Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Bishop's Power - an Editing Issue

Originally, in my book on Athanasius, I had mentioned that bishops had more power than they do today. Since most of my young readers are probably not very familiar with the role of bishops, I had described them as "in charge of many churches." That created a problem. A Protestant child may think of a pastor, and what kind of "power" does a pastor hold? My editor, Annette Gysen, and I went back and forth with emails for a while discussing what power bishops held in those days (fourth century AD) and how to explain it to children.
I decided to ask Dr. Giorgio Corti, expert in patristic studies and author of the book Lucifero di Cagliari – una voce nel conflitto tra chiesa e impero alla metà del IV secolo, and he replied by giving the following examples.

1. The bishops' authority depended much on their strength as opposed to the emperor's strength. It was difficult for a bishop to oppose a strong emperor. Bishops like Athanasius, Ambrose, Augustine, and Cyril were strong personalities.

2. Bishops had a strong impact on their people because they lasted longer than emperors, who often died in battle, at the hand of traitors, etc.

3. Bishops had a better knowledge of their cities than emperors, who lived far away.

4. Bishops lent material help to their people. In Alexandria, bishops granted food to about 1500 people. In Milan, Ambrose rescued the prisoners after the battle of Adrianopolis with the church's money - for this reason, they were very popular, and emperors could not ignore them.

5. For emperors, the problems posed by bishops were some among many others, and could quickly lose importance in the event of more urgent matters. Bishops, on the contrary, were very tenacious in defending their title, because for them this was an essential matter. The bishops had their moments of greatest power when the emperors were busy with political or military problems.

6. Bishops were depending on the church's considerable riches, while the emperors depended on taxes, and were very unpopular for this reason, even with their own officers.

Annette and I realized then that the word "power" was not correct. The bishops didn't have temporal powers as they held instead in medieval times. The correct word was "influence." But how do you explain that to children?

Finally, after reading and re-reading my paragraph several times, the answer became evident. Instead of writing that the bishops were in charge of many churches, I should write that they were in charge of all the churches in a large area or a country. That was enough! If they were in charge of all the churches in a country, of course they had influence on the people, and I didn't need to add explanations.

I decided to post this little editing story here because Dr. Corti's explanation of the power (or influence) exercised by bishops at that time was very interesting.

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