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Reflections On The Scandal

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Cyprian of Carthage and the
Fruitful Exercise of Episcopal Authority

by Archpriest Lawrence R. Farley
Langley, B.C., Canada

St. Cyprian, third century bishop of Carthage, is well-known to historians of the early church. His life and letters have been published in many collections of the church fathers—most recently in the ‘Popular Patristic Series’ from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, which has published some of his letters and treatises in two volumes under the title ‘On the Church” in volumes 32 and 33 of that series. Cyprian’s letters and works witness to the pastoral challenges he faced and how he dealt with them. I would like to reflect on his challenges and responses, and on how these reflect on the modern episcopate of the Orthodox church and on how our modern bishops deal with the challenges facing them.

Cyprian faced two challenges in particular:

1. criticism of his flight during the persecution of the church in North Africa when he fled to save his life; and

2. the assertion of authority on the part of the confessors (i.e. those who had been arrested for their faith and continued to confess Christ despite imprisonment and torture) to reinstate the lapsed to communion.
These confessors were presuming illegitimately

(as Cyprian thought) to restore the lapsed to the communion of the church apart from the blessing of the bishop. This authority to restore the lapsed Cyprian felt belonged to bishops only, and Cyprian protested its use by the confessors. This disagreement between the confessors and Cyprian created a great problem for him, and it vexed the unity of the Church in his day.
I suggest that these two challenges faced by St. Cyprian are not unrelated, and that as we examine the roots of these two challenges we shall learn something of value to us today.

To understand Cyprian, it is necessary to understand episcopal authority as it functioned in the third century, for this differed quite dramatically from the way it functions today. As is indicated by the little volume by Gregory Dix, Jurisdiction in the Early Church, bishops in the third century did not exercise their pastoral authority in their dioceses/ city churches in isolation, but rather as heads of their local presbyteria. That is, each diocese was effectively ruled by a college or council of presbyters, headed by the bishop, and it was this college which made the pastoral decisions which the bishop would then carry out and perform liturgically.

For example, the decision regarding whom to ordain was not made by the bishop alone, but rather by the college of presbyters, and so it is that Cyprian writes to his fellow presbyters justifying his action in ordaining a subdeacon and a reader without first obtaining their assent. As Dix writes, “one has only to read the anxious apologies which Cyprian sends to his clergy (Ep. xxviii.) for having in an emergency ordained a subdeacon and a lector [i.e. a reader] without their express consent, to realise how limited was the bishop’s prerogative in such matters”. The issue is not whether Cyprian was justified in proceeding with his ordinations to minor orders; it is that apart from the blessing of his fellow presbyters, the bishop could do nothing. The presbyters ruled and the bishop acted and liturgized. The bishop was not set over the presbyters as their ruler, but within them, as the primus inter pares.

To quote Dix again, the bishop “has initiative, leadership, a recognized pre-eminence. But the power of authoritative decision is not yet his. That is still the prerogative of the collective Sanhedrin of presbyters”.
That is not to say that the bishop functioned simply as the passive instrument of the college of presbyters. Indeed, as the chief liturgical celebrant, charismatically-empowered by his ordination to bestow the Spirit, he functioned as their leader. He led, and the people followed. The “recognized pre-eminence” of which Dix spoke counted for something. Simply put, the bishop usually got his way. But the significant thing is that he got his way through the exercise of his moral authority. As the leader of the local Christians, he spoke as a prophet, calling all the holy laos to follow him in a certain direction, and the laos usually believed that he spoke for God and willingly followed him. Thus the bishop, the presbyters and the people functioned in unity, as a single royal priesthood (1 Pt. 2:9).
There was no conflict between bishop and presbyters, as if each represented a mutually antagonistic Management and Union, each striving against the other to assert their own will. For both were united in a mutual submission to Christ, and were committed to discern His will. They listened to each other in love and acted in concert. That at least was the theory.

We can see a distant echo of such a theory in (of all places) the Statute of the OCA. In Article X, on “the Parish”, it says that “no activities in the parish can be initiated without [the Rector’s] knowledge, approval and blessing, neither should he do anything pertaining to the parish without the knowledge of his parishioners and parish organs elected by them, so that always and everywhere there may be unity, mutual trust, cooperation and love”. That is a fair statement of the theory behind the joint functioning of the third century bishop (i.e. the local pastor), the presbyters (i.e. his council) and the faithful (i.e. the local church) in the time of St. Cyprian. All were meant to function as a unity, mutually submitting to each other in love and striving together to discern the will of God. In political terms, such an arrangement would be described as a system of checks and balances. St. Paul more accurately refers to it as the functioning of a body, the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12).

The traditional practice in the church in Cyprian’s day was for confessors, those who had suffered for their Faith, to share in this effective ruling of the Church. As Allen Brent writes in his Introduction to Cyprian’s letters in the “Popular Patristic Series” referred to above, “The prerogatives of the martyrs to absolve [the lapsed] by offering the Eucharistic sacrifice and communicating the penitent as the act of reconciliation per se, with the claim that they were ordained to the presbyterate by virtue of their confession without the imposition of hands, may well have been of great antiquity.”
Certainly Hippolytus of Rome would have agreed. In his Apostolic Tradition, (dating from about the same time), he writes of confessors, “A confessor, if he was in chains for the Name of the Lord, shall not have hands laid on him for the diaconate or the presbyterate, for he has the honour of the presbyterate by his confession”. Thus the ancient and traditional practice was for confessors, those who had suffered for the Lord in persecution but had survived, to share in the effective rule of the Church along with presbyters, even without their formal ordination. The early Church was intensely charismatic: what counted was whether or not one had the Holy Spirit. The bishops and presbyters had the Spirit by virtue of the imposition of hands; the confessors had the Spirit by virtue of their suffering. These men were all accounted prophetic, and able to speak the authoritative Word of God. The People of God, recognizing this authentic Word, followed the lead of those who spoke it.

