had happened.
In the modern world the Church cannot return to the age before Nicaea for many reasons, and it would not be desirable even if it were possible. The Church is an Organism, which cannot un-live its own life. The once novel idea of episcopal jurisdiction having been accepted, it could not later on have been eradicated from the office without completely shattering all that remained of the primitive idea of the Church. For beside its new element the juridical episcopal had conserved, in one way and another, very much of the old meaning of the episcopate, by which the primitive conception of the Church as the “Body of Christ” had always been articulated, even though that conception of “the Church” was now undoubtedly lowered and impoverished. But the change to a juridical episcopate was made by the mind of the Church when it was made, and has continued to express that mind ever since.
The questions must arise, on this reading of the history: (1) Whether the same change in the conception of the Papacy did not take place pari passu in the mind of the Church as a whole in the same period and for the same reasons. (2) Whether in fact it was not generally accepted by the Church at the time with the same silent approval as was the change in the conception of the episcopate. (3) Whether the subsequent rejection of the developed conception of the Papacy by large parts of the Church has not had much the same shattering effect on the primitive idea of the Universal Church among them that rejection of the developed conception of the episcopate by Protestantism has had on the primitive idea of the local church among Protestants.
A comparison of the early primacies of the Pope and the bishop in the universal and local church, and of the changes they underwent more or less simultaneously ought to be largely a matter of setting out the evidence. I do not think the third question is properly capable of an answer by that method at all, and beyond stating it here for the sake of completeness I shall neglect it as altogether beyond my ambit.