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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 2, Chapter 17 - The three hundred and sixty-five Churches


As regards the accumulated results of his mission there is a sort of unanimous consent among the biographers of Patrick. His labours are commonly summed up in three hundred and sixty-five churches founded, three hundred and sixty-five bishops ordained, and an army of three thousand presbyters, or about nine presbyters to every bishop. So says Nennius, writing in the ninth century, and his successors repeat the statement, with some variety as to numbers. This may be accepted as a probable approximation to the fact. It is a truly marvelous achievement, when we reflect that it was accomplished in one lifetime, and mainly by a single man, in a barbarous country, and in the face of a powerful Druidism. It truly entitles Patrick to the proud appellation of the "Apostle of Ireland." It justifies for him a high rank among the benefactors of mankind, and places him on a loftier eminence than the founders of empire. Lands far remote from the Hibernian shore, and generations long posterior to Patrick's day, have had cause to bless his memory and pronounce his name with reverence.

We must view the ecclesiastical machinery which he constructed, in the light of the age in which it was created, the condition of the country in which it was set up, and the stage which Christian knowledge and personal piety had then reached. "Three hundred and sixty-five " is the low estimate of the number of bishops ordained by him. The term " bishop " has since Patrick's day changed its meaning. That Ireland was partitioned into three hundred and sixty-five dioceses; that each diocese was presided over by a bishop; that each bishop had under him a staff' of priests, and that each priest had committed to him a congregation or parish, is a supposition so extreme and violent that few, if any, we believe, will find themselves able to entertain it. Doubtless these three hundred and sixty-five bishops of the one country of Ireland, like the company of presbyters of the one city of Ephesus, whom Paul styles bishops, were the overseers, pastors of single congregations. Their special duty was to preach. The others associated with them would find ample scope for their gifts in the various labours of teaching the youth, of visiting the sick, and exercising a general superintendence of the flock. Diocesan episcopacy was not possible in Ireland in Patrick's day. Other organizations in the Irish Church, besides that stated above, we are unable to trace. We can see nothing like the modern machinery of Presbytery, Synod, and General Assembly, although it is reasonable to believe that Patrick at times took counsel with the body of the pastors, and, as the result of these joint deliberations, issued directions in cases of emergency and difficulty, and these would furnish a groundwork for the doubtful record of "canons" and "synods " of Patrick which have come down to our day.[1]

Nothing will assist us more in forming a correct idea of the ecclesiastical order established by Patrick in Ireland, than a short study of the Christian Church as seen in the pages of the New Testament, and the writings of the early Fathers. A flood of new light has been thrown on the organization of the Church at Rome in the first ages by the recently discovered work of Hippolytus.[2] His book gives a picture of the Roman church in the beginning of the third century—that is, about two hundred years before Patrick's time. The apostle of Ireland would naturally copy the model that was before him. Here it is as seen and depicted by Hippolytus while that model was still in existence. "Every town congregation of ancient Christianity was a church," says Bunsen, in his analysis of the work of Hippolytus. The first part of the church to come into existence was the congregation—not the bishops or overseers, but the flock—the body of believers. The essential powers of a perfect society—the right of liberty and the power of order—were lodged in these persons. All rights and privileges are inherent in the congregation, and are exercised by them and for them, and none the less when transferred by delegation to their pastors and elders. The epistles of inspired men are addressed to the congregations in the various cities and provinces. Acts of discipline are done by the congregation and declared and carried out by the pastor or elder. His power is not lordly but ministerial. In Paul's epistles and in the writings of Clemens, Romanus, Ignatius, and Polycarp, the highest organ of power in the church is the congregation, guided and ruled in the earliest times by a body of elders. These elders discharged the double function of teaching and ruling. The next step was to elect one of their number to preside over the body of the elders. The one judged the fittest was chosen, and to him was given the name of overseer, bishop or pastor. Through this functionary the congregation governed itself. Its bishop or pastor was its servant, not its master. The elder, whose special work was teaching, was chosen by the congregation, and being so elected, the pastors of the neighboring congregations inducted him into his office by prayer, and the laying on of hands. Consecration and ordination was one and the same act. Such are the conclusions fairly deducible on this head from the facts disclosed by Hippolytus.[3]