Thus, when the confessors of Cyprian’s church offered the names of the penitent lapsed for restoration, they were doing no more than what was traditional. Like the presbyters, they spoke and gave their counsel; and the bishop, as the chief prophet, discerned the true Word of the Lord and divine direction, and added his seal and blessing and followed the counsel of the presbyters and confessors. Thus the bishop functioned together with presbyters and confessors as a unity, together discerning and speaking the divine Word.

What happened at Carthage was that this unity had broken down. I suggest that the immediate cause of the breakdown was Cyprian’s loss of moral authority when he fled from the midst of his people to save his life during the persecution. Make no mistake: Cyprian was right to flee—circumstances demanded it for the good of the Church (for he must survive to support them in their time of crisis) and the Gospel allowed it (see Mt. 10:23). In his treatise The Fallen, he speaks about those who in persecution choose the way of “preserving oneself for the Lord for another day by removing oneself by means of a cautious withdrawal” —obviously referring to himself. And when the appointed hour for martyrdom finally came, St. Cyprian gave up his life for his Lord as the true and courageous shepherd and exemplar that he was.

But at the time immediately following his flight, many in Carthage did not think his flight was justified. These saw their bishop flee when the persecuting wolf menaced the flock, and concluded that he was little more than a hireling (see Jn. 10:12). Even presbyters in Rome criticized him for his flight. Cyprian remained as the true and canonical bishop of his flock, ruling them along with his loyal presbyters. But something had changed. In the eyes of some at least, by fleeing persecution he had forfeited his moral right to lead.
At the very least, this introduced tension between the leader and the led, and especially between the bishop (who fled the persecution) and the confessors (who stayed to face and endure the brunt of it). In happier times, the bishop would work in tandem with the confessors and presbyters. But now the tension introduced by Cyprian’s flight drove a wedge between him and some of his presbyteral/ confessing college, and such unity was no longer possible. That is why, I suggest, the confessors not only offered the names of the penitent lapsed for restoration, but also took it upon themselves to restore them.

Cyprian did not completely deny that the confessors had a role in restoring the lapsed. He grudgingly allowed that they could add their voice. In his view, the confessors would present their petitions to the bishop regarding who should be restored, and the bishop would give his judgment (see Cyprian’s Letter 15). But for their part, the confessors did not view themselves as having a merely advisory role, or as simply offering petitions. They saw themselves as empowered by their sufferings to offer the Eucharist for the lapsed and actually restore them to communion. The point here is that the two views need not come into conflict, and in the happier days when bishop and confessor worked as a unity, they did not come into conflict. The question about which party has the final authority to restore the lapsed could only be asked in this way after the primordial unity between bishop and confessor had broken down. After the breakdown, each party had a different answer. The confessors approached the question from the stance of traditional practice; Cyprian from the stance of legal canonical right.

Once again I stress that the separation between traditional practice and canonical right is an abnormal one, and when the bishop retains his moral right to rule, these dichotomies and questions cannot arise. They only arise because of the loss of episcopal moral authority. Traditionally, the bishop usually prevailed and carried the presbyters and confessors with him because of their respect for him as their liturgical leader and prophetic head. But it was just this respect that Cyprian had largely forfeited. Thus he had no recourse but to fall back upon the letter of the ecclesiastical law.
I am not suggesting that such legal recourse was foreign to him or repugnant to him. I am suggesting that, foreign or not, it was inevitable given the loss of moral authority and consequent sundering of moral from canonical authority. He could no longer carry the day and work with the confessors as their respected leader. But he could insist on his episcopal rights. And the result was conflict and disunity—and on such a scale that the echoes of that conflict and collision persist to this day. That is why scholars like Brent Allen are still writing about it. It is true that the conflict was a local one, and the North African dust has long since settled. But the issues raised by it still remain.

They are, in fact, at the heart of many disputes between bishops and priests today, and between bishops and laity. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: in these disputes, the priests and laity usually refer to their traditional status as members of the holy laos, and the bishops to their legal canonical right to rule.
We can and must learn from the hard lessons and life of St. Cyprian: when moral authority is forfeited, unity is not possible, and it cannot be restored by thunderously asserting canonical legal right. For the canonical legal right to rule is not the issue: the issue is love and trust, and its fruits, mutual submission and unity. Ironically, the increasing demand for canonical submission apart from evidence of love and submission on the part of the one doing the demanding is the very thing that makes trust impossible. What is needed in all such disputes is not citations of Statutes, or anachronistic references in St. Ignatius of Antioch about the necessity of obedience to the bishop, or absurd labelling of opposition to episcopal authority as examples of “congregationalism” or “presbyterianism”. What is needed is the restoration of moral authority and trust, for it is only by such a restoration that the exercise of any authority in the Church can bear godly and lasting fruit.

Some may deny the contemporary relevance of St. Cyprian, and say that the third century was a long time ago. Indeed it was long ago. That means it is late in the game not to have learned these lessons. Cyprian and his confessors have, I believe, long since been reconciled in the Kingdom. Through their prayers may all of us also find the way to reconciliation and peace, and bear fruit for the Lord in His Kingdom.


-Archpriest Lawrence R. Farley
Langley, B.C., Canada
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First published as a series of articles in 1938 and reprinted by Faith House, London, in 1975.

Gregory Dix, Jurisdiction in the Early Church, p. 39.
Ibid, p. 43, italics his.

Allen Brent, St. Cyprian of Carthage, On the Church: Select Letters, SVS Press, Crestwood, N.Y., p. 21

Apostolic Tradition, ch. 9
The Fallen, ch. 3.
Letter 8, in the Brent collection cited above.