And when the Apostles of Christ were preparing to leave the world, they chose God-fearing and wise men from the believers, appointed them in their place at the head of the people in the cities and in the country and called them bishops, which is translated “overseer.”
St. Nersess Shnorhali, General Epistle
The office of the bishop is Biblical and was founded by the Apostles, as the great saint of the Armenian Apostolic Church Nersess Shnorhali makes clear. Shnorhali traces the bishop back to Christ Himself, the priest of the “order of Melchizedek,” who by His Grace “granted to his disciples the same high-priesthood.” In the Bible, we see those Apostles of Christ in their capacity as members of the high-priesthood appointing additional overseers, the first bishops: St. Paul addresses the elders of the city of Ephesus, saying, “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son” (Acts 20:28). The Greek word for overseer used in this passage is episkopos, which gives us the Armenian word for bishop եպիսկոպոս, yebisgobos, as well as the English adjective “episcopal.” A bishop, as an elder who serves as the overseer of the flock of Christ, ultimately derives his authority as overseer from Christ, the Apostles, and the Bible.
Exactly what role the bishop had in the early Church is a little more difficult to discern. St. Paul, in his Epistle to Timothy, sets out qualifications for bishops, but is less clear on their duties: “Whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task. Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money.”
Over the first centuries of Christianity, the role and duties of the bishop became codified. Armenian canon law, collected in the Կանոնագիրք/Ganonakirk, preserves ancient canons shared across the Christian world, including the “Apostolic Canons” that deal largely with the role of the bishop, as well as the canons of the Council of Nicaea, which clarified questions of jurisdiction. By the fourth century, a bishop held jurisdiction over an administrative division of the Church that we today would call a diocese. Usually, the bishop resided in major urban centers and had jurisdiction over the churches, priests, and deacons within both his city of residence and in the surrounding parts of the diocese. Bishops of a major metropolitan see, the residence of a bishop, came to be referred to as either patriarchs or archbishops. In continuity with the original Biblical and Apostolic role of the bishop as overseer, the position of bishop adapted to the administrative needs of a wide-spread Christian Church. The bishop continues in his role as overseer—he oversees a diocese. It also adapted in that while early bishops, as St. Paul’s letter to Timothy makes clear, were married, it eventually became customary in the Armenian Apostolic Church for a bishop to be consecrated only from the ranks of celibate, unmarried, priests.
Each diocese with the primate (Arm. առաջնորդ/arachnort) who is its spiritual and administrative head has a physical center in the Cathedral church of the diocese. Cathedral is derived from cathedra, Latin for seat. This means that the cathedral is the church which contains the seat or “throne” of the bishop of the diocese—it is the bishop’s church and he is officially its pastor, from which the bishop oversees the rest of the diocese.
In the Armenian Church, as in other ancient Christian churches, the position of archbishop developed. A bishop, according to the canons, is consecrated (elevated or ordained) by at least three other bishops—one of whom, in the Armenian Apostolic Church, must be the Catholicos. This marks a major change of status from celibate priest to bishop. The rank of archbishop, however, is largely honorific. Today, the rank of bishop in the Armenian Apostolic Church can be bestowed on a celibate priest who is deemed worthy, even if they do not have jurisdiction over their own diocese. This is how the primate or bishop of a diocese could potentially have a higher-ranking clergyman resident in their diocese.
In the Armenian Church, we also use the title Սրբազան/srpazan, which we can translate as “his grace,” or, in the case of an archbishop, “his eminence”. In English, it is customary to call a bishop “his/your grace,” or “his/your eminence” for an archbishop. The word srpazan comes from the root word սուրբ/surp, meaning “holy,” so srpazan as an adjective carries the meaning of “sacred.” Better yet, it means “consecrated.” Since the bishop is consecrated by three other bishops, this is an apt term. We address a bishop or archbishop as Սրբազան հայր/Srpazan Hayr, adding the word “father” to his grace or his eminence. When we greet a bishop or archbishop, we say, “Աստուած օգնական, սրբազան հայր”/ “Asdvadz Oknagan, Srpazan Hayr,” meaning “God be your helper, your grace/eminence.” When referencing a bishop, we use the bishop’s first name followed by the title of srpazan, as in “Daniel Srpazan.”
During the service when a bishop is consecrated, the three other ordaining bishops confer on him the rights and duties of an overseer of the Church. The prayers, litanies, and hymns of the consecration service of the Armenian Apostolic Church emphasize this role as overseer. They also insist in his role as a teacher, called to educate and sometimes admonish his flock to right conduct before God. In his capacity as an overseer, the bishop has several responsibilities and prerogatives that the lower orders of clergy do not have. Just as it is the special prerogative of the deacon to carry the full chalice, something that a sub-deacon is not allowed to do, the bishop also has duties and privileges that are unique to his rank. The consecration service notes many of them, and the canons of the Armenian Apostolic Church clarify them. Among the most important include the right of ordination: only a bishop can ordain someone, either to the minor orders, the diaconate, or to the priesthood. A bishop can bless or consecrate a new church. He presides over the funeral of a clergyman. These, as well as other episcopal rights and prerogatives, underline the role of the bishop as overseer. Within his diocese, centered at his cathedral with the cathedra, the bishop’s “throne,” the bishop is the ultimate administrative and spiritual authority. He is called to be a good shepherd to his flock. In this, there is great responsibility.
As St. Nersess Shnorhali says of the bishop, “With as much power as is given to the steward of God, he must keep unshakable the structures of the temples inhabited by God.” This is indeed a great responsibility. We pray for all our orthodox bishops in their monumental role as overseers of the Church of Christ.