Everyone who had charge of a congregation in a city was styled a bishop.[4] Hippolytus had charge of the congregation at Portus, a small town at the mouth of the Tiber, opposite Ostia, the harbour of Rome. As bishop or pastor of Portus, he was a member of the Presbytery of Rome.The Roman Presbytery in Hippolytus' day consisted of the bishop, the presbyters (pastors), and deacons of the city of Rome, with the bishops (pastors) of the suburban congregations. " Much smaller towns than Portus had their bishop," says Bunsen; " their city was called their diocese." In those times there existed no parishes in the proper sense of the word. The city of Rome, however, formed an exception. From the earliest days of Christianity there were certain centers of Christian work in the metropolis corresponding with the regimes of the city. After the time of Constantine, a church was built in each of these regiones. These churches were termed cardines, and from this is derived the title cardinalis for a parish priest, a word which has been in use from the time of Gregory, about A.D. 600. The parochial clergy of this city formed the governing body of the Church of Rome. With them were associated in this government the seven deacons, established for the service of widows and the poor, and the seven suburban pastors or bishops.[5] This body grew ultimately into the college of cardinals. We now see the congregational liberties beginning to be curtailed, and the laity excluded from the government of the Church. The plea of the Presbyterian divines of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, that the elders were both an officiating, that is, a teaching and ruling body, "is quite correct," says Bunsen, judging by the light thrown by Hippolytus on the early organization of the Church at Rome. "The ancient Church," says Bunsen, " knows no more of a single presbyter than of clerical government and election." [6] It was only in very small and remote villages that a single bishop—using the word in the sense in which Paul and Peter use it -managed his little community. "He was called," says Bunsen, "a country bishop " (chorepiscopus, i.e., a country curate).[7] Standing alone he could exercise no act of government in the strict sense. The rule of the Church was in the hands of no single man in early times; it could administered only by a body or council of church officers.

For the pastor there was set a chair in the apse or circular recess at the eastern end of the church. On either side of the pastor's chair—not yet changed into a throne— were ranged rows of benches, on which sat the elders. The communion table occupied the space betwieen pastor and elders and the congregation; it was the connecting link betwixt clergy and people. It was a table, not an altar, for as yet no sacrifice had been invented save the symbolic one of self-dedication over the bread and wine, which alone were seen on that table.

In the times that preceded the Council of Nice (325), the government of the church was presbyterial; in the post Nicene period it was hierarchical. "The Ante-Nicene Law," says Bunsen, "exhibits every town as a church presided over by a bishop and a board of elders (presbyters); but at the same time, it represents the bishops (not the congregations) of the smaller places, as clustered round the bishop of the large town or city, which was their natural metropolis. These bishops formed part of the council or presbytery of the mother-congregation for all matters of common interest. In the post-Nicene system the congregation is nothing, its bishop little. The ante-Nicene canon law is fundamentally congregational, and its bishop, as such, represents the independence and, as it were, sovereignty of the congregation."[8]

In the days of Hippolytus, the bounds of the presbytery of Rome were modest, indeed, compared with what they soon afterwards came to be. Down to the middle of the third century, the presbyterial bounds embraced only the pastors of the city and those of its seven suburban towns. After the beginning of the fourth century, the presbytery of Rome extended its authority to all the subvicarian towns, its jurisdiction equal to the jurisdiction of the Vicar of the City, which stretched to the Apennines on the north and the shores of the Italian peninsula on the south. This was the prelude of much greater extensions in the centuries that followed; and as this jurisdiction widened its sphere it grew ever the more hierarchical and despotic, and departed ever the farther from the simplicity, the equality, the liberty, and also the purity of the church of apostolic and primitive days.

Our general summing up from the facts disclosed in the work of Hippolytus is to this effect, that where there was a congregation, a pastor, and a body of elders, there was held in early times to be a complete church, self-governing and independent. In this deduction we have the support of Bunsen's concurrence. "Where such a council can be formed," he says, "there is a complete church, a bishopric." The elders are teachers and administrators. If an individual happen to be engaged in either of these offices more exclusively than the other, it makes no real alteration in his position, for the presbyters of the ancient church filled both situations. Their office was literally an office, not a rank.[9]

