The Church in the Middle Ages: the role of bishops

The Church in the Middle Ages: the role of bishops

Frank Mobbs

The cover of AD2000's February issue featured the headline "Bishops: successors of the apostles". These words express a tenet of the faith as it developed in the second century and has been held by the Church ever since.

In medieval Latin Christendom, virtually every Christian lived under the authority of a bishop. Did bishops have much effect on the lives of parishioners? They did, if the bishops took their obligations seriously. If the bishops were negligent, then the parishioners were little touched by them directly but suffered from the decay of their parishes.

Who appointed bishops? Often it was secular rulers (kings or feudal lords) as in the early centuries, popes had little say in the appointment of bishops. For many years the Holy Roman Emperor, who governed most of central Europe, and other princes hotly disputed the popes' claims to episcopal appointments. Over time, the rulers conceded that the consent of popes was necessary for a valid appointment. But rulers commonly got their way by granting favours to popes in return for appointments rulers wanted. This situation continued, in a modified form, into the 19th century.

The chapters (clergy) of cathedrals were by canon law the electors of bishops. However, local lords or a king would place their soldiers around the chapter house to ensure that the chapter voted "correctly". A quaint relic of this procedure endures in the appointment of bishops of the Church of England.

Only recently, for example, the British Prime Minister announced the name of the next Archbishop of Canterbury and then sent a "leave to elect" to the chapter of Canterbury Cathedral who found they agreed with the Prime Minister's choice - as usual.

Medieval bishops were often well-educated, so kings appointed them as ambassadors and to the highest offices in the kingdom, such as treasurer or chancellor. They sat in a parliament or its equivalent, with such a bishop often absent from his diocese. He would, of course, appoint a vicar to administer the diocese, but who lacked the authority of the bishop.

Absenteeism was also common among bishops for centuries with some English bishops refusing to reside in their "barbarous" Welsh and Irish dioceses.

Bishops were often rulers in two respects: they had authority to rule Catholics in religious matters by virtue of their office and they could also be feudal lords who exercised temporal jurisdiction over their tenants.

This means a bishop could exact dues from those living on his estates, hold courts and act as judge, fining and sending tenants to his prison, with the aid of his soldiers. He also supplied soldiers to his overlord, say, the king, built bridges and made roads. As with an abbot of a monastery, his estates were scattered. For example, the Diocese of Winchester had 50 manors. A bishop could not adequately supervise his estates unless he travelled to them, so he was on the road much of the time. We know of one bishop who moved 81 times in 296 days.

The Archbishops of Mainz were for centuries rulers of Mainz and other territories, while in England the Bishops of Durham had many of the powers of a king and the Bishop of Rome was monarch of the Papal States until 1870.

As religious leaders bishops had the sole right to consecrate other bishops, ordain priests and other clerics, confer Confirmation, summon synods, and appoint clergy to offices, etc. Often, bishops ordained too many clergy and took little trouble to assess the suitability of candidates while the conferring of Confirmation was rare in many dioceses and parishioners felt the effects of such neglect.

By canon law, bishops were obliged to inspect every parish and particular monasteries and religious houses. Accordingly, zealous bishops moved from parish to parish making careful inquiry as to the state of each and on occasion suspending and punishing priests who had wives or concubines and ordering the repair of dilapidated churches.

Such bishops checked finances, including whether tithes had been paid, and, as judges, heard the complaints of parishioners and, where necessary, imposed punishments on clergy and laity, including excommunication. A zealous bishop could therefore have a significant impact.

Sadly, there were also negligent ones who rarely made visitations or took little interest in those conducted by their subordinates. The results of such neglect were predictable.

A bishop could experience constraints on his authority as when monasteries, friaries and convents obtained charters from popes exempting them from visitation by the bishop and popes frequently interfered to thwart the decisions of a bishop, with kings acting likewise. These constraints could harmfully affect the lives of parishioners.

Dioceses varied in size and wealth, as they do today. About the year 1300, the Diocese of Winchester had an income of 3,000 pounds, whilst Rochester had merely 183 pounds. And a bishop might have an income up to 1,000 times that of a parish priest.

Bishops commonly took over a diocese already in debt and in many cases increased it. Indeed, debt preoccupied bishops, although some enjoyed life at the expense of the diocese. Rulers, meanwhile, regarded the Church as a source of wealth and taxed dioceses to finance various ventures, such as wars, thus impoverishing the parishes.

Overall, the medieval experience confirmed the historical fact that the Church is shaped or influenced by her social environment, a fact acknowledged clearly by Vatican II.

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