Following the apostolic age, all bishops of the church were considered equal in rank and dignity. According to Saint Cyprian (d. 258), “The episcopate is one, of which each bishop holds his part within the undivided structure. The church also is one however widely she has spread among the multitude” (The Unity of the Catholic Church, in Jurgens, 1970, Vol. 1, p. 221).
With time, however, certain bishops came to be distinguished over others through their longer tenure in office and their experience in organization and administration, thus deserving the title of archbishop. Again the church had to follow the civic division of the country into provinces, whereby the bishop of the capital city of each province took precedence over other bishops. In addition, some apostolic episcopates, such as Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, and Rome had acquired seniority due to the honor of having been established by the apostles themselves.
In the fourth century, the rank of METROPOLITAN came into use, thereby giving the metropolitan bishop authority over other bishops in his province. Apostolic Canon 34 stipulates: “The bishops of every nation must acknowledge him who is first among them and account him as their head, and do nothing of consequence without his consent; but each may do those things only which concern his own parish and the country places which belong to it. But neither let him (who is the first) do anything without the consent of all; for so there will be unanimity, and God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit” (The Apostolical Canons, 1956, p. 590).
Likewise Canon 9 of the Council of Antioch (341) lays down the following:
It behooves the bishop in every province to acknowledge the bishop who presides in the metropolis, and who has to take thought for the whole province; because all men of business come together from every quarter to the metropolis. Wherefore it is decreed that he have precedence in rank, and that the other bishops do nothing extraordinary without him (according to the ancient canon which prevailed from the times of our Fathers) or such things only as pertain to their own particular parishes and the districts subject to them.
For each bishop has authority over his own parish, both to manage it with the piety which is incumbent on everyone, and to make provision for the whole district which is dependent on his city; to ordain presbyters and deacons; and to settle everything with judgment. But let him undertake nothing further without the bishop of the metropolis; neither the latter without the consent of the others (The Canons of the Blessed and Holy Fathers, 1956, p. 112).
From the above and other canons, it is clear that the archbishop’s prerogative was to preside over the synod, to head the ceremony of consecration of bishops in his diocese, and to look into grievances as well as decisions of other local episcopal councils.
Following the introduction of the rank of patriarch in the fifth century, the bishops of patriarchal sees, for example, Rome and Constantinople, were designated archbishops at the Council of CHALCEDON (451).
- Canons of the Blessed and Holy Fathers Assembled at Antioch in Syria. In A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 2nd ser., Vol. 14, ed. P. Schaff and H. Wace. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1956.
- Cyprian of Carthage. The Unity of the Catholic Church. In The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 1, ed. W. A. Jurgens. Collegeville, Minn, 1970.
- Kirullus al-Antuni. ‘Asr al-Majami‘, pp. 69, 70, 112. Cairo, 1952.
- Salim Sulayman. Mukhtasar Tarikh al-Ummah al-Qibtiyah fi ‘Asray al-Wathaniyyah wa-al-Masihiyyah), p. 337. Cairo, 1914.