Let us next turn our eyes for a few moments on the church of Africa. It is the middle of the third century, and the most conspicuous figure that meets our gaze is Cyprian, bishop of Carthage. But though styled bishop, Cyprian's rank, duties, and powers, are simply those of a pastor of a single congregation. He has no diocese save the city of Carthage. He has no pastors whom he superintends as their diocesan. There is but one congregation in Carthage, and Cyprian is its pastor. Sabbath by Sabbath we see him preaching to this flock and dispensing to them the sacraments. He has a body of presbyters, eight in number at most, and seven deacons who assist him in his pastoral work. These presbyters have no congregation; they instruct the youth, they visit the sick and the prisoners, and being supported by the congregation, they give their whole time to their duties. In his exile Cyprian writes to the people of Carthage, as forming one Christian flock, himself being their one and only pastor, and Carthage his whole diocese. No candid reader of his letters can fail to see that the " bishop " of the Cyprianic age was a preaching minister, and that the Cyprianic presbytery in most things represented our parochial session.

The Irish Church in Patrick's day was the Cyprianic Church over again as regards the number of its bishops. In Pro-Consular Africa alone there were 164 bishops. [10] Now Pro-Consular Africa was only a small part of the Roman possessions in that continent. In the days of Cyprian there must have been several hundred bishops in Africa. Many of them discharged their ministry in towns and hamlets so obscure that the learned Pamelius is at a loss where to place them. It is not possible to believe that all these were diocesan bishops. There was not room enough in Roman Africa for a fourth of that number. It was in Roman Africa only that Christianity had been embraced. Most of that great continent was still inhabited by the native population, the Moors. To them the Latin was an unknown tongue, and as the Gospel was preached in Latin only it ceased to be intelligible when it reached the confine of the Roman colony, and touched the Moorish border. This accounts for the fact that Christianity never gained an extensive footing in Africa, and that it disappeared at an early period. When the Saracens entered Africa the light of Christianity was found to be all but extinct. We conclude: it is the undoubted historical fact, attested by the records of the African Church in Cyprian's day, and by the records of the early Roman Church so unexpectedly and authentically brought to light through the discovery of the work of Hippolytus, that down to about the middle of the third century, bishop and pastor were terms indicating the same church officer; that this church officer presided over a single congregation, that his congregation was his diocese; and that he was assisted by a body of presbyters or elders, some of whom took part in the government only of the flock, while others of them, having earned for themselves a good degree, were admitted to teach, though without being set over a congregation. Such is the picture of the primitive church, which has been drawn by the hand of a man who lived while the church was still young. Mingling freely in her councils, Hippolytus had the best opportunities of observing and depicting her true lineaments. It is no imaginary portrait which he has given us. Long hidden in darkness, it has been unexpectedly disclosed, that we, too, in this late age, might be able to look upon the face of the church primitive, and know the simplicity, the purity, and the beauty that won for her the love and reverence of her early members.

There rose three hundred and sixty-five churches for the use of these three hundred and sixty-five bishops. This is proof, were proof needed, that these were not diocesan, but parochial or village bishops. Had they been dignitaries of the rank which the term "bishop " came afterwards to mean, with a clergy three thousand strong, not three hundred but three thousand churches would have been needed. These churches were humble edifices. Probably not one of them was of stone. Armagh, the metropolitan church of future times, was as yet an altogether undistinguished name in the ecclesiastical world. It enjoyed in Patrick's days neither pre-eminence nor jurisdiction. In the north of Ireland the churches were constructed of planks or wattles, and in the south, of earth. Like the humble altars of the Patriarchs on the plains of the early Palestine, they borrowed their glory from the Almightiness of the Being to whose worship they were consecrated, and also from the fact that they were served by men adorned not with pompous titles, but with the gifts of knowledge and the graces of the Holy Spirit— the oil of their consecration. A school rose beside the church, named not infrequently a monastery. The monasteries of Patrick's days, and of the following centuries, were not at all the same institutions with those which bore that name in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. They were not the retreat of the idle and the ignorant; they were not communities of men who groaned under the burden of exerting their drowsy voices in intoning the various offices which marked the passing of the weary hours betwixt matins and evensong. The monasteries of Patrick's day were associations of studious men, who occupied their time in transcribing the Scriptures, in cultivating such sciences as were then known, and in instructing the young. They were colleges in which the youth were trained for the work of the home ministry and the labours of the foreign mission-field; and with what renown to their country and benefit to other lands the members of these institutions discharged this part of their important duties, we shall see when we come to speak of the great Columban establishment at Iona. When the youth had finished their studies for the day, they would shoulder axe and mattock, and would sally forth and address themselves to the laborious and profitable occupation of clearing the forest, or trenching the moor and changing the barren lands around their abode into arable fields, green in spring with the sprouting blade, and golden in autumn with the ripened grain.

