In this excerpt from Jurisdiction in the Early Church: Episcopal and Papal, Dom Gregory Dix summarizes his understanding of the pre-Nicene episcopate as an office entirely unrelated to the concept of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and sets the stage for the next part of his argument concerning the nature of papal authority.
[In the pre-Nicene Church,] the episcopate is no more an office conveying “jurisdiction” than the diaconate. So far as “jurisdiction” is to be discerned at all, it lies with the presbyterate collectively. The bishop’s office is per se wholly religious. He stands before the Church for God, before God for the Church. He is the mediatorial, sacrificing priest, through whom the Church’s oblation of itself in the Eucharist is presented, through whom it returns identified with the Self-oblation of Christ and charged with sacramental power. Above all he is the unique organ of the Holy Spirit who indwells the Church, uniting all its members with each other and with God. As such, the bishop is par excellence the doctrinal authority of the Church, voicing her tradition, interpreting the Scriptures, revealing by the voice of the Spirit the authentic “saving” teaching. He is, further, ex officio a prophet, ex officio a healer and (the highest form of healing) a supremely potent exorcist. But in all this he is simply the special organ of the Spirit who indwells the Church. He is the Church’s minister, not its ruler. The decisive change is, as I have suggested, when the bishop (or bishops) acquires the ex officio presidency in the governing presbyterate in virtue simply of his sacramental power.
If this outline sketch represents anything like a correct estimate of the principles of Church Order recognized before Nicaea, it is obvious how unsatisfactory and essentially unhistorical must be all attempts, from whatever standpoint, to interpret particular incidents in the exercise of the pre-Nicene Papal primacy, or even that primacy itself, in terms of “jurisdiction.” It is an anachronism. It introduces a criterion for judgment of events which could not have been in the minds of the actors and their contemporaries, and so confuses and falsifies the meaning of the history, even when most accurately narrated. The persistence and lack of caution with which some (not the best) Roman Catholic historians attempt to place this interpretation on certain events in pre-Nicene history, to which it manifestly does not apply, have long been reprobated by Anglican authors. I am not sure that we have been so wide awake to the unsuitability of the same criterion in the other direction. Dr. Kidd, for instance, finally assesses the original Roman primacy as a “primacy of leadership, more than a primacy of honour, though less than a primacy of jurisdiction.” It is this last clause which seems to me, in all deference, to introduce this same difficulty with respect to some parts of the evidence that the insistence on an actual “primacy of jurisdiction” does for others.
Because there are incidents of the history which without the slightest strain can be interpreted altogether in terms of such a “primacy of jurisdiction.” There is, for instance, the fact, casually narrated by Pope Cornelius to Fabian of Antioch, that he had of his own motion deposed the three bishops who had consecrated Novatian, restored one of them to lay-communion, and himself appointed and despatched to their sees substitutes for the others! This Hildebrandine proceeding is not unique. And it raised no outcry in the Church. Yet it constitutes a supersession of the rights of the local churches even more extraordinarily at that period than it would seem today. It is so unexpected that, but for the unimpeachable nature of the evidence, the blackest ultramontane could not have thought of carrying back the practice of “Papal Provisions” behind Nicaea. Such incidents might well be regarded as the exercise of a “primacy of jurisdiction.” But were they so regarded then? Personally, I do not think so. Admitted “leadership” is, after all, an elastic thing. In a moment of emergency it can quite well carry powers actually greater than those conferred by “jurisdiction.”
Only if we abandon altogether the attempt to apply to the pre-Nicene Church this concept of a latter age shall we do full justice to all the evidence. How then shall we judge of the early primacy? We shall hardly better Dr. Kidd’s characterization, a “primacy of Leadership” in the universal Church; but the fact will have to be faced that this places it in very close analogy with the contemporary position of the bishop in the local church. Dr. Kidd has vindicated the exercise of such a primacy by the pre-Nicene Popes with a frankness never before displayed by an Anglican scholar of his eminence. And no Anglican reviewer had disputed his exposition of the fact of that primacy, though several have questioned the Apostolic basis by which he explains it. But I venture to say that Dr. Kidd has not brought out as it deserves this analogy of the Papal with the Episcopal authority as then exercised.
Rome was the capital of Christendom, and the Popes were the acknowledged “Leaders” of all the churches without the shadow of a rival in the first three centuries, in a way that was never quite true again. Though that “Leadership” was not always followed in the provinces, there was then no permanent contestant for it, no second focus of Christendom, such as the Christian Emperors would one day provide. That is an aspect of the matter which needs emphasis. The local churches were each conscious of their internal unity, a unity expressed through and centred in the bishop, even though he had not yet even in theory that dominance which he later acquired. But for a church or part of it to break with its bishop was a sin, a schism, a disorder, requiring justification or else amendment as soon as possible. And so it was with the local church and Rome. The Church as a whole was conscious of its unity, and that unity was expressed through and centred in Rome, “the chief of Churches (ecclesia principalis) whence” – in the words of Cyprian – “the unity of the episcopate took its rise.” In this way the Roman Primacy conveyed a real consensual power and authority in the Church at large, without as yet any explicit juridical supremacy, exactly as did the episcopate in the local church. In fact the Papal authority was even then “ordinary, immediate, and episcopal” in the contemporary meaning of the words.