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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol. XIV:
The First Ecumenical Council:  The First Council of Nice.: Excursus on the Translation of Bishops.

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Excursus on the Translation of Bishops.

There are few points upon which the discipline of the Church has so completely changed as that which regulated, or rather which forbade, the translation of a bishop from the see for which he was consecrated to some other diocese.  The grounds on which such prohibition rested were usually that such changes were the outcome of ambition, and that if tolerated the result would be that smaller and less important sees would be despised, and that there would be a constant temptation to the bishops of such sees to make themselves popular with the important persons in other dioceses with the hope of promotion.  Besides this objection to translation, St. Athanasius mentions a spiritual one, that the diocese was the bishop’s bride, and that to desert it and take another was an act of unjustifiable divorce, and subsequent adultery. 86   Canon XIV. of the Apostolic Canons does not forbid the practice absolutely, but allows it for just cause, and although the Council of Nice is more stringent so far as its words are concerned, apparently forbidding translation under any circumstances, yet, as a matter of fact, that very council did allow and approve a translation. 87   The general feeling, however, of the early Church was certainly very strong against all such changes of Episcopal cure, and there can be no doubt that the chief reason why St. Gregory Nazianzen resigned the Presidency of the First Council of Constantinople, was because he had been translated from his obscure see Sasima (not Nazianzum as Socrates and Jerome say) to the Imperial City. 88

From the canons of some provincial councils, and especially from those of the Third and of the Fourth Council of Carthage, it is evident that despite the conciliar and papal prohibitions, translations did take place, being made by the authority of the provincial Synods, and without the consent of the pope, 89 but it is also evident that this authority was too weak, and that the aid of the secular power had often to be invoked.

This course, of having the matter decided by the synod, was exactly in accordance with the Apostolic Canon (no. xiv.).  In this manner, for example, Alexander was translated from Cappadocia to Jerusalem, a translation made, so it is narrated, in obedience to heavenly revelation.

It will be noticed that the Nicene Canon does not forbid Provincial Councils to translate p. 34 bishops, but forbids bishops to translate themselves, and the author of the tract De Translationibus in the Jus Orient. (i. 293, Cit. Haddon. Art. “Bishop,” Smith and Cheetham, Dict. Chr. Antiq.) sums up the matter tersely in the statement that ἡ μετάβασις κεκώλυται, οὐ μὴν ἥ μετάθεσις:  i.e., the thing prohibited is “transmigration” (which arises from the bishop himself, from selfish motives) not “translation” (wherein the will of God and the good of the Church is the ruling cause); the “going,” not the “being taken” to another see.  And this was the practice both of East and West, for many centuries.  Roman Catholic writers have tried to prove that translations, at least to the chief sees, required the papal consent, but Thomassinus, considering the case of St. Meletius having translated St. Gregory of Nazianzum to Constantinople, admits that in so doing he “would only have followed the example of many great bishops of the first ages, when usage had not yet reserved translations to the first see of the Church.” 90

But the same learned author frankly confesses that in France, Spain, and England, translations were made until the ninth century without consulting the pope at all, by bishops and kings.  When, however, from grounds of simple ambition, Anthimus was translated from Trebizonde to Constantinople, the religious of the city wrote to the pope, as also did the patriarchs of Antioch and Jerusalem, and as a result the Emperor Justinian allowed Anthimus to be deposed. 91

Balsamon distinguishes three kinds of translations.  The first, when a bishop of marked learning and of equal piety is forced by a council to pass from a small diocese to one far greater where he will be able to do the Church the most important services, as was the case when St. Gregory of Nazianzum was transferred from Sasima to Constantinople, μετάθεσις; the second when a bishop, whose see has been laid low by the barbarians, is transferred to another see which is vacant, μετάβασις; and the third when a bishop, either having or lacking a see, seizes on a bishopric which is vacant, on his own proper authority ἀνάβασις.  It is this last which the Council of Sardica punishes so severely.  In all these remarks of Balsamon there is no mention of the imperial power.

Demetrius Chomatenus, however, who was Archbishop of Thessalonica, and wrote a series of answers to Cabasilas, Archbishop of Durazzo, says that by the command of the Emperor a bishop, elected and confirmed, and even ready to be ordained for a diocese, may be forced to take the charge of another one which is more important, and where his services will be incomparably more useful to the public.  Thus we read in the Book of Eastern Law that “If a Metropolitan with his synod, moved by a praiseworthy cause and probable pretext, shall give his approbation to the translation of a bishop, this can, without doubt, be done, for the good of souls and for the better administration of the church’s affairs, etc.” 92   This was adopted at a synod held by the patriarch Manuel at Constantinople, in the presence of the imperial commissioners.

The same thing appears also in the synodal response of the patriarch Michael, which only demands for translation the authority of the Metropolitan and “the greatest authority of the Church.” 93   But, soon after this, translation became the rule, and not the exception both in East and West.

It was in vain that Simeon, Archbishop of Thessalonica, in the East raised his voice against the constant translations made by the secular power, and the Emperors of Constantinople were often absolute masters of the choice and translations of bishops; and Thomassinus sums up the matter, “At the least we are forced to the conclusion that no translations could p. 35 be made without the consent of the Emperor, especially when it was the See of Constantinople that was to be filled.”

The same learned writer continues:  “It was usually the bishop or archbishop of another church that was chosen to ascend the patriarchal throne of the imperial city.  The Kings of England often used this same power to appoint to the Primatial See of Canterbury a bishop already approved in the government of another diocese.” 94

In the West, Cardinal Bellarmine disapproved the prevailing custom of translations and protested against it to his master, Pope Clement VIII., reminding him that they were contrary to the canons and contrary to the usage of the Ancient Church, except in cases of necessity and of great gain to the Church.  The pope entirely agreed with these wise observations, and promised that he would himself make, and would urge princes to make, translations only “with difficulty.”  But translations are made universally, all the world over, today, and no attention whatever is paid to the ancient canons and discipline of the Church. 95



Athanas. Apol. ij.


Sozom. H. E. I. 2.


By no one has this whole matter of the translation of bishops been more carefully and thoroughly treated than by Thomassinus, and in what follows I shall use his discussion as a thesaurus of facts.  The title of his book is Ancienne et Nouvelle Discipline de l’Église (there is also an edition in Latin).  In the Third Part, and the Second Book,

Chapter LX. treats of “Translations of bishops in the Latin Church during the first five centuries.”

Chapter LXI. “Translations in the Eastern Church, during the first five centuries.”

Chapter LXII. “Translation of bishops and bishoprics between the years five hundred and eight hundred.”

Chapter LXIII. “Translation under the empire of Charlemagne and his descendants.”

Chapter LXIV. “Translation of bishops after the year one thousand.”

Of all this I can in the text give but a brief resumé.


Thomassin. l. c. lx. viij.


Thomassin, l. cit., Chap. LI., § xiij.


This is Thomassinus’s version of the matter, in fact the charge of heresy was also made against Anthimus, but his uncanonical translation was a real count in the accusation.


Juris. Orient. tom. I. p. 240, 241.


Ibid. p. 5.  I am not at all clear as to what this last phrase means.


Thomassin. lib cit., chap. LXIV. § x.


I believe this is true of all churches, Catholic and Protestant, having an episcopal form of government (including the Protestant Church of Sweden, and the Methodist Episcopal Church), with the exception of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, in which the ancient prohibition of the translation of diocesan bishops is observed in all its Nicene strictness.

Next: Canon XVI

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