It was Patrick's prudent custom, on entering a district, to address himself first of all to the chieftain. If the head of the sept was won to the faith the door of access was opened to his people. A plot of ground on which to erect a sanctuary was commonly the first public token that the chief had embraced the Gospel, and that he desired, at least did not oppose, its spread among his tribe. These churches were of small size; the whole inhabitants of Ireland did not then probably exceed half a million, and its sparsely populated districts could furnish no numerous congregations. In the distribution of these churches, Patrick conformed himself to the tribal arrangements. His servitude in Ireland made him well acquainted with its social condition, and enabled him to judge of the best methods of overtaking its evangelisation. In some places he planted the churches in groups of sevens, probably because the population was there the more numerous; and each group had its seven bishops—another proof that, like the four hundred bishops of Asia Minor in early times, these were parochial and not diocesan ecclesiastics. It was not unusual to surround the ecclesiastical building with a strong stockade. The power of the Druid, though weakened, had not yet been wholly broken, and the missionaries of the new faith were still exposed to hostile attacks from the mob, or from the chieftains, at the instigation, doubtless, of the priests of the ancient worship.

The time had now come when the labours of the apostle of Ireland were to close. They had been indefatigably prosecuted for upwards of thirty years—some, indeed, say sixty —and the latter is not too long a period for so great a work. Patrick was now verging on fourscore; and welcome, doubtless, was the rest which now came to him in the form of death. Of his last hours we have many legends, but not a single line of trustworthy record. Whether he descended suddenly into the grave like Wycliffe and Luther, or whether he passed to it by months of lingering decay and sickness like Calvin and Knox, we know not. The year of his death is uncertain. The Bollandists make it 460: Lanigan, founding on the annals of Innisfallen, 465. He died at Downpatrick. A star in the sky, say the legends, indicated the spot where his ashes were to repose. St Bridget, with her own hands, embroidered the shroud in which his corpse was wrapped, and his requiem was sung by a choir of angels, who were heard mingling their strains with the lamentations of the pastors as they carried his remains to the grave; and for twelve days, some say a whole year, the sun, ceasing to go down, shed a perpetual day on the spot where he was interred. After legend has exhausted its powers to throw a halo round his departure by heaping prodigy upon prodigy, the simple historic fact remains the more sublime. And that fact is, that on the spot where he began his ministry there he ended it, and there, after all his battles, did the gates of an eternal peace open to receive him.


Footnotes

1. Dr. Todd declares against the genuineness of the works ascribed to Patrick in Ware and Villeneuva, with the exception of the Confessio. And as regards. the ecclesiastical canons ascribed to him, Dr. Todd holds these, from external evidence, to be the production of an after age. We believe most students of history will agree with him. -- See Todd's Life of St. Patrick, pp. 484-488.

2. Hippolytus was the disciple of Irenĉus, the disciple of Polycarp, the disciple of the apostle John. His book, which treats on the doctrines of the primitive church, was written under Alexander Severus about A.D. 225. His knowledge of the apostolic doctrine was drawn from the most authentic sources; and being a member of the Presbytery of Rome, he speaks with the highest authority on the affairs of the Roman Church. He lived at the period of the church's transition from the apostolic constitution to the ecclesiastical system. He was the contemporary of two Popes, Zephyrinus and Callistus, who played no unimportant part in the changes then in progress. Hippolytus has given us portraits of these two popes. These portraits are the first full disclosures of the real character of these two notable ecclesiastics, but they are not such as are fitted to enhance our esteem of the men, or exalt our veneration for the papal chair. "The book," says Bunsen (vol. i. preface v. ), "gives authentic information on the earliest history of Christianity, and precisely on those most important points of which hitherto we have known very little authentically."

3. Hippolytus and His Age, by C. C. J. Bunsen, D.C.L. London, 1852. Vol. iii. pp. 219-222.

4. Ibid., vol. i. p. 207.

5. Ibid.

6. Hippolytus and his Age, vol. i. e. 208.

7. Ibid., vol. iii. p. 221.

8. Ibid.

9. Hippolytus and his Age, vol. ii. p. 258, 259.

10. Cypr. Epist.,i.